The trial Essay

This essay has a total of 10156 words and 41 pages.

The trial

by Franz Kafka
read by Geoffrey Howard
This disturbing and vastly influential novel has been interpreted on many levels of
structure and symbol; but most commentators agree that the book explores the themes of
guilt, anxiety, and moral impotency in the face of some ambiguous force.

Joseph K. is an employee in a bank, a man without particular qualities or abilities. He
could be anyone, and in some ways he is everyone. His inconsequence makes doubly strange
his “arrest” by the officer of the court in the large city where K. lives. He tries in
vain to discover how he has aroused the suspicion of the court. His honesty is
conventional; his sins, with Elsa the waitress, are conventional; and he has no striking
or dangerous ambitions. He can only ask questions, and receives no answers that clarify
the strange world of courts and court functionaries in which he is compelled to wander.

The plight of Joseph K., consumed by guilt and condemned for a “crime” he does not
understand by a “court” with which he cannot communicate, is a profound and disturbing
image of man in the modern world. There are no formal charges, no procedures, and little
information to guide the defendant. One of the most unsettling aspects of the novel is the
continual juxtaposition of alternative hypotheses, multiple explanations, different
interpretations of cause and effect, and the uncertainty it breeds. The whole rational
structure of the world is undermined.

Is it not better to fall into the hands of a murderer than into the dreams of a lustful
woman? -- Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra

The Trial

Chapter 1: The Arrest / Conversation with Frau Grubach / Then Fräulein Bürstner
Joseph K., our hero, wakes up the morning of his thirtieth birthday expecting his
breakfast to be brought to him. What he gets instead are two warders, Franz and Willem,
telling him he's under arrest. He protests some, demanding to see their boss, at first
thinking it must be a joke perpetrated on him by some people at the Bank, where he works
as a chief clerk. He meets the Inspector, who says it's for real but refuses to say why.
The Inspector is seated in Fräulein Bürstner's room next door, and K. sees three men he
knows from the bank there, Rabensteiner, Kaminer, and Kullich, whom he greets angrily
before hurrying off to work.

After he gets home from work that evening, he talks with his landlady, Frau Grubach. He
apologizes for the ruckus and she says it's all right, but that she doesn't really
understand this business of his arrest. He starts to go to his room and asks if Fräulein
Bürstner is in, so he can apologize for the appropriation of her room. No, she isn't, and
he can see her room himself. Frau Grubach starts wondering about her nocturnal habits, as
she's seen her with young men around town at night, only to be interrupted by K.,
defending her from unwarranted aspersions on her character. She leaves, and he goes to
bed, where he can't sleep.

At about 11:30 Fräulein Bürstner, a typist, comes home and K. goes to talk to her. He
tells her what happened that morning, but she doesn't seem to be really interested, asking
bored questions about it, as if to get rid of him. A knock on the door down the hall
interrupts them, and Joseph apologizes profusely for taking up her time and makes as if to
leave, but not before grabbing her and kissing her savagely. Then he goes back to his own

Chapter 2: First Interrogation
Joseph gets a call at work telling him to show up for a brief inquiry into his case on
Sunday. He goes to the building mentioned that Sunday, only to find it's just a big
tenement house, with no distinguishing marks. After wandering through the building he at
last is directed to the Court of Inquiry by a strange woman doing laundry. The Court is
sitting in an overcrowded, stuffy room, with a platform and a big audience of important
looking men. He gets berated for being late and is asked if he's a house painter. K.
takes this opportunity to address the audience (which answers with applause) about how
much this court sucks, it can't get its facts straight, this whole thing is a farce, a
conspiracy— He is cut off by a man pressing the woman he saw outside the courtroom to him
and shrieking. K. makes his way through the crowd and leaves.

