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Applying Freud's Theories to Analyze Kafka’s the Trial

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Freud’s Influence on Kafka

Josef K. Actions Analyzed According to Freud’s Theories

“Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist and the initiator of psychoanalysis, who created a completely new approach to the understanding of the human personality” (Lapsley and Stey). He is considered as one of the most influential figures of the 20th century, and his theories have had a great impact on the cultural development of society. Many authors such as Italo Svevo, Alberto Moravia, James Joyce and Franz Kafka have been inspired by Freud’s view and have deeply analyzed their characters’ psyches. In particular, Freud’s theories on the psychic zones and guilt have influenced Kafka’s novel The Trial.

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According to the authors Eric Marson and Keith Leopold, Freud’s influence on Kafka is particularly evident on Kafka’s story “Ein Landartz;” in fact, they assert that this story “is the only occasion in which Kafka specifically links Freud with any of his works” (3). They also note that in one of his notebook, Kafka declares he is interested in psychoanalysis and in the possibility to observe and describe a person’s inner world (10). Kafka’s interest in psychoanalysis is noticeable in the way in which he describes the character of Josef K. in The Trial. The third person narrator seems to tell the whole story from inside Josef K.’s head. The reader, indeed, not only attends the scene, but also perceives K.’ thoughts.

However, analyzing Freud’s theory on the psychic zones, it is evident that Kafka’s interest on psychoanalysis did not stop to a general understanding of the human psyche, but it includes a detailed comprehension of the id, ego and superego, which are the three psyche zones identified by Freud. The id is the irrational and chaotic force that constitutes the original matrix of our psyche. It is defined by Freud as a “cauldron full of seething excitation” that does not know either the good or the bad and that ignores the rule of logic, so it is possible that we have controversial desires. The id is oriented towards our internal and primitive impulses, among which the strongest are the sexual impulses (Freud). In The Trial the id is revealed through the character of Josef K. K. is a thirty years old man who has just discovered he has been arrested. However, even if he is concerned about his sudden arrest, his sexual impulses predominate his psyche and make him forget about his problem. When K. is with Fraulein Burstein, he brutally interrupts their conversation, and he “rushed out, seized her, kissed her on the mouth, then all over her face, like a thirsty animal lapping greedily at a spring it has found at last. Then he kissed her on the neck, right at her throat, and let his lips there for a long time” (Kafka 33). When K. is with Fraulein Burstein, he loses his inhibition and acts according to his sexual desire. However, this is not a moment of unexpected passion between two lovers; it is the mere expression of the repressed primary instinct of a man. In fact, K. has already had confusing feelings towards Fraulein Burstein, but he had never expressed them. He was jealous because she used to be out till late, and he could not know where she went or with who, but at the same time the two barely used to talk when they meet in the shared areas of the house. Similarly, K.’s primary instinct can be noticed when he first meets Leni; in fact, just a moment after meeting each other, they have sex. In his relationship with Leni, K.’s shows that his sex desire prevails on his duties: while the lawyer and his uncle are waiting for K. to talk about the trial, he is in the lawyer’s residence having sex with Leni. It is evident that K.’s sexual satisfaction for him is more important than the outcome of the trial or of the opinion his uncle and the lawyer have about him.

The superego is the system of moral, religious, social and family rules and prohibitions that each of us has learned and internalized in childhood (Freud). It is, in fact, our moral conscience. It is the superego that makes Josef K. feel guilty and doubtful about his innocence. In chapter nine, for instance, K. is unsure about how the trial will end and if he will be declared innocent. In the conversation with the priest he seems confused and hopeless.

