Giving Voice to Isaac: The Sacrificial Victim in Kafka's Trial

By K, Bruce | Shofar, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Giving Voice to Isaac: The Sacrificial Victim in Kafka's Trial


K, Bruce, Shofar


One of the most enigmatic characters in modern literature is Joseph K., in Franz Kafka's The Trial. In this essay I undertake to penetrate the enigma of Joseph K. with the help of René Girard's anthropological analysis of the victim mechanism in human culture. I argue that Kafka offers us in The Trial not a parable that is (and is meant to be) utterly mystifying, but a prophetic demystification of the reality of collective persecution within the context of modernity. The particular nature of Joseph K.'s response to his persecution is highlighted by comparison with another victim in modern literature who was well known to Kafka, Dostoevsky's Dmitri Karamazov. The contrast between Joseph K. and Dmitri K. entails a discussion of Kafka's Judaism, its nature and its role in shaping both his response to the Christian art of Dostoevsky, and his own artistic revelation of the modern sacrificial victim.

The story of Abraham's near sacrifice of Isaac, like so many other biblical stories, is fraught with unspoken background, and we are thus challenged and enticed to enter into it meditatively. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard took up the challenge of walking with the knight of faith, Abraham, towards the sacrifice on Mount Moriah; but who walks with the designated sacrificial victim, Isaac? In our age it is above all the literary artists who speak for the sacrificial victim; or, more precisely, they employ the genius of their art to permit the victims to speak for themselves, to reveal in their own way what it is like to be a victim. René Girard's observation that the concern for victims (le souci des victimes) is the prevailing moral imperative of modernity is eloquently borne out by the way in which the voice of the victim resounds in that most modern type of art, the novel, and especially in those novelists generally reputed to be the most "prophetic."(2)

In this essay I will focus on Franz Kafka's novel, The Trial, in which he offers us the prophetic portrait of a modern victim. This most enigmatic of victims might seem at first sight an unlikely representative of Isaac, but it is the sacrifice of Isaac that the manner of Joseph K's death brings ineluctably to mind: "...the hands of one of the partners were already at K's throat, while the other thrust the knife deep into his heart and mined it there twice."(3) When reading these words in the closing paragraph of The Trial, who does not think of the knife that Abraham took "to slay his son" (Gen. 22:10)?

I propose to tackle the enigma of Joseph K. with the help of René Girard's analysis of the victim mechanism, especially as he applies it to the reading of the Book of Job. I will argue that Kafka offers us in The Trial the prophetic portrait of a victim who is, in Girard's terminology, exceptional, but who is not exemplary for other human beings, a difference I will highlight by comparison with another, earlier victim in modern literature, Dostoevsky's Dmitri Karamazov (in The Brothers Karamazov). The contrast between Joseph K. and Dmitri K. will lead us to a concluding (if not conclusive) consideration of Kafka's Judaism, its nature and its role in shaping his artistic revelation of the modern sacrificial victim.

Joseph K's Ambiguous Innocence: Some Critical Readings

The secondary literature on Kafka has been described as "cancerous" in its growth. Growing also has been the consensus that Kafka's art yields no clear meaning. Is any other twentieth-century writer so evidently prophetic and so frustratingly difficult to interpret at the same time?(4) In the case of The Trial, what is most unclear is precisely the degree to which Joseph K. is really a victim. The fundamental ambiguity of this novel pervaded by ambiguity has to do with the innocence of the protagonist.

"Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one free morning" (p. 1). Thus, on the morning of his thirtieth birthday, begins the trial of Joseph K. …

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Giving Voice to Isaac: The Sacrificial Victim in Kafka's Trial
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