Chapter 3: In the Empty Courtroom / The Student / The Offices
The next Sunday K. feels he should go back to the court, only to get there and finding
nobody there but the woman he saw before. She apologizes for the disturbance, and blames
it on Bertold, a law student who has been chasing her around, although she is the wife of
the usher. K. examines the books left on the table, only to find that apparently the
Examining Magistrate has a taste for erotica. He is interrupted by the woman, who starts
to tell him about the Examining Magistrate and how he was writing a brief on K.'s case
last week before coming in to look at her sleeping. He even gave her some stockings,
look! And she shows them to him. Bertold has entered the room at some point and is
hulking towards them. Nevertheless the woman insinuates that K. can have her, only to be
interrupted by Bertold, who carries her off. K. chases them into the court offices but
loses them.

The usher comes in and complains about Bertold chasing his wife (even though she throws
herself at him) and how he would love to see him flattened. He tries to interest Joseph
in this matter and they start walking through the labyrinthine, dark, stifling offices.
Along the way they get to a hallway filled with men waiting for word on their cases. K.
gets spooked and wants to leave, but he's lost. He begins to feel faint and has to sit
down, helped by a young woman and a man. He finally makes his way out, carried along by
the man and young woman, badly shaken and not wanting to come back.

Chapter 4: Fräulein Bürstner's Friend
(Editors's note: In the new edition, this chapter is consigned to the Fragments section,
so it goes straight from the empty courtroom to the whipper.)

Joseph wants to talk to Fräulein Bürstner again, but she hasn't been around. One day he
notices an awful racket coming from her room and finds out that her friend, Fräulein
Montag, a sickly French teacher, is moving in with her. He talks to Frau Grubach about
it, who says she'll stop the noise if he wants but that yes, Fräulein Bürstner is indeed
having Fräulein Montag move in with her. Joseph is upset over this turn of events,
apparently started by his own behavior, and goes to see the room for himself, where he
meets Fräulein Montag. She won't tell him exactly why she's moving in, and says that
Fräulein Bürstner doesn't want to talk to him. He goes back to his room, thinking about
what all this might mean.

Chapter 5: The Whipper
K. is walking to his office in the Bank when he hears a horrible scream. He investigates
and finds that Franz and Willem, the warders, are being whipped in a dark little
storeroom. They plead with him to let them off, they have their own troubles, but the
whipper is adamant about doing his duty. K. tries to buy him off, but no, that won't do.
Finally he tries to pull them out of the room but is foiled. For the next week he can't
get it out of his mind and goes back to look at the room, only to find everything as it
was last week, with the whipper and the two warders there again. K. slams the door and
yells for someone to clean out the closet.

Chapter 6: K.'s Uncle / Leni
K.'s uncle Karl (or Albert) visits him in his office. He has come in from the country,
upset over his nephew's case and wanting to help him. They go to see one of his uncle's
school friends, Dr. Huld, who is very sick but knows all about Joseph's case. He has just
been talking to the Chief Clerk, and the three of them begin talking. Meanwhile Joseph's
mind is on the nurse, a young woman called Leni. In the middle of the conversation he
hears a crash, and goes to check it out, finding out that Leni just wanted to get him
alone with her. She wants him to like her, she insists, but Joseph is more interested in
his case. This painting of an important-looking judge, for instance. Will he be his
judge? Oh, no, no, he's just an examining magistrate, done up as if he were important.
In fact, he's just a midget. Leni advises him to confess and not be so unyielding. She
wants to know all about his girlfriend Elsa, a waitress in a club, and he shows her a
photograph. She is less than impressed, saying that she looks hard and wouldn't he like
to trade her for a better one? Does she have a defect, like Leni's webbed hand? Joseph
seems intrigued and kisses it, only to be hauled onto the floor by an exultant Leni.

Later she gives him a key so he can come back anytime he wants. He promptly bumps into
his uncle who berates him for fooling around with what is obviously the lawyer's mistress,
and they leave.

