The Door that Always Stands Open
In Franz Kafka’s The Trial, K. makes his way through a labyrinthine and chaotic city in dealing with his case. He is continually entering and exiting doors, going through passageways, and passing through antechambers. The ubiquitous presence of doorways is immediate and constant. Yet the doors in The Trial do not function as normal doorways; the spaces that they separate are not entirely separate. In the course of the novel, Kafka dissolves the clear delineation between the two sides of the door, and creates instead a space within the door, which is central to the entire narrative of The Trial, both in relation to the spaces of the city, and in relation to time.
In a nearly physical example of this dissolution, a door virtually disintegrates as young girls mount an attack on it, in the “Painter” section. Titorelli remarks that the girls have “had a key made for my door, and they lend it round” (144), already hurting the door’s function to keep people on one side of it. The row of girls becomes a constant force against the door. They “see into the room through the cracks in the door” (148) as they crowd around the keyhole, and they then breach the door with their words. They breach the door physically, by thrusting “a blade of straw through a crack between the planks and . . . moving it slowly up and down” (150). The painter even remarks that “the air comes in everywhere through the chinks [in the door]” (155). When the girls are once more “crowding to peer through the cracks and view the spectacle” (156), the door seems hardly there, not functioning as a physical boundary. Yet K. cannot cross it himself, as he futilely tugs at the handle of the door, “which the girls, as he could tell from the resistance, were hanging on to from outside” (162). Instead, he must take the exit to the Law Court offices. What is hardly a boundary for the girls is all too solid for him.
In the above passage, the door becomes a very tangible boundary for K., even though the girls seem to be able to penetrate it with ease. K.’s case will be examined in more depth, but even in this situation, the role of the door is difficult to completely understand. In The Trial, K. finds himself in situations where the distinction between one side of the door and the other becomes very hazy. Without this distinction, K. can neither enter nor exit. The door will cease to function as a gateway and instead will trap K, as the painter’s door does. Unable to exit, he instead takes the route through the Law Offices, ending up nonetheless back where he began. Through doors, K. embarks on a forward progression to nowhere, where both sides of the door may indeed be the same.
The opening scene presents K. with seemingly total freedom. After the warder Willem tells K. to stay put in his room, he considers that “If he were to open the door of the next room or even the door leading to the hall, perhaps the two of them would not dare to hinder him” (7). He soon finds out from the inspector that he is free to go about his business and can still lead his regular life. His freedom to exit his room is useless, however, because he will remain in the same “space” as he is in from the beginning of the novel, and he will not escape it, except possibly through death. Leaving through the doorway of his room will make no difference.
Examination of the two “sides” of doors reveals a fluid nature to the spaces, such that they lose their delineation into “sides.” Several times in the book, K. finds himself in the space between two or more doorways, minimizing the distinction of one side versus another. In the offices, he goes “through an opening which had no door,” (65) and quickly finds himself lost. He asks the usher, “how does one reach the outside door? . . . Show me the way, there are so many lobbies here, I’ll never find the way” (66). Yet on finally reaching the door, he is struck by dizziness and deafness. An unidentified voice says, “First he wants to go, then you tell him a hundred times that the door is in front of him and he makes no move to go” (72). K. does make it through the door, but for a while he is trapped in a situation from which he cannot escape without help. He is lost in a series of lobbies, a series of perpetual antechambers, meaningless in themselves and significant only in that they connect to somewhere else, if indeed they really do. Moreover, even once he escapes the lobby, he only returns to his starting point. In crossing the door of the offices, he did not enter another space so much as an in-between space, and ended up returning to the original space. He did not pass through a door so much as wander around inside of the door for a while, to no effect, as if the space in the door extended to encapsulate him and the surrounding space.
K. finds himself in this space-in-a-door several times. Titorelli’s apartment contains two doors, one to the outside, and one, as is later revealed, into the Law Offices. K. exits through the inner door, yet the path he has traced only leads him back outside. After going through the door to the office, he sees before him “a long passage . . . Benches stood on either side of the passage, just as in the lobby of the offices” (164). The uniformity of the design suggests that from the outside of the painter’s house to the outside of the Law Offices, K. has not so much gone somewhere as wandered around in the space between the two doors he has gone through, only to return to where he began, outside.
Beneath the closed door of the tenement where Titorelli resides lies “a gaping hole of which, just as K. approached, issued a disgusting yellow fluid, steaming hot, from which some rats fled into the adjoining canal” (141). This disturbing and somewhat anomalous vision is at odds with the doors of the tenement. In contrast with the traditional notion of the door as a border, the reader is given a fluid liquid that crawls through the canals. Combined with the “sludge oozing about slowly on top of the melting snow” (141), the overall impression is that the boundaries–between sludge and snow, between fluid and canal–are fluid themselves, never to be bounded by something so simple and seemingly definite as a door. With the fluid and sludge, there is no delineation of one side or the other, as there seemingly is with a door. There is only the slow merging of one material with another, at a shifting place. Yet as K. sees, the delineation of the door is no more certain than the boundaries between liquids. Rather than being definite, the boundaries are fluid.
