A treatise on the enlightenment themes in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Kafka’s The Trial


The enlightenment themes that are discussed in the Heart of Darkness and in the Trial are the wealth of the nation, knowledge, reason and natural laws.  These form pithy relationships as themes written and advanced by the authors and voiced through the characters and plots. These relationships can be  compared to the philosophies as theorized through the Enlightenment.

Wealth of the nation in the Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness explores the issues surrounding imperialism in complicated ways. As Marlow travels from the Outer Station to the Central Station and finally up the river to the Inner Station, he encounters scenes of torture, cruelty, and near-slavery. At the very least, the incidental scenery of the book offers a harsh picture of colonial enterprise. The impetus behind Marlow’s adventures, too, has to do with the hypocrisy inherent in the rhetoric used to justify imperialism. The men who work for the Company describe what they do as “trade,” and their treatment of native Africans is part of a benevolent project of “civilization.” Kurtz, on the other hand, is open about the fact that he does not trade but rather takes ivory by force, and he describes his own treatment of the natives with the words “suppression” and “extermination”: he does not hide the fact that he rules through violence and intimidation. His perverse honesty leads to his downfall, as his success threatens to expose the evil practices behind European activity in Africa.

Kurtz, boasts that he does not trade but rather takes ivory by force, and he describes his own treatment of the natives with the words “suppression” and “extermination”: he does not hide the fact that he rules through violence and intimidation. Smith references the development of commerce in Europe, that change was the result of self- interested actions, where the individual’s motivation was often political rather than economic, and the results of individual actions were not necessarily intended by any of them.

 The “Whited Sepulchre”

The “whited sepulchre” is probably Brussels, where the Company’s headquarters are located. A sepulchre implies death and confinement, and indeed Europe is the origin of the colonial enterprises that bring death to white men and to their colonial subjects; it is also governed by a set of deified social principles that both enable cruelty, dehumanization, and evil and prohibit change. The phrase “whited sepulchre” comes from the biblical Book of Matthew. In the passage, Matthew describes “whited sepulchres” as something beautiful on the outside but containing horrors within (the bodies of the dead); thus, the image is appropriate for Brussels, given the hypocritical Belgian rhetoric about imperialism’s civilizing mission. (Belgian colonies, particularly the Congo, were notorious for the violence perpetuated against the natives.)

The narrator thinks about empire-building and humans’ constant desire to conquer the earth.

Marlow had to sign papers agreeing never to reveal trade secrets of the Company.Company. Marlow tried to tell his aunt that profit, not the ennoblement of mankind, was the Company’s purpose.The Company, with its complete control over huge numbers of native people and land, operated entirely for a small amount of ivory. When Marlow asked the fat man why he had come to Africa, the man replied that his goal was to make money. Marlow implies that the seemingly noble, actually corrupt Kurtz was produced by all of Europe–that he was typical of the colonizer.

The quest for ivory became more important to Kurtz than the mission to civilize the natives–he began using violence and power to get more ivory.


Adam Smith’s four stages theory of history as an account of economic and social development. Economic and social development and the Wealth of Nations, are featured in his lectures of Jurisprudence. Smith’s  contrasts the living standards in ‘savage nations of hunters and fishers’ and compared to Europe’s civilized and thriving industry. Commerce as in trade plays some role in all stages of society, while the commercial stage, as a development of the agricultural stage. With special reference to the development of commerce in Europe, that Smith saw change as the result of self- interested actions, where the individual’s motivation was often political rather than narrowly economic, and the overall results of individual actions were not necessarily intended by any of them.

Smith stated ‘in the manner of Sir Isaac Newton we may lay down certain principles known or proved in the beginning, from whence we account for the several Phenomena, connecting all together by the same chain.

The four stages of society are hunting, pasturage, farming, and commerce. In process of time even these would not be sufficient, and as they saw the earth naturally produce considerable quantities of vegetables of its own accord they would think of cultivating it so that it might produce more of them. Hence agriculture.The age of commerce naturally succeeds that of agriculture. As men could now confine themselves to one species of labor, they would naturally exchange the surplus

 Turgot- Rousseau 

Wealth of the nation in The Trial

Big government is unwieldy, unfair, and unforgiving. In this respect, The Trial is a visionary novel that warns civilization, wittingly or unwittingly, of the coming tyranny of totalitarian governments in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Fascist Italy. It also attacks governments of every kind, whether Democratic or otherwise, that rely on clumsy bureaucracies to conduct day-to-day affairs. If you have ever had to wait in a long line to conduct business with a local, state, or federal government–or if you have ever had to complete government forms with complex and confusing questions–you know how frustrating government can be

Knowledge in the Heart of Darkness

What is Englightenment – Kant -Conorcet

Knowledge in The Trial

I don’t know this law…. It probably exists only in your heads.