Chapter 7: Lawyer / Manufacturer / Painter
K. is now totally obsessed over his case, which is now about six months along. He
sometimes meets with Dr. Huld, who tells him that yes, he's doing everything he can, but
things have to go slowly. One needs to understand how things work, the lawyer tells him,
and you definitely need someone who knows the ropes. Without that, your case is hopeless.
K. can't figure out what exactly the purpose of these speeches is, but he's getting
impatient. Nothing seems to be happening with his case, and he decides to do more
himself, as the lawyer isn't doing anything for him. At work, where he's feeling
increasingly threatened by the Assistant Manager, one of his clients, a manufacturer,
knows about his case and tells him about the painter Titorelli, who might be able to help
him. He even writes a letter K. can give the painter. He thinks it over and decides to
go see him right away, even though the Assistant Manager is just dying for some reason to
steal his clients (he thinks).

He finds the place where the painter lives, a ramshackle, stuffy, poorly-built apartment,
surrounded by a bunch of young girls who want to know why K.'s here. Titorelli greets him
and locks the door behind him, complaining about "these brats." K. notices another
painting of a judge. Who is he? Oh, he's Justice, in the abstract. But in reality he's
just another low magistrate who's had his picture painted like that. They're very vain,
these judges.

They begin to talk about his case, interrupted at times by the girls talking or asking if
K. has left yet. I'm innocent, K. maintains. Good, says Titorelli. But the Court is not
to be budged. It owns everything, like those girls out there. It is impervious to truth.
What acquittal do you want? There's actual acquittal, apparent acquittal, and
protraction. Actual acquittal is the best but can't be influenced. Besides, I've never
heard of one. Apparent acquittal I could help you with. I could write an affidavit
swearing your innocence. But if you are acquitted, it isn't final. This would be followed
by the second arrest, the second trial and acquittal, and then the third arrest, and so
on. Protraction is just where you keep your case at the lowest level of the Court. You
don't have to worry about sudden arrests or anything like that, but you do have to keep a
constant eye on your case, since it still has to be kept going.

K. has heard quite enough of the Court's machinations and gets up to leave. Titorelli
convinces him to buy a few of his landscape paintings, and K. walks out the back door,
only to find himself in the law offices again. He meets the people waiting on their cases
again and finds an usher to lead him out. He goes back to the bank and hides the pictures
in his desk.

Chapter 8: Block, the Tradesman / Dismissal of the Lawyer
K. has had enough of Dr. Huld's crap. He decides to fire him and goes to his place to
tell him that. Upon getting there at ten P.M. he sees a strange man with a half-naked
Leni, who runs off in a hurry. He questions the man, who is Rudi Block, a grain merchant.
He is also a client of the lawyer. They make their way to the kitchen, where Leni is
making soup for the lawyer. He demands to know if they're lovers, but she just tries to
divert his attention by claiming to have more information about his case. K. is
unimpressed and Leni leaves to give the lawyer his soup.

K. and Block get to talking, and Block says his case has been going on for five years. A
secret—he has five other lawyers on his case, and it's the only thing on his mind. He's
always at the offices, trying to see what's going on with his case, and they have a weird
superstition there: you can tell the way a man's case will turn out by the shape of his
lips. And poor Joseph is going to lose his case very soon by this reckoning.

Leni comes back and sees them talking. She tells K. the lawyer is waiting for him. Block
lives here, she says. The lawyer is very unpredictable and you never know when he might
want to see you. She shows them his room, a tiny little maid's room. K., pressed for a
secret in return by Block, tells him he is going to fire the lawyer. Block and Leni are
flabbergasted and try to chase him. K. goes in to Huld, who tells him he knows all about
Leni's affairs with accused men. Accused men are attractive, you know. Even Block.

K. tells the lawyer that he's had it with him. He's done nothing for him. The lawyer
insists that nothing much happens in any case, leading K. to insist they're as much in the
right as him. Huld says he takes only the cases that touch him closely. K. is
unimpressed, so the lawyer brings in Block.