In the lawyer’s house, stranger things happen. In making their way to the attic offices of the Law Court to meet Huld the lawyer, K. and his uncle pass through a complex sequence of doorways, but not with total success. After ringing the bell, “Behind a grille in the door two great dark eyes appeared, gazed at the two visitors for a moment, and then vanished again; yet the door did not open . . . [the eyes] seemed almost sad, yet that might have been an illusion created by the naked gas jet which burned just over their heads” (99). Here, despite the presence of the door, K. is not sure whether the sadness of the eyes arises from the eyes themselves, on the other side of the door, or from the gas jet on their side of the door. Despite the mystery behind the door, he cannot even delineate between one side and another, so mixed are the sides.
The confusion continues in the ensuing scene. The door does not open as long as they see it, but only after another door opens “at the other end of the little passage” and a man announces “The door has been opened” is it seen that “The door really was open” (99). Kafka’s language is ambiguous; it is not immediately clear to the reader which of the two doors is open at a given point. The most significant omission is that Kafka never describes the actual opening of the lawyer’s door. As if by sleight of hand, the opening of the door occurs only when the other man is distracting K. and his uncle, and they have turned their backs. Afterwards, the only remark is that “The door really was open,” as if it had been open all along. Rather than a clear process of an entryway opening from a closed state, the door mysteriously switches properties. Rather than a concrete, sequential progression, the door “merges” from a shut state into an open one without even the narrative noticing, subtly alluding to what is to come.
After passing through the lawyer’s front door, K. is placed several times between two doors. Leni first bolts the house door, before making “toward an inner door” (99), as if their passageway through one door had brought them no closer to the lawyer. Yet the real significance of the entrance hall comes later. After hearing crockery breaking, K. enters the entrance hall, and Leni covers “his hand with which he was still holding the door and gently [draws] the door shut” (100). They then pass through “a door paneled with thick glass” (100) into the lawyer’s office. This door hardly exists, both from the translucence of the glass and the fact that Leni never shuts it. Neither door hides K.’s actions. His uncle knows exactly what has gone on, and he later shouts, “You don’t even seek any pretext, you conceal nothing, no, you’re quite open” (111). Even Leni had to grab K.’s hand to shut the first door. To emphasize his point, K.’s uncle grabs K. and bangs him “against the house door as if he wanted to nail him there” (111). The irony of K. being thrown against a door once more displays the contradiction of a door being present–as it is when K.’s uncle throws him against it–while not acting as any sort of significant barrier between spaces, as K.’s uncle was aware of what was going on through two doors. The doors in The Trial are undoubtedly present–K. is slammed against one–but they do notfunction as doors. They neither separate nor block off spaces, but instead are spaces unto themselves, in-between spaces in which K. is trapped.
These scenes raise a strong argument against the definite nature of a door. From the girls breaching the door with a straw, to K. getting lost in the offices, to the labyrinthine but non-bounding doors in the lawyer’s office, two themes emerge. The first is that K. cannot actually go through a door, but only wander around inside of one before returning to his starting point. The second is that the door itself is not a boundary, despite its existence. As neither a boundary nor a gateway, the sides of a door cease to have a stable meaning. In a novel filled with scenes of people listening through doors and looking through keyholes, Kafka continually insists that the spaces that a door separates are not as distinguishable as they seem. The boundary is questioned by the expansion of a fluid, changing space, in which doors open and close without notice, and the sludge of Titorelli’s apartment is free to flow, unbounded.
The cathedral scene most clearly crystallizes the fluidity of space. The priest calls to K. just as he is “emerging into the open space between himself and the doorway” (209), yet by the time they are finished talking they are “a long way from [the main doorway]” (221). In walking with the priest, himself an officer of the law, they have expanded the “open space,” into which has enveloped the doorway, as K. can no longer find it. Without the priest’s help, K. is trapped in this open space, just as he will be trapped in the “open fields” (227) into which the town merges, where he is finally killed.
The priest’s parable helps explain what happens in the cathedral. The door into the Law is “open as usual” (213). The priest remarks later, “the door leading into the Law always stands open, and if it always stands open, that is to say at all times, without reference to the life or death of the man, then the doorkeeper cannot close it” (219). Moreover, so open is the door that the man can even “peer through the entrance” (213). Yet for all its openness, the door is not really a proper door, since “No one but [the man] could gain admittance through the door” (214-15), and the man never did gain admittance. Here, there is a definite boundary to be crossed, but which is not crossed. This door is a strong contrast to K.’s progress in the novel, which has revealed doors to be fluid boundaries leading nowhere. Yet the doorkeeper’s statement, “From hall to hall, keepers stand at every door, one more powerful than the other” (213), suggests that the Law is not a place to be reached, but this continual progression of wandering around on the insides and outsides of doors. The man himself is trapped in the threshold of the door, just as, it seems, K. is.
