Two modern trials: Camus' "L’étranger" and Kafka's "Der Proceß" – a comparison

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2003

29 Pages, Grade: 67 Punkte (2+) (B+)


[L’étranger] is like Kafka – whom Camus was reading at this time –
but Kafka with major differences. It is Mediterranean and colonial Kafka.

Many authors have been named to have had an influence on Camus’ early work and especially his first novel L’étranger; among these Hemmingway with his plain American style or the character of Julien Sorel from Stendhal’s Le rouge et le noir, Sartre’s Le Mur for an existentialist treatment of those condemned to die and also Baudelaire’s poem L’étranger from Les fleurs du mal.

Yet of all these influences that of Kafka is perhaps the most direct. So much so that it annoyed one of Camus readers, his old teacher Jean Grenier and provoked the following correspondance:

On the 9th of April 1941 Jean Grenier wrote to Camus: “L’étranger très réussi – surtout la deuxième partie malgré l’influence de Kafka qui me gêne”. Towards this Camus replied:

…je voudrais répondre à une seule au moins de vos obversations: l’influence de Kafka. Je me suis posé cette question avant d’écrire L’étranger. Je me suis demandé si j’avais raison de prendre ce thème du procès. Il s’éloignait de Kafka dans mon esprit, mais non dans l’apparance. Cependant, il s’agissait là d’une expérience que je connaissais bien, que j’avais éprouvé avec intensité (vous savez que j’ai suivi beaucoup de procès et quelques-uns très grand, en cours d’assises). Je ne pouvais pas y renoncer au profit d'une construction quelconque où mon expérience aurait moins de part. J'ai donc choisi de risquer le même thème. Mais pour autant qu'on puisse juger de ses propres influences, les personnages et les épisodes de L'étranger sont trop individualisés, trop ‘quotidiens’ pour risquer de rencontrer les symboles de Kafka. Cependant, il se peut que j'en juge mal.[2]

And yes, this last sentence is very important. It could be that Camus’ own judgement of the extent of Kafka’s influence on him, and on different levels, is larger than he wants to admit as this comparison attempts to reveal. For the young Camus, it was of course important that his work would be recognised as an independent individual work of its own rank – which it certainly is, but which was only discussed at the time.

To begin with I shall present an overview of some of the most common or most debated interpretations of the two novels and the issues they raise. I also question whether it is legitimate to compare Camus’ L’étranger, which is often read alongside his philosophical essay
Le Mythe de Sisyph,e to Kafka’s Der Proceß, which might be expressive of a philosophy but whose author only ever expressed himself in literary writing. In the following the novels are then compared simultaneously and their similarities and differences examined from different angles, such as their treatment of their common theme of “law, guilt and trial” in part two, which I see partly under the aspect of the absurd. The idea of the absurd is also relevant when comparing the two main characters Josef K. and Meursault later on.

For the further interpretation of both the characters, but especially to solve the riddles surrounding Meursault’s nature and the questions of reader’s sympathy, the narrative perspective is crucial and is examined in part four. Subsequently, the theme of philosophical ideas being expressed in literary form becomes important again as I look at the use of image and symbolism in L’étranger and Der Proceß as well as at the genres of the French récit and parable and the philosophical and literary implications of the choice of genre, symbolism or narrative perspective.

Kafka’s Der Proceß and Camus’ L’étranger have one important thing in common and that is that both are extremely rich novels which can be read according to a large number of codes (or preconceptions). Camus himself has praised Der Proceß“It is the fate and perhaps the greatness of that work that it offers everything and confirms nothing”, (Sisyphus, p. 124). This is certainly a principle that Camus aspires to in his own fiction and successfully as Thody confirms: “L’étranger seems to be inexhaustible in the different ways in which it can be analysed”[3]. I hope to be able to do justice to these many angles and show how rich these two novels are.

To summarise some of the many interpretations of Kafka’s D er Proceß let me begin with a political reading. Authority, power and corruption and the reversion and arbitrary nature of the allocation of guilt are important themes in the novel and can be read as pointing to a despotic regime and oppression. There is also the theme of resistance from within the system as represented by the painter and others that are corrupt in ‘a good way’ or moments of open rebellion even if there is no escaping the system as represented by K. himself. Under a despotic regime, there is no law other than the law of corruption and experience in dealing with the authority that the individual can rely on. This we are told by the painter: “Es ist hier von zwei verschiedenen Dingen die Rede, von dem, was im Gesetz steht und von dem, was ich persönlich erfahren habe, das dürfen Sie nicht verwechseln.” (Der Proceß, p. 132).