For of course the fact of being accused makes no alteration in a man’s appearance that is immediately obvious.

I like to make use of what I know. I have to fight against countless subtleties in which the Court indulges. And in the end, out of nothing at all, an enormous fabric of guilt will be conjured up.

Logic may indeed be unshakable, but it cannot withstand a man who is determined to live.

What is Englightenment – Kant

Josef K. in Ch. 2; Variant translation: Your question, Mr. Examining Magistrate, as to whether I am a house-painter — although you did not ask a question at all, you made a statement — typifies exactly the kind of proceedings that are being instituted against me.The right understanding of any matter and a misunderstanding of the same matter do not wholly exclude each other.

Reason in the Heart of Darkness

Madness as a Result of Imperialism

Madness is closely linked to imperialism in this book. Africa is responsible for mental disintegration as well as for physical illness. Madness has two primary functions. First, it serves as an ironic device to engage the reader’s sympathies. Kurtz, Marlow is told from the beginning, is mad. However, as Marlow, and the reader, begin to form a more complete picture of Kurtz, it becomes apparent that his madness is only relative, that in the context of the Company insanity is difficult to define. Thus, both Marlow and the reader begin to sympathize with Kurtz and view the Company with suspicion. Madness also functions to establish the necessity of social fictions. Although social mores and explanatory justifications are shown throughout Heart of Darkness to be utterly false and even leading to evil, they are nevertheless necessary for both group harmony and individual security. Madness, in Heart of Darkness, is the result of being removed from one’s social context and allowed to be the sole arbiter of one’s own actions. Madness is thus linked not only to absolute power and a kind of moral genius but to man’s fundamental fallibility: Kurtz has no authority to whom he answers but himself, and this is more than any one man can bear.

This novella is, above all, an exploration of hypocrisy, ambiguity, and moral confusion. It explodes the idea of the proverbial choice between the lesser of two evils. As the idealistic Marlow is forced to align himself with either the hypocritical and malicious colonial bureaucracy or the openly malevolent, rule-defying Kurtz, it becomes increasingly clear that to try to judge either alternative is an act of folly: how can moral standards or social values be relevant in judging evil? Is there such thing as insanity in a world that has already gone insane? The number of ridiculous situations Marlow witnesses act as reflections of the larger issue: at one station, for instance, he sees a man trying to carry water in a bucket with a large hole in it. At the Outer Station, he watches native laborers blast away at a hillside with no particular goal in mind. The absurd involves both insignificant silliness and life-or-death issues, often simultaneously. That the serious and the mundane are treated similarly suggests a profound moral confusion and a tremendous hypocrisy: it is terrifying that Kurtz’s homicidal megalomania and a leaky bucket provoke essentially the same reaction from Marlow

Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can’t say. I think the knowledge came to him at last–only at the very last. But the wilderness found him out early, and had taken vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude–and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.”
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 

The New Science –Bacon -Math- Newton- – Condorcet- 

Reason in The Trial

Turgot- Rousseau Ferguson-

The combined forces of fate and faceless big government isolate Joseph K., making him feel lonely, abandoned, friendless. His enemies have cornered him, and he has no weapons with which to fight back and no champions to come to his rescue.

It is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary.”
–The Trial

“The Court wants nothing from you. It receives you when you come and it dismisses you when you go.”
–The Trial

Logic is doubtless unshakable, but it cannot withstand a man who wants to go on living.
–The Trial

“. . . accused men are always the most attractive.”
The right understanding of any matter and a misunderstanding of the same matter do not wholly exclude each other.

–The Trial

“Let me remind you of the old maxim:
people under suspicion are better moving
than at rest, since at rest they may be
sitting in the balance without knowing it,
being weighed together with their sins.”

You may object that it is not a trial at
all; you are quite right, for it is only
a trial if I recognize it as such.”

Natural laws in the Heart of Darkness and the Heart of Darkness


The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse. By Jove! I’ve never seen anything so unreal in my life. And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.”

It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—the suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend. And why not?”

I was within a hair’s-breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it. . . . He had summed up—he had judged. ‘The horror!’ He was a remarkable man.”

Darkness is important enough conceptually to be part of the book’s title. However, it is difficult to discern exactly what it might mean, given that absolutely everything in the book is cloaked in darkness. Africa, England, and Brussels are all described as gloomy and somehow dark, even if the sun is shining brightly. Darkness thus seems to operate metaphorically and existentially rather than specifically. Darkness is the inability to see: this may sound simple, but as a description of the human condition it has profound implications. Failing to see another human being means failing to understand that individual and failing to establish any sort of sympathetic communion with him or her.

