Dramatic Shifts in Mood with Franz Kafka
Just to be clear up front: I would not recommend you read The Trial by Franz Kafka–more on that below–but I think there are a couple interesting lessons to be taken from it anyway. Here, I want to take a look at one Kafka’s greatest strengths in all of his fiction: his ability to overturn his characters, to accomplish believable and powerful shifts in mood in just a few paragraphs.
How do you believably and concisely accomplish huge shifts in character mood? These shifts in mood are necessary to turn a character-driven story in a new direction, but they can be hard to pull off. Here’s a look at one way you might accomplish this.
The first thing I noticed about Franz Kafka’s The Trial is how undeniably contemporary it reads, on a structural level. The paragraphs and scenes proceed in much the same way most well-crafted books do today. But I can’t recommend anyone actually read it, because the second thing I noticed is there is a disturbing amount of misogyny that threads through much of it–worse, even, than other work I’ve read from the post-WWI time period. This juxtaposition of modern scene structure and unapologetic misogyny might be intellectually interesting for scholars, but it’s off-putting enough to engender a mild case of whiplash.
Maybe there are reasons Kafka requested this book be burned upon his death? An unfinished first draft, it certainly lacks the polish and astute observations of his short fiction. In short: if you want to read Kafka, go read “In the Penal Colony.” As for the handful of interesting tidbits from The Trial, I’ll try to cover them here, so you won’t have to go looking for them.
One of Kafka’s most powerful abilities was his really deft sense of how a character’s relative position can change inside of a structure of power in sudden ways through subtle means. That’s what happens in the following excerpt (interestingly along with the most positive representation of any woman in the book. In this case, an unnamed woman). Up to this point, the protagonist, K., has been arrested by some mysterious court for no understandable reason, been to a hearing in which he gave a biting monologue, and has felt quite confident, even arrogant, faced with this trial. In this scene, he’s in the office of the court, trying to figure out when his next hearing is, and everything changes:
K. didn’t bother with him and the others gathered there for long, especially when, more or less half-way down the corridor, he saw that it was possible to turn off through an opening without a door on the right. He checked with the usher that it was the right way, the usher nodded, and he took the turn. He found it annoying that he had to walk one or two steps in front of the usher all the time, it could well look, at least in this place, as if he were being taken under escort. K. kept waiting for the usher to catch up, but he immediately dropped back again. Finally, in order to put an end to his discomfort, K. said, ‘I’ve seen what things look like here, so now I’ll leave.’ ‘You haven’t seen everything,’ said the usher in non-committal tones. ‘I don’t want to see everything,’ said K., who was genuinely feeling tired, ‘I want to leave, how do I get to the way out?’ ‘You haven’t got lost already, have you?’ the usher asked in astonishment. ‘You go to the corner there then turn right along the corridor and the door’s straight ahead.’ ‘Come with me,’ said K, ‘and show me the way. There are so many ways here, I’ll take the wrong one.’ ‘It’s the only way,’ the usher said, his voice now starting to sound reproachful. ‘I can’t go back with you, I have to deliver my message. I’ve already lost a lot of time because of you.’ ‘Come with me,’ K. repeated more sharply, as if he’d finally caught the usher lying. ‘Don’t shout like that,’ the usher whispered, ‘there are offices everywhere here. If you don’t want to go back by yourself, come along with me, or wait here until I’ve delivered my message, then I’ll be happy to go back with you.’ ‘No, no,’ said K., ‘I’m not going to wait and you must come with me now, when one of the many wooden doors all around them opened, did he look at it. A young woman, presumably alerted by K.’s loud voice, came in and asked, ‘What is it you want, sir?’ In the distance behind her a man could also be seen approaching in the gloom. K. looked at the usher. He had said that no one would bother with K. and here were two people coming already; it wouldn’t take much and the whole staff would have noticed him and would be demanding an explanation for his presence there. the only understandable and acceptable one would be that he was a defendant and wanted to know the date of his next interrogation, but that was the very explanation he did not want to use, especially as it wasn’t true, since he’d only come out of curiosity or–and this was even less acceptable as an explanation–out of a desire to confirm that this court was just as repulsive on the inside as it was on the outside. And since it seemed that this assumption was correct, he didn’t want to penetrate any further. He felt constrained enough by what he had seen already and was in no state to face a senior official, who might appear from any of these doors. He wanted to leave, with the usher or, if needs be, without him.