The parable is strikingly echoed in the scene of K’s death. The first thing K. says to his executioners is “So you are meant for me?” (223), echoing the doorkeeper’s statement that the door was “intended” for the man. They then take him “out of the town, which at this point merged almost without transition into the open fields” (227), and kill him. Notably, this scene is the only scene in the entire novel in which K. is in an open outdoor area with no doors, entrances, or exits. There is not even a break between the open fields and the town, but instead a fluid convergence. There are no transitions, a marked change in a novel which up to that point has been nothing but small rooms, long halls, and doors all over. Yet it is also finally apparent that there is no definite “other” space to cross into through doors that lead nowhere. There is only fluid space, no more.
In one way, the fluidity of doors is suggestive of the actual trial (Der Prozeß) of the title. Implicit in the parable, called “Before the Law,” is the notion that this endless row of doorkeepers are not just guarding antechambers, but are the Law itself. The man is not removed from the Law, but he is “Before the Law” itself, as he stands before and in the threshold of the door to the Law. K. is arrested in The Trial, and goes through a seemingly endless process before being killed. Yet this process is the trial itself, and just as “the proceedings only gradually merge into the verdict” (211), as the sludge merges with the snow and the fluid merges into the canal, K.’s judgment is the process of the trial itself, and the man in the parable is before the law as he stands in the threshold. When the doorkeeper says, “No one but you could gain admittance through this door, since this door was intended for you. I am now going to shut it” (215), he implies that the man has, in his own way, gained admittance. He has not gone through the door, but he has stayed in its threshold, and has gained access to the Law in the same way that K. has.
The question of how the man, and K., could have reached something without being satisfied by it is answered by the other implication of the fluidity of doors. When asked if he can enter, the doorkeeper responds, “It is possible . . . but not at this moment” (213). “This moment” becomes distended into the man’s entire life, as it is never possible “at this moment,” whatever moment it may be. When compared with other time anomalies, such as the “childish old man” (206) in the cathedral, and the “Whipper” scene, where “Everything was still the same, exactly as he had found it on opening the door the previous evening” (89), it becomes clear that time is not a sequential constant in The Trial, but something that is as fluid as the spaces in which K. finds himself. K. goes to the cathedral to meet the Italian, but he never shows; the man in the parable waits for “this moment” to pass, so that he may gain admittance, but it never does. Just as the case itself is not sequential–“The verdict is not suddenly arrived at, the proceedings only gradually merge into the verdict”–the threshold gradually merges into the Law. Time loses its sequential nature and becomes fluid, the difference between one moment and another as indistinct as the difference between the two spaces surrounding a door. From the moment that K. is arrested, time loses its sequential nature, as demonstrated by the lack of any plot development throughout the novel, and the observation that all the chapters save for the first and the last could be placed in any order with no loss in continuity. The moment of K.’s arrest is distended into the rest of the novel, and he wanders around inside of that moment, just as he does in doorways, unable to progress from one side to the other just as he cannot from one moment to another. In that moment, time is both fluid and static, but not sequential.
When the door is shut for the man in the parable, and K. is killed in the open field, the distension of the moment that they have been in for an unknown amount of time–since time is hardly measurable in their situations–reaches its end and snaps, through the shutting of the door to the Law and K.’s final spoken phrase. The objectives of both are now removed: the door is shut, and K. is no longer on trial. Yet it is in this moment that K. seems to glimpse the truth. K. does not see deceptive doors, but a fluid space, merging the town in the field. The open display of fluidity suggests that K. is no longer deceived, as the man was, into believing that a clear, sequential objective exists. “The shame of it [that] must out live him” (229), however, stays in that space, continuing its existence in the trial. But just as the man sees the door shut as he dies, K. gains some knowledge in seeing the end of his trial made final with this “final act” (229).
The relatively static, but also fluid, time structure of The Trial extends into both the trial itself and into the spaces in the novel, best represented by the doorways. Kafka both eliminates the distinction between the sides of the doorway and creates a new space inside the doorway itself, in which K. finds himself. Like the man in the parable, he is trapped in this distended space, where time is not sequential and a definitive conclusion is impossible, until the moment of his death. Yet as the priest says, there is not so much a sequential process as a merging of trial into verdict, such that “this moment” fluidly becomes arrest, trial, and judgment merging altogether at once.
David Auerbach writes about literature and philosophy at Waggish. He has been a graduate student in English and philosophy, a software engineer at Google, and a feuilletoniste. He continues to write fiction and criticism. Among other publications, he has contributed to SLATE, THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT, N+1, BOOKFORUM, THE QUARTERLY CONVERSATION, THE WHITE REVIEW and elsewhere.