Bacon-39 Newton 43 Diderot-7 Ferguson-380 Rousseau- 430 Paine -442 Paine 466 Godwin- 473

Natural laws in The Trial

Original sin burdens man with inherited guilt and holds him accountable for that guilt. According to the Old Testament of the Bible, Adam and Eve committed the first sin and passed it on to their descendants, the rest of the human race. In this sense, Joseph K. is guilty of an “inherited crime.” He is held accountable for it just as the surviving members of a family are responsible for a debt or property mortgage inherited from a deceased member.

A force or entity beyond the control and scrutiny of the individual arbitrarily determines his or her destiny, justly or unjustly. A man has no alternative but to accept this destiny. In The Trial, the force or entity is ostensibly the government and symbolically fate, divine will, luck–in fact, anything or anyone that rules humans by whim or caprice. Sophocles develops this theme in Oedipus Rex, in which the protagonist, Oedipus–powerless to overturn the verdict of fate–kills his own father and marries his own mother. In King Lear, Shakespeare sums up this theme when Gloucester observes, “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.” Thomas Hardy made this theme central to many of his novels. His characters are dominated by environmental, psychological, or biological determinism. Of course, one of the most famous expositions of this theme is in the Bible in the Book of Job.

In chapter 7, “The Supreme Court v. Religion,” Hittinger underscores a further link between the fashionable rejection of any higher law or authority over our polity and the suspicion with which religiously or even metaphysically grounded moral arguments are often regarded in the public square. In First Amendment terms, Hittinger argues that these trends mark the illegitimate limiting of religion’s free exercise in favor of maximizing the anti-establishment clause, construed since Everson v. Board (1947) as constructing an impermeable wall of separation between the public and religious realms. The post-Everson Court, according to Hittinger, has found itself in the unenviable position of having “to do the impossible,” “to draw clear and non-arbitrary lines not merely between church and state, but between religion and culture” (164). Hittinger cites statements by John Dewey and Justices Kennedy and Souter to the effect that religion generally tends to “subvert the ordinary values of life,” to divide citizens from one another through positing spiritual, supernatural meanings that undo or ignore the profoundly human goods and practices all can appreciate and share namely that the natural law is in its core a higher law, a God-given law for the direction of human conduct in pursuit of common goods. Efforts to recast natural law as the self-given norm of autonomous human reason may seem to be helpful attempts to rehabilitate natural-law theory in our pluralist and, as Hittinger has it, post-Christian milieu (cf. xliv—xlv); Hittinger, however, rejects this familiar philosophic move, which he judges to undo natural law by rejecting its relationship to created nature and divine providence and by undercutting its status as a genuine law, requiring as such a legitimate authority to legislate it. Hittinger’s argument recalls a significant line from the Second Vatican Council: “Without the Creator the creature would dis-appear.… When God is forgotten the creature itself grows unintelligible” (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, 36).

Deny the divine origin and end of the natural law, however vaguely apprehended by unassisted and pre-metaphysical human reason, and the moral law itself is on shaky ground. Perhaps it even vanishes into the void that replaces being’s ground beneath us. As John Finnis maintains in Natural Law and Natural Rights, just as the focal meaning of law is bound up with the principles of practical reasonableness, so Hittinger here proposes that natural law’s focal meaning involves a supra- or transpolitical sourceof guidance and accountability. The central argument of The First Grace is thus philosophical-anthropological and ultimately theological in nature. This is a welcome book about foundations, or as Hittinger puts it, about the “original situation of practical reason” vis-à-vis higher-than-human authority (xlvi).

Hittinger’s critique of this appraisal hones in on the way it curiously ignores the many senses in which religion is, and is experienced by innumerable citizens as, a profoundly human good, deserving as such of public recognition and support. Hittinger might also have elaborated here Aquinas’s argument to the effect that genuine religion affirms and reinforces the inherent value of “ordinary” human virtues, goods, and practices. Supernatural grace is said not only to elevate nature but also to presuppose, heal, and sustain it; rightly understood and accepted, grace illuminates the natural law and is a source of human solidarity (see Summa Theologiae, inter alia I-II 109 and II-II 124, 5).

