Comparing the Themes of Law and Guilt in Albert Camus’s The Outsider and Franz Kafka’s The Trial

June 22, 2022 by Essay Writer

In comparing the central themes of trials, the Law and guilt in Albert Camus’s The Outsider (1942) and Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925), we are faced initially and at least superficially with a plethora of similarities. Although the publication (posthumously and even of an unfinished work in Kafka’s case), and indeed the writing, was separated by several decades, there are already in the backgrounds and contexts of the writers many analogies, and these elements of context cannot be ignored in a reading of these texts with the world-views of the writers embedded in their very fabric. Both Camus and Kafka were living and writing at tumultuous times of the first half of the twentieth centuries, both were expatriates and both had complicated issues with a domineering or distant parent-figure. In both novels we follow young male protagonists who are to a large extent alienated from their families, peers and the society around them, and who find themselves accused in trials of which they have more or less understanding, and both endings allow at least ambiguously for some hope for humanity in the face of the absurd. Yet there are also many differences in the themes within the novels. We shall first of all explore the notion of the two trials themselves, then the larger entity of the Law as it is represented and finally the more subjective issue of guilt and innocence. This paper aims to demonstrate that although these themes are treated differently in the two texts, the authors manage to allow for some meaning when faced with the Absurdism of the human condition.

Looking first at the theme of ‘Trial’ in the novels, possible definitions of trial according to Merriam-Webster, along with ‘the formal examination before a competent tribunal of the matter in a civil or criminal cause in order to determine such issue’, are ‘a try-out or experiment to test quality, value or usefulness’ and ‘a test of faith, patience, or stamina through subjection to suffering or temptation’. The original German title of Kafka’s work “Der Process” can also refer to a process, and this trial/process is so fundamental that it becomes the title. All of these readings are presented in the novels, the protagonists are on trial, but also their quality and value as people is being tried. There is the feel of an experiment notably in the case of Josef K, and there is at the least a test of patience and suffering in the ordeals. A process also occurs in both protagonists as their situations change in time, which we shall see in more detail in this paper. Although Kafka’s Joseph K. is initially at least unaware of the nature of the accusation against him, indeed he is woken and much of the novel remains in this dreamlike or rather nightmarish state, and Camus’s Meursault is seemingly on trial for his actions in the murder of the Arab. Both men are being tried for their ways of life which are in opposition to the norms of society, for who and what they are rather than their actions.

Much is made at the eponymous hero of The Outsider’s trial of his behaviour previous to the murder, his cold behaviour at his mother’s funeral, “But after all, is he being accused of burying his mother or of killing a man? (The Outsider, 89)”.It is his very soul which is on trial then his crime committed, “I must say, during the prosecutor’s and my lawyer speeches, a great deal was said about me, possibly even more about me than about my crime. (The Outsider, 91)” Meursault is being judged as “a criminal soul (The Outsider, 92)” base on how he treats his mother’s death. All the accuses towards him are based on he does not know his mother’s age, the not wanting to view the body, the lack of emotion at her funeral, the refusal to play the part of the devoted son. Camus himself stated “In our society, a man who does not cry at his mother’s funeral faces being condemned to death.(1955)”

On the nature of the trials, both narrators are scathing, the process is a form of entertainment or gameshow with its “audience” and their laughter at Meursault’s motive, “[…]it was because of the sun. (The Outsider, 95).”, of killing the Arab.Through the speed of the trial of Meursault and K’s lack of even basic information on the logistics of his, or indeed the subject of the trial, we are further encouraged as readers to see the system, the process, as absurd. Joseph K’s lawyer even declares the trial absurd. Camus’s hero is “condemned for refusing to play the game (Camus, 1955)”, a game for which he is unable to understand the rules, and refuses to lie, fake his emotions and simplify his situation. “I [Meursault] had no place in a society whose most fundamental rules I ignored, nor could I make an appeal to the heart when I knew nothing of the most human reactions. (The Outsider, 95)”. Kafka’s Joseph K. Encounters the same situations and does not initially understand the rules too.

Both protagonists have different degrees of detachment and dislocation from the reality of their situations. Meursault is “an outsider to the society in which he lives […] (Camus,1955)” and at the same time an outsider at his own trial. “My fate was being decided without anyone asking my opinion (The Outsider, 91)”, he is aware that those judging him in this court do not concern about his voice, his lawyer does not allow him to speak as “[…] another way of excluding me from the proceedings, reducing me to insignificance and, in a sense, substituting himself for me. (The Outsider, 96)”

Against his passivity, Joseph K.’s is proactive, albeit inefficient in aiming to be acquitted. While Meursault feels that he is in many ways not concerned by his trial, K. believes that everything is about him. In his paranoia he thinks that Fraulein Burstner’s new flatmate is for his benefit, and even the sadomasochistic scene that he witnesses in the courthouse leads him to think it has been set up for him. He becomes increasingly involved with the trial and it begins to colour all aspects of his life, as he becomes more convinced of its reality. The trial is symbolic in these novels, as is the outcome – “The judgement isn’t simply delivered at some point; the proceedings gradually merge into judgement. (The Trial, 213)”

However the trials in both novels sit in a larger framework of the Law. The law, although arbitrary and hypocritical, follows a certain logic. It has a notion of crime, repentance and punishment in both works. The crime is defined by society, and it is arbitrary in the sense that it condemns behaviour and attitudes which fall outside of the norms. In both novel there may be genuine crimes, which are ultimately recognised and even felt by the protagonists, and which we will come back to when we examine the notion of guilt and innocence but the law is condemning them on other criteria.