Such political interpretations have also tended to see links to later 20th century history, namely the Nazi regime or communism. And indeed, there are many interesting aspects that might tempt the reader to a post-WWII interpretation, such as the question of collective guilt (Kollektivschuld) of the court, to which K. himself answers this when he tells the whipper: “‘Ich halte sie[the two wardens] nämlich gar nicht für schuldig, schuldig ist die Organisation, schuldig sind die hohen Beamten.’”, (Der Proceß, p. 76). These are indeed patterns of behaviour that are strikingly similar to the experiences of Levi and Solzhenitsyn, however, this approach is obviously questionable, as Kafka, who wrote Der Proceß in 1914/15 and died in 1924, could not possibly have foreseen that and although the novel may permit such an interpretation, which is a good thing, it is nevertheless dangerous to say that this somewhat imposed aspect it its main one.

A second reading is to see Der Proceß as a quest for knowledge of self and possible happiness. The trial of Der Proceß then becomes nothing less than the trial of life and the whole novel an allegory of life’s absurdity and senselessness in early 20th century that had seen the ‘Death of God’. This philosophical reading maybe best suited to explain why the inspector tells K.:

‘Wenn ich Ihnen nun aber auch Ihre Fragen nicht beantworte, so kann ich Ihnen doch raten, denken Sie weniger an uns und an das, was mit Ihnen geschehen wird, denken Sie lieber mehr an sich’, (Der Proceß, p. 16).

Here, the inspector tells K. that the trial is a chance for him to get to know himself and suggests that the answer will lie in such thoughts. Yet, as always in this novel, and like K. himself, the reader should be careful with accepting any advice as helpful and honest.

Furthermore, it is also possible to interpret K.’s mysterious guilt psychologically and see it in his disturbed relation to women and figures of authority in general. And there are other potential interpretations. Max Brod, for example, has presented a religious reading of Das Schloß but also Der Proceß in his epiloque to Das Schloß where he sees these two novels as explorations of guilt on the one hand and divine mercy on the other: “Somit wären im ‘Proceß’ und im ‘Schloß’ die beiden Erscheinungsformen der Gottheit (im Sinne der Kabbala) – Gericht und Gnade – dargestellt.”[4] This interpretation, however, has been heavily debated ever since.

For a comparison with Camus’ L’étranger, not all these readings of Der Proceß are equally important and therefore cannot be discussed in greater detail. From this follows that for a comparison both novels have to be limited to one reading – in this case one concentrating on the absurd and other existentialist ideas – or looked at from the points of view of narrative technique and symbolism. In this way a comparison may help to clarify this specific aspect of the two novels and to establish first and foremost the ways in which Kafka’s work has inspired Camus to write L’étranger. For this purpose it is important to follow Camus’ own reading and understanding of this novel.

But first let us look at some interpretations of L’étranger that are relevant for this purpose. The nature of Meursault’s character has always been at the centre of all L’étranger -criticism.
This makes a lot of sense in a first person narrative and also because if one sees L’étranger as the expression of a particular philosophy, then its main character must be a sort of living example of a certain way of life.

Opinions on the character of Meursault could not differ more. Many see him as a pathetic anti-hero and André Rousseaux goes as far as to say Meursault is a man “without humanity, without human value, and even, in spite of the ambition to be realistic which provides the sole framework of this book, without any kind of human truth”[5] and concludes that

“L’étranger is a study of moral decadence in France”[6]. Another early critic of the work, Paratoud, calls Meursault a ‘tasteless existence’ and that he is ‘lacking both will and passion’[7]

It has also been said that Meursault’s life is somehow incoherent and senseless and that this is why he cannot give reasons for his actions in court and why the judge and the jury fail to see the logic behind it. This disconnectedness is mainly conveyed by Meursault’s narrative perspective and seems to reveal a philosophy by which nothing matters, not the death of the mother, nor the new girlfriend, nor indeed murder.

At first these statements, although harsh, at least appear to be summarising Meursault’s character quite well. But at second thoughts maybe he is just unable to express himself or knows that he cannot change anything?

It was perhaps comments like those above which provoked Camus to defend his character and write the following in a foreword to an American edition of L’étranger:

Meursault, pour moi, n’est donc pas une épave, mais un homme pauvre et nu, amoureux du soleil qui ne laisse pas d’ombres. Loin qu’il soit privé de toute sensibilité, une passion profonde, parce que tacite, l’anime la passion de l’absolu et de la vérité. […]. On ne se tromperait donc pas beaucoup en lisant dans L’étranger l’histoire d’un homme qui, sans aucune attitude héroïque, accepte de mourir pour la vérité.[8]

Hereafter, the general opinion was that Meursault’s main value is that he does not lie and thus ‘refuses to play the game’; a view, which was also supported by his creator.