The title of the volume’s concluding chapter, “Reasons for Civil Society,” is rather anticlimactic, leading the reader to anticipate a standard treatment of what by now seems a well-worn, if worthwhile, theme. That is too bad; this last essay is a gem. Hittinger suggests that the recent efforts of scholars in social and political theory to articulate reasons supporting the value of civil society and social associations require supplementing or completing with a deeper anthropological analysis. We must not stop at instrumental justifications for society, argues Hittinger, but should press onward to ask whether association offers any intrinsic good or perfection to the persons who engage in it (265—70). As he does often throughout The First Grace, to round out the book’s argument, Hittinger employs insights from Thomas Aquinas on the one hand and John Paul II on the other. Aquinas students and scholars will appreciate the original use Hittinger makes in this chapter of the Contra impugnantes, Aquinas’s spirited defense of the mendicant religious orders and the Dominicans’ way of life: “It might seem to be a long stretch from medieval societies of mendicants, living in voluntary poverty, to modern issues of civil society. But it is not, really. In [the landmark social encyclical] Rerum Novarum (1891), Pope Leo XIII’s argument for the rights of association by laborers relies directly on Contra impugnantes“ (274). Hittinger employs this text to illustrate Aquinas’s vision of societas, society, as an “activity” rather than properly speaking a “thing.” Society is formed through and constituted by communicatio, a communication or making common of things through speech and other forms of giving and receiving goods. By elaborating the links between the “communication” of society and the goods of freely performed “collaborative activity” through the lens of John Paul II’s account of “solidarity,” in turn cast as both a moral disposition and variegated reciprocal activity, Hittinger offers a cogent case for social association as an intrinsic and fulfilling human good (274—80). For Hittinger, Catholic social thought not only concurs with free-market liberalism in defending a differentiated, pluralist civil society but also challenges liberals to move beyond the market-paradigm justification for civil society (282—83). Although Hittinger does not explicitly say so, this last chapter’s argument has much to do with recovering natural law’s socially oriented dimension as central to our human identity and so to our flourishing.

The parable “Before the Law” and its context, the chapter “In the Cathedral,” have long been recognized as the center piece of Kafka’s unfinished novel The Trial [1].   It may, with some qualifications, be considered a key to Kafka’s work.  Various critics have treated it at length, the interpretations of Wilhelm Emrich and Heinz Politzer and, most recently, Ingeborg Henel’s brilliant and comprehensive study being among the most profound [2].   Although these critics differ on many issues, their opinions are not mutually exclusive on all points and it would, therefore, be naive to state that the following pages will propose something so different as to have nothing in common with interpretations already suggested.  Yet I believe that, by eliminating two errors which have plagued previous critics, this article can point to additional–and different–aspects.  One error, I feel, is the assumption of guilt on K.’s part, which I fail to recognize; the other consists in singling out individual statements made by the priest and pronouncing them correct readings of the parable, whereas the priest insists that he is only listing various opinions (p. 200).

At first glance, the story is both simple and mysterious.  The plot is so self-evident that it apparently defies further explanation.  It involves a man trying in vain to gain the desired entrance; he spends the rest of his life waiting for permission which is never granted.  But although the action is logical, its setting is not at all identical with our reality.  Nor do we recognize the characters.  The man from the country has been narrowed to the personification of a persistent desire, the doorkeeper is limited to the function of an obstacle, the identity of the Law remains hidden.  However, once we accept the kind of reality defined by these limitations, the narrative poses no problem.  Yet it is obviously intended to be a parable.  This is suggested by its very position in the context of the Trial.  Some technical devices characteristic of a parable are easily recognized (e.g., the absence of proper names, the concentration of the plot, the pointe at the end).  Although the details of the plot are self-explanatory the story as a whole certainly calls for interpretation.  If it is a parable it must “mean” something.  What, then, does it mean?

A popular approach to Kafka is to treat his works as allegories, that is, to search for the second and concurrent meaning beneath the surface story [3],  a meaning limited in scope, applicable to only one problem, one class, one historical age, etc. Trying to reveal the identity of the doorkeeper, of the man from the country and the Law we would proceed to search for something that fits the pattern of the plot, say, man in pursuit of happiness–he never achieves it, man in search of God–he never comprehends him, the artist waiting for inspiration or public recognition which never comes.  A given number of imaginative readers would be able to arrive at as many different so-called keys to the story.  How do we know which key is the correct one?  Obviously the one which sounds most probable.  It need hardly be stated that this is no interpretation at all but a more or less undisciplined guessing game, however interesting.  It would not be based on the narrative but merely on its pattern, on the radius of our knowledge and the whim of our imagination.  In any case, we would be looking behind the story rather than into it.

The alternative is a careful analysis of an apparently simple plot.  This approach appears all the more in order since it is the very thing that Kafka–on the surface–has his own listener do.  One morning K., the principal figure of The Trial, is pronounced arrested by men he had never met, but he remains free to go and carry on as before.  He is told that legal proceedings are under way against him, but neither his alleged crime nor the identity of his accusers are revealed.  The suit is based upon a law K. has never heard of.  Eventually, it becomes his sole ambition to meet the mysterious Court face to face in order to vindicate himself.  One day, in the course of his fruitless efforts, after spending a long time waiting in the dark and empty cathedral, he suddenly notices a dimly lit pulpit, a priest begins to address him and what follows is the text of our parable.  In keeping with the traditional sequence of scripture reading and exegesis K. and the priest engage in a discussion as to the significance of the narrative.  Like all of K.’s efforts it leads nowhere and we need not go into a detailed description.

