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Kafka on interpretation

Updated: May 25, 2019

I have not taught Kafka in a long time, and I miss him. An old course of mine on Crime and Punishment in literature juxtaposed Dostoevsky’s great crime novel, Suskind’s Perfume, and Mosley’s The Man in My Basement to Kafka’s unfinished masterpiece, The Trial.

To me, Kafka always stood out for initiating the reader in the intricacies of hermeneutics (ie. interpretation).

Like many a literary text, The Trial includes a story within a story, a character-narrator (a Priest) who tells the protagonist, Joseph K., a parable about a “man from the country” who wishes to come “before the law.”

The story is apparently simple, but that simplicity only makes it harder to figure out. As Joseph K. attempts to interpret it, the character-narrator guides him and corrects him in the following manner:

“Don’t be too hasty,” said the Priest, “don’t accept another person’s opinion unthinkingly. I’ve told you the story word for word according to the text.”

And, later:

“You don’t have sufficient respect for the text and are changing the story,” said the Priest.

And, again:

“You mustn’t pay too much attention to opinions. The text is immutable, and the opinions are often only an expression of despair over it.”

To me, these passages contain invaluable lessons for those of us engaged in critical analysis

  • the text is immutable

  • don’t accept opinion unthinkingly

  • respect the text (sufficiently) while you interpret it, and don’t change the story to suit your views

  • different interpretations are a sign of our very human despair over a text that does not change, and cannot explain itself to us more than it already has.

Not bad, for a story that is not primarily about interpretation. But then again, what isn’t?

Andrea Pacor


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