Huld says—actually yells—at Block that his case is in trouble, that it hasn't even
started, that the people at the court call it hopeless, but he's still there to fight for
him. Block demonstrates his gratefulness by getting on his knees and kissing his hand.
K. gets the feeling he's watching a staged performance of the lawyer and his dog, Block,
and remains unmoved.

Chapter 9: In the Cathedral
An Italian, one of the bank's biggest clients, comes to town and K. is asked to show him
around. He especially wants to see the cathedral, where he'll meet K. Joseph gets there
and sees no Italian, but only the priest calling his name. He talks about K.'s case,
saying it's going badly. He's guilty, after all, isn't he? No, I'm innocent, says K., I
just need more help. Like from women? Women have a lot of influence, says K. doggedly.

They start to walk around the cathedral, and the priest tells the parable "Before the
Law." The man from the country comes to the door seeking admittance to the Law, but the
guard says he can't come in now. There are plenty of other doors and guards, and he's
just the lowest, don't you know? So the man sits and waits by the door for years on end,
trying to find some way to get the guard to let him in, bribing him, pleading, begging the
fleas in the guard's coat to convince him to let him in. Finally, when the man is about
to die, he asks why nobody else ever came to the door. This door was meant only for you,
the guard says. And now I'm going to close it. They discuss it at some length. Is the
doorkeeper subservient to the man? The other way around? Did the man come of his own
free will? Is he deluded? It is not necessary to accept everything as true, only to
accept it as necessary, says the priest. But, says K., then the world is based on lies.

K. decides to leave, since he has to go b ack to work. The priest tells him that he, the
priest, also belongs to the Court, which wants nothing of him and allows him to leave
whenever he wants.

Chapter 10: The End
On the evening before his thirty-first birthday, two men come to Joseph's apartment and,
their arms entwined with his on either side of him, begin to walk him through the city.
Along the way he sees Fräulein Bürstner walking along in front of them. He watches her
until she disappears into darkness. Finally they arrive at an abandoned quarry. They
take off his coat and shirt and lie him down with a rock for a headrest. They take out a
butcher knife and begin passing it to each other over him. He is apparently supposed to
take it and plunge it into his own chest. But he doesn't, instead looking over at a house
across the way with a light on. Someone is standing at the window on the top floor, and
Joseph wonders who it is. Where is the Judge, the High Court, that he couldn't reach? He
holds out his hands and spreads his fingers. Then one of the men takes the knife and
stabs him, twisting the knife twice. "'Like a dog!' he said; it seemed as if the shame
was to outlive him."

On the Way to Elsa
Joseph is at the bank and gets a call telling him to come to court right away. Instead he
decides to go and see Elsa, his girlfriend, a waitress. Will they punish him? No. Good.
And he hangs up. He takes a cab to see her, thinking of his bank business.

Journey to His Mother
Although he hasn't seen his mother, a half-blind old widow living in a small town, in
three years, K. suddenly decides to go visit her one day at lunch. She's been getting
more pious, which kind of disgusts him. He tells Kühne, an attendant at the bank, what to
do while he's gone and while waiting for him to come back, thinks about the threatening
Assistant Manager and the accursed Rabensteiner, Kaminer, and Kullich.

Prosecuting Counsel
K. becomes good friends with Hasterer, a lawyer. They frequently go to his house with
some other friends and talk over dinner. Hasterer is a master speaker, taking on all
comers without breaking a sweat. He has a woman named Helene living with him for a while,
who at first stays in bed reading crappy novels but then starts to show up at dinner in a
fantastically out of place old ballgown. Finally Hasterer gets bored of her and sends her
packing. The Assistant Manager tells K. he knows about his friendship with Hasterer,
which somewhat upsets K.

The House
K. tries to find out where the first notification of his case came from, and with
Titorelli and Wolfart's help finds it. It is, of course, a totally negligible office,
existing only to rubber stamp anything the higher ups want done.

