What Lies Behind the Theme of Sexuality In Kafka’s The Trial?

The Androgynous Mind and Sexuality

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf writes that art should only come from an androgynous mind; she asks that those who want to create art should be either “man-womanly” or “woman-manly”, for otherwise, their creativity would be blinded, porous. “It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilized and uses all its faculties. Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine…” (Woolf, V. 1945, p. 81).

In relation to Kafka, many Feminists have regarded his work, especially The Trial, as a deeply misogynistic novel, meaning that Kafka’s gender affected or jeopardized his ability to write. In consequence, according to this reading, Kafka couldn’t achieve what Woolf believed a true genius should possess. However, in this essay, I will argue how there is an aesthetic and thematic justification on Kafka’s portrayal of sexuality and gender in his novel, for it all goes back to the same thing: power.

If there is a central theme in The Trial it is surely this. However, the analysis of power in the novel has usually been restrained to the way Kafka portrays the government’s corruption, the law’s dehumanization and the faulty bureaucratic system of the twentieth century. Yet, I would argue that there is a second and parallel thematic line to this previous one, also in relation to power: sexuality.

Kafka’s portrait of the eros is as unique as it is bizarre, and strangely enough, he does it in a way that it becomes intrinsic to the theme of power and oppression. Sure, observed separately, as Feminists often do, it would easy to see K.’s dominant sexual behavior as a misogynistic trait. However, the way Kafka draws sexuality isn’t for sexuality’s own sake, but for the sake of these games of power that exist in the novel. Everything is always compared in relation to something else: arrestor and arrested, kisser and kissed, whipper and whipped, dominant and dominated, killer and killed. Kafka suggests how balance and equilibrium between human relations, whether this is between human to human or human to state, cannot be obtained.

Neither A Hero Nor An Antihero

In essence, The Trial seems to be profoundly Homeric, and Josef K. is nothing more than a modern-day Ulysses. Similarly to The Odyssey, The Trial has a loose plot; it is a novel more sustained by episodes than by a cohesive, straight line. K. is equally trapped by his destiny, even if there are no Gods here to exert it on him (although one could argue that the image of the Gods is replaced by the government). And in every part of The Trial, K. encounters a new character (usually one that doesn’t reappear) who is supposed to help him in his search for answers and absolution.

In a similar way than with the Odyssey, there is a large number of female characters who can “help or hinder the hero, [but never] be an active participant on the quest” (Beck, E. 1983 p. 3). We have Fraülein Burstner, Frau Grubach, Leni, the usher’s wife and Elsa. And strictly speaking, none of these turn out to be really important to the plot of the novel, none affect K.’s destiny, none really aid him, or harm him; and yet without them, the novel would’ve been completely different. These female characters make the difference between The Trial being simply a political statement, and being one of the most profound and complex reflections on what it is to be human.

In the five relationships Josef K. upholds with women in the novel, there is always a clear dominant character, four of the five times this character is K. himself (the only exception is with Fraülein Burstner). Three of the five women mentioned above, want him in a sexual way: Elsa, his lover, who he doesn’t even give time of the novel to; the Usher’s wife, to whom he is indifferent towards; and Leni, who he judged for her openly sexual in her behavior. Then comes Frau Grubach, his landlady, who although never explicitly speaks of any sexual desire for K., has him in the highest esteem possible. She seems distressed when he doesn’t talk to her, and seems to really care what he thinks of her as a person. This may be because she is attracted to him, or because she owes him money—“She is also dependant on me, I may say, for she has borrowed a fair sum of money from me.” (Kafka, F. 1995, p. 28)—but either way, he knows he is more powerful than her and doesn’t mind proving it with his arrogance and disdain.

Finally, comes Fraülein Burstner, the only female character K. seems to respect and desire; ironically, she is the only one who seems not to want him, or even respect him that much. She doesn’t grant him the “interview” he wanted from her, and doesn’t tell him in person she doesn’t want him; asking her friend, Fraülein Montag, to do so for her.

  How Josef K. uses these women is why many attribute a sexist mind to the novel—being a contemporary Hamlet or Heathcliff—for as Taylor Klingensmith writes in his essay The Nature of Man and Joseph K.: “the reader sees the nature of Joseph K. to be almost evil in his attempt to accomplish his goals with the constant use of means that undermine the women he is involved with.” (Klingensmith, T., 2016). However, more importantly than the moral integrity of K., is the strong subtext of bondage and domination in his relations with women, a theme which is hidden but perceptible. K.’s connections to women are usually charged with erotic desire, either platonic (as with Frau Grubach, where nothing happens) or concrete (as with his lover, Elsa), and he is constantly using this desire to his advantage. That is why, although many see K. as a victim in the novel (because of his arrest), the way he treats women proves what only a few can see (as for example, Orson Wells, with his magnificent interpretation in his movie of The Trial): K. is no more a victim as he is a collaborator of these games of power.