It is important to note, however, that K. is so convinced of his innocence and so preoccupied with freeing himself from what must be a false charge that he can see the parable only under the aspect of right and wrong.  He has already forgotten or, rather, never understood the priest’s angry remark before the recital: “Can’t you see two feet ahead?” (p. 254).  His immediate reaction is that the man from the country has been deceived by the doorkeeper.  The priest counters that he has told the parable in the official version–it belongs, by implication, to the “Holy Scriptures” of the mysterious Court where K.’s secret trial is being conducted.  It is the official text, then, and to speak of deceit is wrong simply because the word deceit does not occur.  Again and again, by reference to the narrative and by the sheer weight of logic, K.’s arguments are overruled.  But at the very moment when both K. and the reader are almost convinced of the doorkeeper’s benevolence it turns out that the priest has been pursuing a strictly academic dispute, he has not committed himself but only reported one of many contradictory opinions [4].   Moreover, he states categorically that these opinions are irrelevant because the text is unchangeable no matter what its interpretations and that the opinions themselves  are “often nothing but an expression of despair over this fact” (p. 260).  As if to prove how non-committal and objective he is he advances a view according to which it is the doorkeeper who was deceived.  Again, the argument is so logical and well substantiated that even K. cannot escape its conclusions.  Yet he also remains unwilling to give up his earlier conviction that the man from the country is a victim of deceit.  If already the doorkeeper is deceived (e.g., under a grave delusion about his position) his deception must necessarily have a disastrous effect on the man from the country.  Deceived or not, he is at best a fool who should be stripped of his office.  The priest’s final argument, in immediate reply to K.’s last point, is that nowhere does the text give us a right to judge, let alone condemn, the doorkeeper.  As a servant of the Law he is far above the reach of human judgment; doubting his worthiness would imply doubting the Law itself.  Thus the priest has come full circle in his argument.  Naturally, K. cannot agree because it would mean that everything the doorkeeper says is true, which cannot be the case for the very reasons the priest had previously outlined.  “One need not consider everything true,” the priest re-plies, “one must only consider it necessary”

By now we are thoroughly confused.  The exegesis is nearly four times as long as the text.  The simple story is no longer simple.  As before, our confusion comes from understanding what is said but not knowing what to make of it.  The individual steps of the argument seem flawless, but the discussion as a whole has reached no conclusion whatever.  The narrative, for all its simplicity, is not clear enough to understand it to the extent necessary for passing judgment.  Although the plot is elementary, the implications escape our comprehension.  It involves two antagonists; the obvious question as to who is right and who is wrong remains unanswered.

In literary tradition a parable is told to illustrate a certain point, to teach a golden rule.  It is a didactic narrative.  K., in his hopeless predicament, expects some illumination, a hint as to what steps to take—the reader certainly does.  But his attempt to analyze what appears to be a parable intended for him is frustrated: the narrative contains no golden rule, it does not suggest a mode of behavior under certain conditions.  It would seem, then, that it is no parable at all, that the very function of the narrative is cruelly to defeat the hope it had aroused.

Yet this cannot be the sole purpose of a story so elaborately introduced.  It is not until the end of the novel, however–too late for K.—that the true significance of the narrative is revealed.  In retrospect, it proves to be both an allegory and a parable.  For it is nothing but a veiled and concentrated account of K.’s own life.  The man from the country is K. himself.  There is one difference: K. meets a violent death while the other dies of old age.  Yet it matters little.  The fruitlessness of such a life is more important an aspect than the manner in which it is finally terminated.  And is not the man from the country “dead” for all practical purposes from the moment he abandons all just to sit beside the entrance to the Law?  And cannot the same be said about K. who leaves his customary course of life to devote himself increasingly to his own justification?

Does K. at least recognize the pertinence of the priest’s narrative?  The answer is a qualified “yes.”  Since he himself is trying to gain admission to the mysterious and elusive Court he instinctively comes to the defense of a man in a parallel situation [5].   He attempts to establish what or who is right or wrong.  His interpretation of the narrative is based on the assumption that there are such criteria as guilt and innocence.  In fact, he is so preoccupied with them that he fails to see the real significance of the narrative.  His perception ends at the crucial point where the story becomes a parable.  It is not concerned with the question of right or wrong, it makes no suggestion as to what effort to undergo in order to reach a given goal, but it pictures the futility of all efforts.  Whatever man undertakes is doomed to failure.  Whatever he desires escapes him.  Whatever he does to further his cause will be frustrated.  Whatever, he has done was the wrong thing to do. He is free, for be can do what he wants.  Yet he is a helpless prisoner for whatever he does will be frustrated.  His ambition to free himself is based on the delusion that this is possible.  He is endowed with the freedom of choice but lacks the power to enforce his decisions.  The meaning of our narrative is not to be found in the characters but in the general action, in what goes on regardless almost of the characters.  The entire plot is one of Kafka’s many variations on his central theme, and the theme is frustration.  What is depicted is futility itself, universal and of unlimited applicability, and we should not read into it the futile efforts of one particular group or the clandestine presentation of one particular problem [6].