Titorelli and K. have become close, since K. is always bothering and consulting him about
his case. Meanwhile K. is being worn out by his case, sometimes having nightmares about
Frau Grubach's other lodgers all pointing the finger at him and accusing him, and then him
wandering around the offices meeting truly bizarre figures. Or perhaps he dreams about
Titorelli, that they were sitting in front of a fire, K. begging him for something and
Titorelli granting it, or them running around the law offices.

Conflict with the Assistant Manager
K. and the Assistant Manager aren't getting along very well, since K. sees him as an
usurper, just waiting to get K. fired and taking his place. The Assistant Manager must
see that K. won't go down without a fight, that he's still alive and well. The Assistant
Manager comes into Joseph's office one day so Joseph can pitch his proposal for something,
and the whole time the Assistant Manager is playing with a part of his desk with his
penknife. He gets up and sits on it to fix it, breaking it instead.

A Fragment (what an inventive title!)
Joseph and his uncle come out of a theater into the pouring rain, and Joseph tries to
think of some way to get him to go home so he won't have to put him up for the night. He
says that his uncle has been helpful, thanks, I have all the help I need, you can go home
tomorrow, or tonight even.

Characters (in order of appearance)
Joseph K. (Josef K.) Our hero, he is awakened one morning and arrested for something,
which he is never told. Over the course of a year, from his 30th to 31st birthdays, he
tries to figure out why he is being accused and tries to fight the Court, but finally
seems to just surrender to its power.

Anna The maid who was supposed to bring Joseph his breakfast, which was eaten by Willem.
Franz The warder who bursts into K.'s room and tells him he's under arrest. He wants to
get married, and is beaten up by the Whipper.

Willem The other warder who arrests K, he also is whipped despite his protests that he has a family to feed.
The Old Woman and Man Live across the street, seem almost morbidly interested in looking
at K while he is in his apartment the morning of his arrest.

The Inspector Comes to the apartment to arrest K. K. tries to get out of him what all
this is about, but to little avail.

Hasterer A prosecuting counsel. K. wants to call him as soon as he is arrested. In the
fragment "Prosecuting Counsel" K is a very close friend of his, and they frequently go to
his house, where he lives with a woman called Helene for a little while.

Frau Grubach K's landlady, the owner of the building that K., Fräulein Bürstner, Fräulein
Montag, and others live in. She is very fond of K. and tries her best to make him happy,
even if she does think he's guilty.

Rabensteiner A fellow worker at the Bank, he goes to K.'s apartment when he is arrested. Lazy.
Kaminer Another worker at the Bank who is at K.'s place when he is arrested. Repulsively modest.
Kullich (Kullych) Yet another worker at the Bank who turns up at K.'s. Stupid. K. wants
to slap his pasty white cheeks. K. hates all three of these low-level drudges.

Fräulein Bürstner The girl living in the apartment next to K.'s, she is a typist. He and
she have a strange encounter the evening after he is arrested. He kisses her like an
animal and she apparently feels threatened, since she has Fräulein Montag move in with
her. She turns up again at the very end, when K. is being led to his death he sees her
walking ahead of him for a little while before disappearing.

Captain Lanz Frau Grubach's nephew, who sleeps in the living room the night K. is
arrested and interrupts K. and Fräulein Bürstner by making noises. Later, he and Fräulein
Montag talk in the hall while K. is inspecting Fräulein Bürstner’s room, apparently about

The Examining Magistrate One of the more mysterious characters in the book, he is
frequently referred to in hushed tones but what we see of him is not very impressive. He
questions K. and gets a defiant speech in return. In his spare time he reads porn books
and chases the usher's wife.

The Usher's Wife (Hilda in the movie) She lets K. into the courtroom both times, and the
first time interrupts his speech by being hauled off by the student Bertold, the second
she tries to seduce him by saying he can do anything he wants with her and take her
anywhere he wants. This reverie is interrupted by Bertold.