Sure, one can argue that Kafka’s portrayal of women can call upon major archetypes from nineteenth-century literature—the madonna and the whore—which can be a bit misogynistic for the Feminist reader. The way K. treats women appears to be to be related to her moral status. But the new factor with Kafka, and the reason why I argue that he is not necessarily a sexist writer (or even if he is, he at least has an aesthetic purpose for it), is that for K. the important factor is not sexuality itself, as one could see it, but the power relation developed by that ‘sexual tension’, to give it a name. In every relationship described in The Trial, whether between men and women, men and men or men and state, there always seems to be a disequilibrium, there is always one side who has the power, one side who is dominant, one side who is in control. And the other is simply there, quiet, submissive, powerless.

One mustn’t forget that in the novel there are two strong sources of oppression and dominance, not only one: the law and sexuality. A Marxist or a Neoliberal might only focus on how the government exerts power on K,; a Feminist might only focus on how K. exerts power on women. And yet, they would both have an immense blind spot, created by their own ideals, that would prevent them from seeing the most important thing in the novel: the correlation between the two. If one reads The Trial as a parable for the law’s oppression over the individual, then sure, one sees K. as the victim; and if one reads The Trial as a man who got arrested for abusing women and continues to abuse women because he can’t even see that what he’s doing is wrong, then one sees these women as victims. And the problem is, there are no victims here. The tragic beauty of K. is that he is both an oppressor and an oppressed, making him neither the villain nor the victim, but an accomplice. He has created this world, he has created his downfall, he has created his destiny.

The Power of Homoeroticism

Probably, this is why many read a homoerotic undertone in the novel—a very possible theory, yet the reality of which is truly irrelevant—because, even in the relations described between men, there is a huge amount of power-play involved. For example, one can recall Block and his relation with Huld, and read it as a sexual and somewhat sadistic liaison; one can recall the scene with the whipper, who is clothed with a “sort of leather garment which left his throat ad good deal of his chest and the whole of his arms bare” (Kafka, F. 1995, p. 84), and see it as a sadomasochist scene, because of the whipper’s costume; one can recall chapter seven, where there is an overly homosexual passage involving Titorelli, and read it as an even further sexual perversion of K.’s character. What’s even more, as Richard Gray writes in his encyclopedia dedicated to Kafka: “In a passage Kafka deleted from The Trial, Josef K fantasies about offering ingratiating homoerotic advances to the painter Titorelli…” (Gray, R., 2005, p.130), which in a way, could confirm the bisexuality of the character. And yet to do so, to limit one’s reading to the interpretation and analysis of K.’s sexual orientation would be as wrongful as it would be to solely discuss The Trial in terms of K.’s relations with the state or with women; it would be to shelter one’s mind, to sabotage our reading by one’s biases and ideologies. 

What’s important is how Kafka still delivers and portrays unbalanced relationships between male characters (otherwise, the Feminist reading of misogyny could be a viable one), the power struggle is still there: Huld owns, in a way, Block, and Block lets him; the whipper is submissive to the Court, and that is why he has to whip the warders, both of whom are submissive to the whipper; K. is willing to do anything to Titorelli for information and aid. There is always someone in power, in each relation, and one who’s weak. That is a constant, it remains, and what’s more, there is never a power shift. Fraülein Burstner never wants K., Huld treats his clients badly all throughout, Leni always likes criminals, the guard never lets the farmer get in, and the Court does end up killing K.. Nothing changes; and even after the protagonist’s death, there is no hint that anything will.

Kafka’s view on humanity, then, is not really misogynistic, for the dominance and submissiveness is not in relation to gender or sexuality. He just portrays, through The Trial, a humanity where power (either to have it, or to be controlled by it) is intrinsic to life.


Beck, E. (1983, June/July). Kafka’s Traffic in Women: Gender, Power, and Sexuality. The Literary Review, (26.4).

Bennet, E. (1998, June/July). Kafka and Girls: The Case of Leni. The Midwest Quarterly, (39.4), 390-408. Retrieved October 26, 2016, from http://search.proquest.com/openview/ecb16e9dce6ee9ce2fe312c1af572cd1/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=41210

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1986) Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature. University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota & London.

Gray, R. T. (2005). A Franz Kafka Encyclopedia. Connecticut & London: Greenwood Press.

Kafka, F. (1995). The Trial. Schocken, New York.

Klingensmith, T. (2016, October 26). The Nature of Man and Joseph K. Retrieved October 26, 2016, from http://www.kafka.org/index.php?aid=199

Lorenz, D. C. (n.d.). Kafka and Gender. In J. Preece (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion To Kafka (pp. 169-180).

Woolf, V. (2011) A Room of One’s Own. Penguin Books, London.


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