O’Brien argues very convincingly that this is not the case and that Meursault does indeed lie – for example by writing the letter and by giving testimony that Raymond has been dumped by the Arab girl, a fact, which he cannot really know – except about one category, namely that of his own feelings. But why he does not say more than he feels in order to save himself remains unclear. The possibilities for speculation are infinite: “The narrator’s feelings are not directly indicated, but various blanks and silences show that his feelings are not quite those expected of him.”[9]

Meursault’s unexpressed emotions and attitudes are extremely important for the interpretation depending on how a reader fills these ‘blanks and silences’ he will receive different answers. The same is true for Kafka’s work. From these interpretations – and from nothing else – the reader has then to judge whether Meursault is authentic or not. And as he is also the narrator of the novel, his feelings, which reflect the way he sees and describes the world around him, are crucial for the identification with the character and therefore the basis for sympathy.

As such Meursault’s character and passive behaviour seem completely opposed to that of Josef K. and his desperate but unfruitful attempts. Yet in the end neither attitude gets either of them anywhere. For all his protest and trying to influence his trial, Josef K. still cannot enquire what he is charged with nor can he evade his sentence. He is even told that his actions have spoilt it for him. Yes, he was even warned at the beginning:

‘Und machen Sie keinen solchen Lärm mit dem Gefühl Ihrer Unschuld, es stört den nicht gerade schlechten Eindruck, den Sie im Übrigen machen. Auch sollten Sie überhaupt im Reden zurückhaltender sein, fast alles, was Sie vorhin gesagt haben, hätte man auch, wenn Sie nur ein paar Worte gesagt hätten, Ihrem Verhalten entnehmen können, außerdem war es nichts für Sie übermäßig Günstiges.’ (Der Proceß, p. 16).

But it is not as easy as at a later stage he is advised to take certain actions and seek the painter’s assistance for example. Others seem to have faith in K. and hope for him to achieve what they have given up on as the ‘bravo, bravo’-shouting (p. 41), and K.’s meeting with the elderly accused seem to suggest. For some time during his speech in court K. almost comes across as a martyr. The painter believes in his own little corrupt schemes and thinks he has found a way around the system although this in itself must be impossible as K.’s example shows us in the end. K. is torn between these conflicting recommendations and infused with the trusting idea that truth and justice will be achieved in the end. K. puts up a fight but comes to the same end or perhaps to an even less dignified end as Meursault. After all K. has not changed during the trial and exclaims himself that he dies ‘like a dog’.[10]

Camus’ own reading[11] of Der Proceß and K.’s experience of the law and the court is not too different from the perspective that he chooses for his main character Meursault:

Joseph K. is accused. But he doesn’t know of what. He is doubtless eager to defend himself, but he doesn’t know why. The lawyers find his case difficult. Meanwhile he does not neglect to love, to eat, or to read his paper. Then he is judged. But the courtroom is dark. He doesn’t understand much. He merely assumes that he is condemned, but to what, he barely wonders. (Sisyphus, p. 112)

Like K. Meursault thinks that his case is simple and even though Meursault admits to having killed the Arab at first he does not count himself among the guilty and when the judge tells him that all other criminals have always cried when faced with the cross, Meursault thinks: “J’allais répondre que c’était justement parce qu’il s’agissait des criminals. Mais j’ai pensé que moi aussi j’étais comme eux. C’était une idée à quoi je ne pouvais pas me faire.”, (L’étranger, p. 109). And in his cell he lives his life as he used to by showing the same sort of passivity and telling himself: “Il y avait plus malheureux que moi. C’étais d’ailleurs une idée de maman, et elle le répétait souvent, qu’on finissait par s’habituer a tout”, (L’étranger, p. 120) or “A part ces ennuis, je n’étais pas trop malheureux. Toute la question, encore une fois, était de tuer le temps”, (L’étranger, p. 122).

Another more symbolic similarity between the two trials is that Meursault’s courtroom too is dark and hot with its shutters drawn just like in Josef K.’s world of the trial, the offices that belong to the court never have windows. Like K., Meursault does not understand what happens around him: “je n’ai pas très bien compris tout ce qui s’est passé ensuite”, (L’étranger, p. 132); “Tout ensuite a été un peu confus”, (L’étranger, p. 136). And because he never takes any action that would help him get mitigating circumstances the reader cannot help the impression that he does not know that it is his life that is on stake here as the lawyer also never tells him that it might be! Like for K. there is no way out for Meursault, but then both characters do also make mistakes which account for some of the humour that is examined later.