But the way he stood there in silence must have been striking, for the young woman and the usher were looking at him as if he were about to undergo some great metamorphosis in the very next minute which they didn’t want to miss. And in the doorway stood the man K. had earlier seen in the distance; he was holding on to the lintel of the lower door and rocking a little on the balls of his feet, like an impatient onlooker. But the young woman was the first to realize that the cause of K.’s behavior was a slight indisposition. She brought an armchair and asked him, ‘Won’t you sit down?’ K. immediately sat down and rested his elbows on the arms in order to support himself more securely. ‘You feel slightly dizzy, don’t you?’ she asked. Her face was quite close to him now, it had the severe expression some women have when they are young and at their most beautiful. ‘There’s no need to worry,’ she said, ‘it’s nothing unusual, almost everyone has an attack like that the first time they’re here. It is the first time you’ve been here, isn’t it? Well, it isn’t unusual, then. The sun burns down on the roof timbers and the hot wood makes it very close and stuffy. That makes it unsuitable as office space, despite all its other advantages. On days when it’s open to the public, and that’s almost every day, the air is hardly breathable. And when you remember that washing’s often hung out to dry here–we can’t entirely prohibit the tenants from doing so–you won’t be surprised you feel slightly sick. But eventually you get used to the air here. When you come the second or third time you’ll scarcely notice how oppressive it is. do you feel better now?’ K. didn’t reply, he felt too embarrassed, being at the mercy of these people because of this sudden faintness, and learning the cause of his feeling of nausea didn’t make him feel any better, in fact it made it a little worse. The young woman noticed this straight away, and in order to give K. some fresh air, picked up a pole with a hook on the end that was propped up against the wall and pushed open a little skylight just above K.’s head. But so much soot fell in that she had to close the skylight again immediately and clean the soot off K.’s hands with her handkercheif, since K. was too tired to do it himself. He would have liked to stay sitting there quietly until he was strong enough to leave, but that would have to be sooner rather than later, depending on how long people would look after him. And now, anyway, the young woman was saying, ‘You can’t stay here, we’re in the way,’–K. looked round questioningly to ask what he could be in the way of–‘I’ll take you to the sickroom, if you like.–Would you help me, please?’ she said to the man in the doorway. he immediately approached. But K. didn’t want to go to the sickroom, being taken farther was the last thing he wanted, the farther he went, the worse it must be. So he said, ‘I can walk,’ and stood up, though, having got used tot he comfortable chair, he was trembling. But then he couldn’t keep on his feet. ‘It’s no good,’ he said with a shake of the head and, sighing, sat down again. He remembered the usher, who, despite everything could easily have led him out, but he seemed to have gone long ago. K. looked between the young woman and the man, who were standing in front of him, but he couldn’t see the usher.
‘I think,’ said the man, who was elegantly dressed–his grey waistcoat ending int two sharp points was particularly striking–‘that this gentleman’s indisposition is caused by the atmosphere in here. In that case it would be best, and preferable for him, if we took him not to the sickroom but straight out of the offices.’ ‘You’re right,’ K. cried, so pleased that he spoke almost before the man had finished . . . (p52-54)
From here, the woman and the elegantly dressed gentleman help K. out of the offices–it’s a long, slow journey in which K. sees his mental and physical state deteriorate. When he gets outside, he immediately feels better, but this event will affect him for the rest of the plot.
This entire chapter seems to exist essentially to knock K. down a peg, and to do so in a highly rigorous, convincing way. This is interesting in part because Kafka rarely puts in this much work to make things believable in the story and so much strangeness has already occurred–maybe he has some dedication to representing K. in a rigorous way, as his protagonist.
The way I see it, there are 6 steps here that create a robust structure for us to witness the change.