Meursault’s crime is being honest to a fault, to the point of naïveté, his sincerity even makes his lawyer uncomfortable, and Joseph K.’s crime is being human, which he needs to work out for himself. Meursault’s is ostensibly the murder of the Arab and his indifference, but if we look further the character is not wholly detached, there are moments where he is even hypersensitive to stimuli like light, he is more comfortable in the shade, and there is no room for shadows in the courtroom, the judge even speaks of his guilt being literally ‘blindingly obvious’. Both characters are breaking rules which they do not understand, K. is late for his trial when he was not told the start time, Meursault does not understand many of the points of the accusation against him. In the Kafka work we find “the correct understanding of a matter and misunderstanding the matter are nit mutually exclusive. (The Trial, 219)”

The systems of law and society are criticised in both texts, in Camus the satire is clear as we have the perspective of the narrator, his lawyer uses nice phrases but is not especially interested in innocence or guilt. Kafka shows us another defendant fawning over his lawyer. Kafka’s work is not devoid of comedy elements, often regarding the absurdity of the system.

The next element of the law is its insatiable need for repentance once the defendants have been found guilty under its terms. And in repentance, language matters, form above substance, the word of the law above the essence of justice. There are many opportunities for repentance and pseudo-forgiveness in the novels, but always on the court or the priest’s, and therefore society’s terms. Meursault’s own clumsily-formulated truth is rejected, and even mocked, but perhaps we should consider his defence ‘because of the sun (The Outsider, 95)’ in other terms than the literal language he uses. The sun may be his fundamental reason, because of the whole sun and world around him, and his almost-autistic reaction to too many stimuli and interactions that he does not understand, because of everything that has led him to this moment. He literally refuses to plead guilty as the system wishes, and this gap between his perception and that of the court is ultimately what condemns him to death. K. on the other hand goes through phases where he refuses to engage through language by his refusal to be interrogated, and later decides to defend himself, with words. The difficulty and opacity of finding formulations and attitudes which satisfy the law can be seen in the parable of Before the Law told by the priest.

Once judged guilty by law, society demands retribution, or punishment. The function of punishment in the novels is to have a scapegoat, and is seen as inevitable. In The Trial, the court painter Titorelli tells K. that no definitive acquittal is possible, “these tell of actual acquittals of course, even in a majority cases; you can believe them, but they can’t be proved true. (The Trial, 154)”. K. is not imprisoned, but suffers nonetheless with the serpentine system during his trial, and although he accepts the ultimate punishment with a semblance of dignity, his execution is ‘like a dog (The Trial, 231)’. Although prison is designed to isolate from society the outcasts or outsiders, Meursault finds comfort in prison, an environment lacking in stimuli, in troublesome relationships and normal interactions with other people. Both protagonists accept their judgement and punishment by law, to the point of losing their lives, while recognising the absurdity and condemning the system which condemned them.

The theme of guilt and indeed innocence runs through both levels. Here we will look beyond the verdicts of the fictive courts, to the notion of guilt per se – the fact of having done wrong and the notion of remorse, judging ones’ own actions and oneself. Without entering into a debate on moral relativism, the question of ignorance versus awareness is important in a study of guilt in these novels. Although ignorance is clearly not an excuse in the eyes of the law, the question of premeditation and motives, and even the actual nature of the crime, remain ambivalent in the novels. A common interpretation of the main character of The Outsider is that he is amoral, but the novel itself leaves open many more interpretations.

Both protagonists allow themselves to be guided by their desires, to the extent that they have them, and certainly in the case of Meursault we can find evidence of at the least a lack of tact and self-awareness in his behaviour following his mother’s funeral and a lack of feeling towards his fellow human beings. However his ‘confession’ and ostensible lack of empathy at the trial of feeling “rather than true regret, I felt a kind of annoyance (The Outsider, 65)” may be for the crime for which he himself feels no guilt, that of the murder on the beach. His fault is a crime of no passion. Joseph K. is objectively guilty of his casual treatment of people and women in particular, that even for the time borders on misogyny, and his inhumanity to others in general.

In the case of Meursault and guilt, a psychoanalytic reading is not uninteresting. The killing of the Arab as essentially a displacement activity over the anger and impotence felt at this mother’s death which calms his feelings of guilt, and as Oedipal act against the father figure which he sees in the Arab.

In both cases the notion of guilt is often articulated by the main character, although often is ambiguous terms. In Kafka,“But I’m not guilty’ sayid K. ‘It’s a mistake. How can any person in general be guilty? We’re all human after all, each and every one of us.’(The Trial,213)” and Meursault too tries to show that if he is indeed guilty he is not alone “I wanted to assure him that I was just like everyone else, exactly like everyone else. But it was all really a bit pointless and I couldn’t be bothered. (The Outsider, 61).”

In the face of the ambiguous works we may of course have an interpretation on the worldview and messages of the author, yet while remaining aware of the fictional nature of these works that are not philosophical essays, and we must be particularly careful with Kafka’s unfinished work which was edited and published by a friend, including organisation of the chapters, after his death. Both characters evolve over the novels. In the structure of The Outsider, the structure changes in the second part of the book, the longer sentences showing us that the narrator is to some extent gaining in awareness and especially self-awareness. They also gain a semblance of peace – peace with themselves, their choices, their fates, and the state of the world. Society and its morals have no rational basis, life itself is absurd, but this absurdity need not necessarily lead to despair. Camus himself is sympathetic to his anti-hero, who he describes as “a poor, naked man, in love with a sun which leaves no shadows (Camus, 1955)”. He is prepared to die for the truth, or his version of it, his refusal to sell out in modern vernacular. Although both novels are laden with the problems of inhumanity, and we do not see traditional triumphs or repentance, there is a validation of integrity and authenticity in the face of an absurd world. There is a note of optimism in the assertion of Joseph K “We’re all human after all, each and every one of us. (The Trial, 213)”.


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