Franz Kafka is known for the claustrophobic atmosphere that pervades his literary works. None will ever unravel the secret, but Kafka’s choice of perspective surely enhances the claustrophobia. In The Trial, a man called Joseph K. is arrested without evident reason. Although K. voices objections, his fate seems sealed, even if he has no idea why. All of a sudden, the universe is a mysterious place, governed by immutable, sinister laws to which K. is helplessly susceptible.
To achieve this effect, Kafka describes the scene exactly the way K. experiences it; we are similarly in the dark regarding the law enforcers’ intentions, about the reasons behind K.’s arrest, and utterly ignorant of broader operations within the scope of the novel.
Like him, we can hear but cannot see the individuals laughing in an adjacent room. Like K., we lack explicit guidance from the author or the invisible narrator to understand the logic behind official action. While this, and subsequent scenes, were written in the third person, there is no distance or difference between the invisible narrator and the protagonist K. The reader is left with the impression that The Trial could have equally been written in the first person: we experience what K.—numbly, unwillingly—experiences and, before we know it, we are similarly caught up in the web.
There was immediately a knock at the door and a man entered. He had never seen the man in this house before. He was slim but firmly built, his clothes were black and close-fitting, with many folds and pockets, buckles and buttons and a belt, all of which gave the impression of being very practical but without making it very clear what they were actually for.”Who are you?” asked K., sitting half upright in his bed. The man, however, ignored the question as if his arrival simply had to be accepted, and merely replied, “You rang?” “Anna should have brought me my breakfast,” said K. He tried to work out who the man actually was, first in silence, just through observation and by thinking about it, but the man didn’t stay still to be looked at for very long. Instead he went over to the door, opened it slightly, and said to someone who was clearly standing immediately behind it, “He wants Anna to bring him his breakfast.” There was a little laughter in the neighbouring room, it was not clear from the sound of it whether there were several people laughing. The strange man could not have learned anything from it that he hadn’t known already, but now he said to K., as if making his report “It is not possible.” “It would be the first time that’s happened,” said K., as he jumped out of bed and quickly pulled on his trousers. “I want to see who that is in the next room, and why it is that Mrs. Grubach has let me be disturbed in this way.” It immediately occurred to him that he needn’t have said this out loud, and that he must to some extent have acknowledged their authority by doing so, but that didn’t seem important to him at the time. That, at least, is how the stranger took it, as he said, “Don’t you think you’d better stay where you are?”
Kafka carries the limited third person perspective to such extremes that things cave in on us, and presumably on the main character too. We are being told what goes on; neither cues nor clues are given.
Usually ‘limited’ in this context merely means that the invisible, unobtrusive narrator follows the story’s main character, a “she” or “he” that has a name of their own. The narrator has access to what goes on in that one character’s mind (while other characters are portrayed externally or by the words they utter) and can thereby infer their motives, which unfold as the plot thickens. The ‘invisible camera’ may zoom out or in, and it may ‘see’ the character either as partaking in a situation, as involved via an inner thought process, or both. The successful utilization of this narrative technique depends upon the reader being made to believe that what the character sees and hears interacts appropriately with what he thinks and feels.
This is the most common, natural way of telling a story. Or, as the late John Gardner would have it, of establishing a ‘fictional dream’.