It is not enough that the underlying theme of the story is frustration; K.’s attempt to analyze it is also frustrated.  Its very effect in the novel is to increase K.’s frustration.  K. is blinded by the indignation of a legal mind over an obvious act of injustice and, in the final analysis, by the instinct of self-preservation.  He is so convinced of the possibility that matters can be changed that he overlooks the only message the story has for him, namely, that they cannot.  He fails to understand the parable precisely because he interprets it–very understandably in terms of justice and injustice.  But in doing so he super-imposes his own concepts on the narrative rather than concentrating on the text itself.  The priest, at the very outset, had tried to hint at his fallacy by mentioning that the word deceit did not occur.  The basic truth, all there is to know, is contained in the narrative itself or, as the priest stated it, the text is unchangeable.  The introduction of a foreign element is based on the futile hope that this cannot be the case; it is, again in the priest’ s words, an expression of despair over this fact.  The parable remains inconclusive only because K. lacks the proper perspective.

But even if K. recognized the significance of the story, would it help him?  The answer is, of course, “no” [7].  Whoever his accusers are, they reside somewhere in sublime unconcern.  From their point of view, there is little difference between no effort at all and the limited action K. is capable of.  His fate is irreconcilable and will be the same, just as the man from the country would have died of old age had he stayed at home.  And here we, too, have come full circle.  K.’s inability to interpret the parable was no tragic oversight at all.  Whether the narrative is identified as a parable or not is of no importance.  It does not suggest a course of action, consequently K. can learn nothing from it.  In fact, it suggests that no course of action will help and it makes no difference to his eventual fate whether this is recognized or not.  The narrative is an abstract of the entire novel, presented near the end; it is both a parable and a prophecy.  The image of hopelessness and frustration is complete.  The complexity of K’s struggle is of insurmountable proportions; but the reason for it is the very simplicity of a fact unknown to him: there is nothing he can do.  I wonder whether Kafka could have pictured the total misery of human existence in his Trial more effectively than by inserting a parable which need not be understood by the protagonist.

K.’s cause is lost from the beginning.  When he insists that he is innocent the priest replies: “But that is how the guilty speak” (p. 253). His case is indeed hopeless if stating his innocence is proof of his guilt.  What would an admission of guilt prove?  His is a predetermined fate from which there is no escape.  Cruelty is added to injustice by the ever renewed and tantalizing hope (expressed in the parable’s “but not now”) which will never be fulfilled, thus turning the old cardinal virtue into a means of torture.  K. never learns what he is accused of, he never meets his accusers, despite the title he is never ordered to stand trial.  He is free to go wherever he chooses.  But eventually it becomes his sole ambition to influence a court he does not know–although he considers himself innocent, and the reader certainly knows of no crime K. has committed [8].   Every step he takes proves to be a mistake.  Even this is too definite a statement; the darkness is so impenetrable that he is unable to measure the effect of his actions.  He is finally murdered knowing as little as ever [9].

This state of complication and utter frustration is at the core of all of Kafka’s works.  The apparent simplicity of plot is quite misleading. Kafka’s devotion to detail (as shown, for example, in the ensuing dispute over the parable) has a confusing rather than clarifying effect.  He displays an even greater mastery of his analytical method in short stories like A Hunger Artist, Josephine, The Burrow, to name only a few.  We are forced to reach the paradoxical conclusion that thoroughness does not enlighten but that it obscures.  Again and again in Kafka’s works we encounter the careful weighing of all possibilities, the painstaking attention to every possible viewpoint, which make for a clear conception of each detail, but the picture as a whole is hopelessly blurred; thus even the reader is left frustrated.