Bertold The short, bandy-legged law student who chases the usher's wife around, much to the usher's disgust.
The Usher Meets up with K. in the law offices after his wife is hauled off by Bertold,
tries to convince K. to go after him. Leads K. around the offices, where he meets a truly
disturbing group of people waiting for word on their cases.

The Man and the Young Woman Help K. after he is overcome by emotion and bad air in the
law offices; haul him to the door.

Fräulein Montag Fräulein Bürstner's friend, a somewhat sickly looking teacher of French.
She moves in with her after the experience with K. Refuses to say much to K. or discuss
the circumstances of her move.

The Whipper Has the job of whipping Franz and Willem, who scream bloody murder—and in
K.'s bank, no less! K. tries to buy him off but to no avail.

The Assistant Manager Works at the Bank and directly below K., who sees him as his rival.
K. frequently obsesses about him.

Uncle Karl (or Albert) Lives out in the country, comes to see K. about his case and takes
him to see Dr. Huld, an old school friend of his. Talks with Huld about K., later berates
K for fooling around with Leni.

Erna K.'s 17-year-old cousin, who is at boarding school in the same city as K and writes
her dad Uncle Karl about K's case.

Dr. Huld the Advocate K.'s lawyer, who seems to know his way around the Court. Promises
to help K., but everything is always being delayed so that nothing concrete ever happens.
K. later comes back to fire him, only to be given the routine with Block as an example of
how grateful he should be for his help.

The Chief Clerk He has just been talking to Huld when Uncle Karl and K. arrive, so he
hides himself. Later he introduces himself and talks about Joseph's case with Huld and
K.'s uncle.

Leni The whore! Dr. Huld's nurse and also mistress, a position she also holds with
several other of his clients. Claims she wants to help K. and tells him to basically
surrender to the Court. She is eager to show K her physical defect, a webbed hand, which
apparently turns Joseph on, so that he kisses it and ends up on the floor with her. Later
on she gives him a key so he can come back whenever he wants. Coming back another time,
he sees that she has somebody else too, Block. Participates in the ridiculous playacting
scene between Block and Huld.

Elsa K.'s girlfriend at the start of the novel, she is a waitress at a cabaret. He goes
to see her once a week. One time he goes to see her instead of to court, which annoys the
Court. Leni doesn't like the way she looks in her picture.

Manufacturer Comes to see K. at the bank and tells him about Titorelli the painter,
giving him a letter of recommendation for him to give to Titorelli.

Titorelli The painter. From painting the judges he knows the Court inside and out but
can't necessarily help K. He explains the way it operates and then tries to sell K. some
of his nature scenes. Has his very own harem of groupies around his place, which gets on
his nerves at times. In the fragment "The House" he and K. see each other a lot, trying
to get somewhere with his case.

The girls The chiquitas who congregate around Titorelli's apartment, harassing him and
everyone who comes around. They belong to the Court, says Titorelli grimly.

Rudi Block The grain merchant who has taken to living at Huld's place, his case has been
going on for five years. Has taken several other lawyers too, in order to get his case
going, which is all he thinks about, but to little avail. He is yet another beneficiary
of Leni's services, and gets involved in ridiculous playacting in front of K. in an effort
to get him to keep Huld. The lawyer's dog, so to speak.

The Italian colleague K. is supposed to show him around town, at least the cathedral, but
this turns out to be just a way to get K. there himself.

The priest Talks to K., tells him the parable "Before the Law" and discusses it with him.
He is a mouthpiece of the Court, and tells him the Court wants nothing of him.

The two gentlemen They come to Joseph's place the night before his 31st birthday and haul
him through town to the quarry, where they make him lie down, pass a knife over him, and
finally kill him.

Mrs. K. Joseph's mother, an old widow whom he hasn't visited in three years, but then
suddenly decides to visit now. She lives in a small town and is almost blind.

K.' s cousin Lives in the same town as his mother, is alarmed about her health.
Continues for 21 more pages >>

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