Meursault’s inaction and K.’s false frenzy equally lead to failure. Neither of them have any chance for a ‘lucky’ outcome as their only freedom is the choice they can make how to approach their sentence. In an absurd world there cannot be a way out and following this thought, then Josef K. and Meursault become just opposite sides of the same coin. The choice between action or apparent inaction will not make a difference for the outcome; it can be seen as a mode of living a question of attitude similar to that of optimism and pessimism. With the exception of course that in an absurd world there is no room for optimism and both options must be equally senseless. Part of the absurdity is then to have to make a choice.

Here one could also imagine the ‘prisoners’ of Tartarus (who are by the way always mentioned alongside Sisyphus in mythology) half of them always trying to reach for the water or the fruit which they must know to be out of reach and the other half having resigned themselves. Both must have the potential to be equally unhappy. In this sense both novels, both ‘trials’ are parables of our human condition as we are all sentenced to death.

In The Myth of Sisyphus Camus says that Husserl, Kafka, Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky had ‘set out from an absurdist viewpoint’ and ‘committed philosophical suicide’. This he explains to be “a convenient way of indicating the movement by which a thought negates itself and tends to transcend itself in its very negation.” (Sisyphus, p. 43). In simple terms at least part of this means that these philosophers argued themselves into a corner from which it was impossible to at least attempt at improving the situation they described. Instead, they left too many voids and did not attempt to fill them for example with faith in human goodness as Camus later did in La peste.

“Meursault, in Camus’ own view, has gone through the experience of the absurd before the action of the novel begins, and has quite consciously thought through his own value system.”[12] Josef K. on the other hand is only just confronting it. In this sense, Camus takes Kafka’s ideas further and tries to solve the problems they pose, and to avoid ‘philosophical suicide’.

So could this change from senseless action and horror at the opposing forces – whatever they might be – in Kafka’s works towards inaction and apparent indifference in Camus’ L’étranger be a sign that we have arrived at a later stage in the 20th century? Could it be read as a step from nervous anticipation at the end of the 1920s to the relative resignation and loss of faith in human nature in the post-war years? This is perhaps also the reason why Meursault is often said to have overcome or accepted the absurd before the beginning of the novel. Camus implies this in The Myth of Sisyphus:

Now I can broach the notion of suicide. It has already been felt what solution might be given. At this point the problem is reversed. It was previously a question of finding out whether or not life had to have a meaning to be lived. It now becomes clear on the contrary that it will be lived all the better if it has no meaning. (Sisyphus, p. 53)

The philosophical background to L’étranger is important, – this becomes even more obvious when examining the symbolism of this work – and Kafka’s Der Proceß can also be interpreted from a philosophical perspective. Some critics, mainly the French existentialists themselves, even count Kafka among the existentialist philosophers. So how is this justifiable and how may it be legitimate to compare a philosopher-writer to a writer without any ambitions beyond the literary form?


[1] O’Brien, p. 24

[2] Grenier and Camus as quoted at <>

[3] Thody, 1989, p. 18

[4] Max Brod in the epilogue to: Franz Kafka, Gesammelte Werke: Das Schloß, p. 149

[5] André Rousseaux as quoted by Thody, p. 18

[6] André Rousseaux, ibid.

[7] J.M.A. Paratoud, ibid

[8] Camus quoted from Hommage À Albert Camus, Maurice Blanchot (ed.), p. 7

[9] O’Brien, p. 14

[10] “’Wie ein Hund!’”,( Der Proceß, p. 194).

[11] Camus’ reading seems somewhat limited as he only sees two interpretations: “one may as legitimately interpret Kafka’s work in the sense of a social criticism [as well as in terms of supernatural disquiet]. Probably one does not have to choose between these interpretations: they are both valid.” (as quoted by O’Brien, p.31). Camus also unsurprisingly took on the existentialist viewpoint and saw that Josef K. “is not Kafka and yet he is Kafka. He is an average European. He is like everybody else.”, (Sisyphus, p. 116).

[12] Thody, 1989, p. 31

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Two modern trials: Camus' "L’étranger" and Kafka's "Der Proceß" – a comparison
University of Canterbury  (School of European Culture and Languages)
67 Punkte (2+) (B+)
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Camus, L’étranger, Kafka, Proceß, Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft, wettersymbolik, weather symbolism
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MPhil Rebecca Steltner (Author), 2003, Two modern trials: Camus' "L’étranger" and Kafka's "Der Proceß" – a comparison, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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