The Issue of Guilt in Oedipus and Joseph K.


  • Janez Vrečko Univerza v Ljubljani Filozofska fakulteta Aškerčeva 2 1000 Ljubljana



greek tragedy, Sophocles, King Oedipus, Kafka, Franz, The Trial, hamartia, literary studies


This essay addresses hamartia in Oedipus and Joseph K., originally guilt without sin later turned in to guilt of sin, as well as freedom and fate, death and redemption. The tragedy Oedipus the King starts with the plague in Thebes, while The Trial starts with the arrest of Joseph K., both events leading to the source of »misfortune«; since the source of misfortune is external, the two protagonists are guilty without committing a crime. In both works Aristotle's concept of hamartia is understood as an objective »tragic flaw« as well as a subjective decision taken by the hero. Since »guiltiness invites judgment«, both Oedipus and Joseph K. choose to flee in a »Wrong direction«, which leads to the fulfilment of the prophecy and to a verdict respectively. They misunderstand the objective hamartia and transform their guilt without sin in to the guilt of sin. But Oedipus' uncovering of his own past once the prophecy is fulfilled leads him to a theophanic death, while Joseph's recognition that his life has come to ruin leads to a bestial death.

Iocasta and several female characters in The Trial attempt to thrust both men back in to the arena of objective hamartia, to restore them to the state of guilt without crime, but they fail. They do succeed, however, in leading the heroes to anagnorisis. This recognition enables Oedipus to evince his sense of responsibility by carrying out his self-punishment. Joseph's recognition, by contrast, includes neither responsibility nor self-punishment.

The scene with Titorelli shows that Joseph's trial can only take place between two extremes -justice and manhunt - and as such it has parallels with the Chorus song following the scene with Oedipus and Teiresias. Moreover, it has a connection with the chapter taking place in the Cathedral, since the protagonists of each scene are identified at this point and their destinies linked to their names. On another level this scene reveals a similarity between the Sphinx and the parable of Before the Law, so our analysis extends to Oedipus at Colonus and The Castle. K.'s last journey to the quarry ending in the hero's bestial death highlights the dissolution of the ritual death. Oedipus' ritual death at Colonus is replaced with Jewish-Christian hope in the case of Joseph K. The land surveyor K. in The Castle, on the other hand, succeeds in ending his life in the same way as Oedipus does at Colonus. The parable of Before the Law in The Trial enables K. to enter safely and live there peacefully.


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