1. ” ‘I don’t want to see everything,’ said K., who was genuinely feeling tired, ‘I want to leave, how do I get to the way out?’ “
Here we see the first introduction to the idea that K. feels tired, but it’s subtle, delivered between a split line of dialogue so that we skim right over it. It’s characteristic of an line that an author might want to register in us without drawing too much attention to. A sort of foreshadowing, I suppose. The line quoted above leads into a very circular, confusing argument with the messenger during which K. is strangely obstinate. We’ve seen K. be stubborn before, so it tracks with his character in the moment, but it quickly becomes clear that something different is here–he rarely has shown the patience to bandy back and forth with anyone, usually bursting into a monologue of some kind.
2. “But the way he stood there in silence must have been striking, for the young woman and the usher were looking at him as if he were about to undergo some great metamorphosis in the very next minute which they didn’t want to miss.”
This is a short step, comprising basically only this line, but it’s powerful–it creates a great sense of alienation that K. has hardly ever felt before (one that will return several times later in the plot) and hints that the woman and the messenger know something that K. does not, that they even have some information about him that he does not have. This is necessary set up for the next step.
3. “‘You feel slightly dizzy, don’t you?’ she asked. Her face was quite close to him now, it had the severe expression some women have when they are young and at their most beautiful. ‘There’s no need to worry,’ she said, ‘it’s nothing unusual, almost everyone has an attack like that the first time they’re here.”
The real gold of this moment, for me, is this step. It’s the pivotal step–in the sense of ‘most important’ but also in the sense of ‘where everything pivots.’ We realize now what’s going on: the very offices of the court are affecting K–the woman explains why in some detail. This level of detail is strange in the book, and it offers a rather high level of verisimilitude coming from someone else. She asks if he feels dizzy and he doesn’t need to respond–we know he does. We feel it instantly. It’s very interesting, to me, to see that the first real indication of K.’s inner state is delivered by another character. On top of being really very convincing–a roundabout way to show rather than tell the character’s emotions–it also props up Kafka’s major concern: shifts in power. This is the first time that K. realizes he’s in over his head; this woman he’s speaking to reads him like a book, she’s been through all this before, and knows exactly what’s going on. By comparison, K. is helpless.
4. “K. didn’t reply, he felt too embarrassed, being at the mercy of these people because of this sudden faintness, and learning the cause of his feeling of nausea didn’t make him feel any better, in fact it made it a little worse.”
We get no audible reply from K.–that would ruing the effect. But we do get confirmation in the narration that, yeah, actually, he does feel faint, and nauseated, and he’s getting worse. It’s important that we get some facts to back up the woman’s assertion, especially in a story where people are constantly making claims that K. deems to be false; it’s important that he agrees on some level here.
5. “So he said, ‘I can walk,’ and stood up, though, having got used tot he comfortable chair, he was trembling. But then he couldn’t keep on his feet. ‘It’s no good,’ he said with a shake of the head and, sighing, sat down again.”
Finally, we see the character change in action. He gets up, trembles, and gives up, too weak to even stand. We have never seen K. acquiesce this quickly. His character has been completely cut down, and we can see that the woman was right, of course–the air here is so oppressive, it can destroy the strongest of men. This is evidence of the strongest sort.
6. ” ‘that this gentleman’s indisposition is caused by the atmosphere in here. In that case it would be best, and preferable for him, if we took him not to the sickroom but straight out of the offices.’ “
They then do exactly as this gentleman states. In an extended scene, they proceed back through the offices, shambling through, showing how weak K. continues to be. On the one hand, this feels maybe too long, and like overkill, but on the other-hand, it provides an incredible opportunity to deepen the change of character K. has gone through. Walking through these same halls, seeing the same sights, but viewing them with this new lens of acquiescence and pity, is deeply rewarding. It’s also deeply foreboding, because we see what K. will become–he passes several other defendants who are even more oppressed and despondent than him. We know that this will be K.’s fate, if he continues to visit the court.
What’s most illuminating here, for me, is how the entire chapter is structured around one simple task: a change in mood. It’s clear that quite of bit of thought has been put into how to do that in a believable and dramatic way. It uses several elements of fiction, and a handful of techniques, to accomplish this effect, and it’s the most powerful moment in this short novel.
What do you notice about this scene? Have you seen authors go through a similar process or give themselves a similar task for a chapter? If you have had to rapidly shift a character’s mood, how have you gone about it?
Thanks for reading!