“Do you realize your trial is going to end badly?” asked the priest. “It seems that way to me too,” said K. “I’ve tried as hard as I can, but without any success so far. Of course I haven’t completed my petition yet.” “How do you imagine it will end,” asked the priest. “At first I thought it would surely end well,” said K., “now sometimes I even have doubts myself. I don’t know how it will end. Do you?” “No,” said the priest, “but I fear it will end badly. They think you’re guilty. Your trial may never move beyond the lower courts. At least for the moment, your guilt is assumed proved.” “But I’m not guilty,” said K. “It’s a mistake. How can any person in general be guilty? We’re all human after all, each and everyone of us.” “That’s right,” said the priest, “but that’s how guilty people always talk.” (Kafka 212-213)

If K. is sure of his innocence, there are no reasons why he should think the trial will end in a bad way. However, his superego makes he doubt of his guiltiness making him think that if he was truly innocence the trial would not have started. The influence of the priest, who represents the values that society wants to impose on the individual, is extremely significant. Indeed, the superego internalizes the values that society regards as true and morally valid. K.’s superego can be also seen when K. meets his uncle. After Karl, the uncle, read the letter that Erna, K.’s cousin, has sent to him, he starts asking K.’s about the trial.

“And now what do you have to say?” asked his uncle, who because of the letter had temporally forgotten his haste and agitation, and was apparently reading it through once again. “Yes, Uncle,” said K., “it’s true.” “True?” his uncle cried out. “What’s true? How can it be true? What kind of a trial? Surely not a criminal trial?” “A Criminal trial,” K. replied. “And you sit there calmly with a criminal trial hanging over your head?” cried his uncle, who kept getting louder. “The calmer I am, the better, as far as the outcome is concerned,” K. said wearily. “Don’t worry.” “That scarcely sets my mind at rest,” cried his uncle, “Josef, dear Josef, think of yourself, think of your relatives, of our good name. You’re always been our pride and joy, you mustn’t disgrace us now” […] “Just tell me quickly what it’s all about, so I can help you” […] “We should go somewhere else. Then I’ll answer all your question as best I can. I’m well aware I owe the family an explanation.” (Kafka 92-93)

The family is the first institution in which the sense of guilt is perceived and emphasized. Even if the family is not involved in the trial, it feels as if it was. K. feels already guilty for a crime he is sure he did not commit, but he also feels guilty because he is making his relatives worried. As a consequence, the superego makes K.’s sense of guilty even worse. By admitting that his family deserves some explanations, K. is trying to placate his uncle. However, K. would like to explain to his relatives what happened and why he has been arrested, but he does not know how to answer to their question because he does not have more information than they do. His desire to tell his relatives everything he knows is a defense mechanism originated by his superego to feel less guilty.

The ego is the organized part of personality, and it has to deal with the opposite requests of the id, the superego, and the outside world, that is, the objective reality with which our desires have to cope (Freud). K.’s representation of ego can be seen in the scene in which K. meets the flagger. When the two guards, Franz and Willem, say to K. that they’re going “to be flogged because [he] complained about [them] to the examining magistrate” K. does not really know how to react. On the one hand, he believes that the two deserve to be punished because they did not act properly while they were in his room; on the other hand, he appears anxious of causing pain to other people. The ego mediates between his desire of seeing the two men punished, and his fear of being responsible for their pain. However, K. does not want to cause agony to Franz and Willem and says to the flogger,

If I’d wanted to have these two punished, I wouldn’t be trying to buy them off. I could simply shut the door, close my eyes and ears, and head home. But I’m not doing that, instead I’m serious about getting them off; if I’d suspected they’d be punished, or even known they faced possible punishment, I would never have mentioned their names. Because I don’t even consider them guilty.” (Kafka 83)

It is evident that in this scene, K.’s superego has the beast on his ego. K. is afraid of being considered guilty not only for the crime he is accused, but also for the pain he causes to two men he considers guiltless. In fact, according to Freud, the sense of guilt is caused by the tensions that occur between his ego and superego.

In the whole book, Kafka explores K.’s mind under a new point of view. K. is, in fact, a character which whom readers can easily identify themselves. He is a character that makes decisions and mistakes; he is not the classical hero, but he is a normal person. However, Kafka would have never described so realistically K.’s impulses and actions if he had not read and studied Freud. K. constantly tries to suppress his desires in order to behave in a way that society considers appropriates, sometimes he succeeds and behaves in the respect of social norms, other times he fails and acts in accordance with his own impulses.


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