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Kafka's daily grind: The Trial and the dehumanizing boredom of office life

In his most famous stories this iconic author explored the relentless tedium of working life.

By Will Richmond (Lead for Engagement Content)

9 October 2014 at 5.01pm | Comment on this article

For all its surreal, dreamlike qualities, Kafka’s fiction often inhabits the world of ordinary working life. In The Metamorphosis, travelling salesman Gregor Samsa wakes one morning to find himself transformed into some kind of monstrous vermin. Yet one of the first things he thinks about is what an ‘exhausting’ job he has.

The protagonists of Kafka’s two most famous novels both have desk jobs. Josef K. in The Trial and K. in The Castle are white-collar workers – what some social philosophers have called ‘the cognitariat’. They are people whose labour is cerebral; who think for a living.

Josef K. is senior administrator in a large bank; K. is a land surveyor, and both are presented as diligent and respectable workers. In The Castle, K. is so conscientious that he remains bewilderingly determined to carry out his duty as a land surveyor, even after he's informed that he was summoned in error and no surveying is required after all.

In The Trial, Josef K. discovers one morning that he is under arrest ‘without having done anything wrong’. He knows neither what he is accused of nor who has accused him. The two men who turn up at his boarding house to inform him don't know either – their role is merely to tell him. When he is summoned to his first hearing, the courtroom is nightmarishly difficult to find and, once there, nobody else really seems to know who he is or what he is charged with.

Josef K.'s freedom is not limited by his ‘case’ – it doesn't interfere with his job and he seems free to go about his daily business – but a feeling of responsibility looms over everything he does, from his work to his amorous pursuits and social interactions. When no notification comes for him to attend a second hearing, he goes anyway, compelled to face his accusers though he doesn't know who they are. Josef K.'s plight expresses something of what Jean-Paul Sartre meant when he famously wrote that 'man is condemned to be free.'

Kafka began writing The Trial in 1914, just as he had broken off his engagement with Felice Bauer. Many readers are spurred by Elias Canetti's interpretation of the novel, and Kafka's own pronouncement that it was 'her book', to read it as a response to the limitations to his creative freedom and individual self-consciousness that Kafka felt marriage might bring.

For Kafka, institutionalized life – whether the propriety of marriage, the necessity of employment or the system of justice that governs both – have an effect similar to Samsa's transformation. He wrote to Felice:  'beware of thinking of life as commonplace, if by commonplace you mean monotonous, simple, petty. Life is merely terrible… . Often – and in my inmost self perhaps all the time – I doubt whether I am a human being.’

The condemnation of Josef K., and K.’s nightmare-like feeling of the responsibility that ordinary work instils in institutionalized humans sheds light on something Kafka wrote (again to Felice) in 1916: 'To be free from the office is my only possible salvation, my primary desire […] the fever that heats my head day and night comes from lack of freedom, and yet as soon as my chief begins to complain that the department will collapse if I leave […] I cannot do it, the conditioned official in me cannot do it.’

K. and Josef K. show us this 'conditioned official' – and the absurdity of his condition.

Music Theatre Wales perform Philip Glass's operatic adaptation of The Trial in the Linbury Studio Theatre 10–18 October 2014. Tickets are sold out, but returns may become available.

The production is a co-commission and co-production between Music Theatre Wales, The Royal Opera, Theater Magdeburg and Scottish Opera.

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