The question remains whether a novel like The Trial is a great work of art.  Kafka’s genius is most admirably evident in his depiction of ever new situations, in the detailed analyses of problems, not in the characterization of persons confronted by them.  However, the lack of effective characterization need not be a shortcoming at all.  Kafka might even abandon it on purpose to direct the reader’s attention almost exclusively to the situation confronting his characters.  His heroes are engaged in a struggle against a faceless fate, they themselves are mere puppets.  Since it is a condition that potentially applies to everyone and at all times there can be no distinct personalities who encounter what might be called their own fate.  It is the condition par excellence, a universal state.  From this point of view all men are alike, indistinguishable, that is: faceless.  Another aspect is important. Since Kafka’s heroes are no characters of flesh and blood in the traditional sense (let alone his lesser figures who are merely defined by their functions) they do not command our sympathy.  We are not moved by their fate, do not pity them but, instead, are awed by the cruelty of fate in general, by the insurmountable complications of existence and the frustration of all efforts.  Pity and fear are supplanted by a paralyzing sense of inevitable doom.  Everyone can be this kind of tragic hero, through no fault or character defect of his own, through no combination of circumstances, but simply because he exists [10].  Thus Kafka’s method turns out to be the most effective manner, after all, of conveying an all-embracing and total futility.

Yet a novel is too demanding in scope for so limited a method, too spacious a vehicle for so exclusive a theme. Kafka’s lack of epic abundance is undeniable, and we should not attempt to disregard it. His approach is that of a brilliant, logical, and controlled legal mind who views a subject from every possible angle and who is inexhaustible in creating novel situations showing the hero’s struggle from different vantage points. But his inventiveness is limited to an endless variety of episodes; there is only one theme, and it is hopelessness and frustration. One might summarize The Trial thus: between the time of his arrest and the day of his execution K. tries in vain to meet his accusers face to face. And the entire novel centers on “in vain,” each chapter dealing with another aspect of it.  Neither The Trial nor The Castle are novels in the traditional sense; each is composed of a string of nearly independent installments. To be sure, K.’s preoccupation with the trial grows, he increasingly neglects his customary life.  One might expect a gradual and total disintegration of his intellectual capacity, but his deviation from normal conduct is not nearly as drastic as is the case of two other victims, the merchant Block and the worldly gentleman in the third chapter who completely loses his composure when asked a simple question.  Even the end of the novel which shows an amazing degree of submission on K,’s part (very much in contrast to the preceding cathedral scene, a suddenness which is perhaps due to the fragmentary character of The Trial) pictures him fully capable of rational and critical thinking although, as in the case of Kafka’s Country Doctor, it is a useless kind of superiority.  Thus even here there is little change.  From this point of view–and from this point of view alone–the whole recent quarrel over the proper order of individual chapters within the novels is a bit pointless; most of them are interchangeable, for they do not advance the plot.  The novels move along a very narrow path defined by the one and only theme and the different chapters are illustrations of it. *

Where Kafka chose the opposite way: condensing a potential novel to a short story rather than pursuing the same problem through endless variations of equal fruitlessness the results are masterpieces. The Hunger Artist (1922), for instance, is such a “condensed novel.” The topic again is total frustration, viewed from every angle, presented in every possible light.  Told in chronological order and expanded to 300 pages it would have been a novel like The Trial.  Instead, it is a brilliant short story.  This literary genre alone appears to be the adequate medium for both Kafka’s single-mindedness and his analytical skill.  The former loses its fascination in the course of a longer piece of prose, the latter tends to degenerate into mere intellectual play.*

(As the novel was never completed, certain inconsistencies exist within the novel, such as disparities in timing in addition to other flaws in narration.)

On his thirtieth birthday, a senior bank clerk, Josef K., who lives in lodgings, is unexpectedly arrested by two unidentified agents for an unspecified crime. The agents do not name the authority for which they are acting. He is not taken away, however, but left at home to await instructions from the Committee of Affairs.

  1. goes to visit the magistrate, but instead is forced to have a meeting with an attendant’s wife. Looking at the Magistrate’s books, he discovers a cache of pornography.
  2. returns home to find Fräulein Montag, a lodger from another room, moving in with Fräulein Bürstner. He suspects that this is to prevent him from pursuing his affair with the latter woman. Yet another lodger, Captain Lanz, appears to be in league with Montag.

Later, in a store room at his own bank, K. discovers the two agents who arrested him being whipped by a flogger for asking K. for bribes, as a result of complaints K. previously made about them to the Magistrate. K. tries to argue with the flogger, saying that the men need not be whipped, but the flogger cannot be swayed. The next day he returns to the store room and is shocked to find everything as he had found it the day before, including the Whipper and the two agents.

  1. is visited by his uncle, who is a friend of a lawyer. The lawyer was with the Clerk of the Court. The uncle seems distressed by K.’s predicament. At first sympathetic, he becomes concerned K. is underestimating the seriousness of the case. The uncle introduces K. to an advocate, who is attended by Leni, a nurse, who K.’s uncle suspects is the advocate’s mistress. K. has a sexual encounter with Leni, whilst his uncle is talking with the Advocate and the Chief Clerk of the Court, much to his uncle’s anger, and to the detriment of his case.
  2. visits the advocate and finds him to be a capricious and unhelpful character. K. returns to his bank but finds that his colleagues are trying to undermine him.
  3. is advised by one of his bank clients to visit Titorelli, a court painter, for advice. Titorelli has no official connections, yet seems to have a deep understanding of the process. K. learns that, to Titorelli’s knowledge, not a single defendant has ever been acquitted. He sets out what K.’s options are, but the consequences of all of them are unpleasant: they consist of different delay tactics to stretch out his case as long as possible before the inevitable “Guilty” verdict. Titorelli instructs K. that there’s not much he can do since he doesn’t know of what crime he has been accused.
  4. decides to take control of his own life and visits his advocate with the intention of dismissing him. At the advocate’s office he meets a downtrodden individual, Block, a client who offers K. some insight from a client’s perspective. Block’s case has continued for five years and he appears to have been virtually enslaved by his dependence on the advocate’s meaningless and circular advice. The advocate mocks Block in front of K. for his dog-like subservience. This experience further poisons K.’s opinion of his advocate, and K is bemused as to why his advocate would think that seeing such a client, in such a state, could change his mind. (This chapter was left unfinished by the author.)
  5. is asked to tour an Italian client around local places of cultural interest, but the Italian client short of time asks K. to tour him around only the cathedral, setting a time to meet there. When the client doesn’t show up, K. explores the cathedral which is empty except for an old woman and a church official. K. decides to leave as a priest K. notices seems to be preparing to give a sermon from a small second pulpit, lest it begin and K. be compelled to stay for its entirety. Instead of giving a sermon, the priest calls out K.’s name, although K. has never known the priest. The priest works for the court, and tells K. a fable, (which has been published separately as Before the Law) that is meant to explain his situation, but instead causes confusion, and implies that K.’s fate is hopeless. Before the Law begins as a parable, then continues with several pages of interpretation between the Priest and K. The gravity of the priest’s words prepares the reader for an unpleasant ending.

Over the course of the year, the stress of the case weighs on K. He begins a gradual decline from confident to a nervous state similar to that of the client, Block, and those of other broken defendants K. meets in the explosively hot law offices. At the bank, he is humiliated by his inability to handle an important client as he is constantly exhausted from worry.

On the last day of K.’s thirtieth year, two men arrive to execute him. He offers little resistance, suggesting that he has realised this as being inevitable for some time. They lead him to a quarry where he is expected to kill himself, but he cannot. The two men then execute him. His last words describe his own death: “Like a dog!”

Darkness Imagery 1: Before Marlow begins speaking, the sun is setting and dark clouds hang over the river.

Darkness Imagery 2: The knitting women in the office were sitting outside what Marlow calls “the door of Darkness,” knitting black wool.

Darkness Imagery 3: The jungle that Marlow sailed along was extremely dark and foreboding.

Part 2

Darkness Imagery 4: As night fell, the manager’s uncle pointed directly at the “profound darkness” of the jungle.

Darkness Imagery 5: Marlow describes his ship’s course up the river as heading directly and deeply into the “heart of darkness.”

Darkness Imagery 6: Marlow tells his shipmates that Kurtz belonged to the “powers of darkness.”

Part 3

Darkness Imagery 7: In the middle of the night, Marlow awoke to hear chanting coming out of the “black, flat wall of the woods.”

Darkness Imagery 8: Marlow says that his nighttime search for Kurtz had a “peculiar blackness.”

Darkness Imagery 9: Marlow compares seeing the “impenetrable darkness” of Kurtz to looking down into a sunless hole.

Darkness Imagery 10: Marlow came across Kurtz sitting in the dark; as Kurtz died, Marlow blew out the candle he had brought in, and night was falling all around the ship.

Darkness Imagery 11: Marlow felt Kurtz as a “shadow darker than the night” as he entered the house of Kurtz’s fiancé.

Darkness Imagery 12: The fiancé was wearing mourning black; and it was dusk when she came in the room. As the conversation proceeded the room became darker and darker.

Darkness Imagery 13: Night has come to the river; the narrator remarks on the intense, cloudy darkness around them.

A complex interwoven soliloquy from the mind of these imminent authors trans-paralleled into a vague sonnet of sheer darkness, madness, illusion, delusion. All wanted to out do each other by peering into the very dark lens of the soul to reach a place of degradation. Did they succeed? Yes but was it more an illusion of the time that they existed and the perpetual hallucination of perhaps, drugs or the sinister need to portray that humans are less than animals and reside in total soullessness.

Written by Cristoph De Caermichael


One thought on “A treatise on the enlightenment themes in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Kafka’s The Trial

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