Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings...©
and Enlarged in 2010
Trial is a novel that expresses the frustration, anxiety, and loneliness
of a man living in a country with an oppressive government that orders
his arrest and trial without ever informing him of what he supposedly did
wrong. What happens to him is tragic and, at the same time, darkly humorous.
Franz Kafka, Kafka, a Czech Jew, wrote the novel in German, as he did all
of his works. It was published in Berlin by Verlag die Schmiede in 1925,
a year after Kafka's death.
Prozess (The Process), the German title of the novel, means
lawsuit or legal action. It is an apt title, for the legal action against
the protagonist is a continuing process that does not end until he dies.
action takes place in a gray and gloomy European city in a country with
an oppressive government. The author may have had in mind the city of his
birth, Prague. Until 1918,
Prague was part of Austria-Hungary, also called the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Late that year, Austria-Hungary was dissolved as part of the outcome of
the First World War and divided into Austria, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.
(Small parts of Austria-Hungary were incorporated into Poland, Romania,
Yugoslavia, and Italy.) Prague became the capital of Czechoslovakia. The
nation was made up of Czechs, Slovaks, and minority groups that included
Germans, Ukrainians, and Hungarians. Czechoslovakia fell under Nazi domination
between 1939 and 1945, then under Soviet communist domination until 1989,
when Soviet communism collapsed. In 1993 Czechoslovakia was divided into
two republics, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Prague is the capital of
Antagonist: The Government
and Court System
Joseph K.: Thirty-year-old
bank officer accused of an undisclosed crime. He lives alone in a boardinghouse.
Willem and Franz:
Officers who arrest K. one morning but refuse to disclose the crime he
is said to have committed. .
Frau Grubach: Joseph
Tenant in Joseph K.’s boardinghouse. K. visits her one evening to tell
her about his arrest and ends up impulsively kissing her. Thereafter, she
refuses to see him.
German woman who teaches French and lives in the same boardinghouse as
Joseph K. She is a friend of Fräulein Bürstner. One Sunday, she
moves into Bürstner's apartment and later meets with Joseph K. to
tell him that Fräulein Bürstner does not wish to see K. again.
Uncle Karl: Joseph
K's uncle, who introduces his nephew to a lawyer supposedly skilled in
Erna: Daughter of
Uncle Karl. She is the one who informs him that Joseph K. is to stand trial.
Dr. Huld: Joseph
K.’s lawyer. He is languishing in bed with an illness.
Leni: Dr. Huld’s
nurse, who is attracted to Joseph K.
Albert: Office director
at the court and a friend of Huld.
who hears about K.'s case and advise him to see a painter who knows how
the court system works.
who advises Joseph K. on court proceedings.
Rudi Block: Client
of Dr. Huld. Block is also awaiting trial in a case that is five years
Inspector: Man who
conducts a proceeding at Joseph K.'s boardinghouse to inform K. officially
that he is under arrest.
Kaminer: Junior bank employees who attending the proceeding at the
Elsa: Waitress in
a wine bar that K. usually visits once a week.
Captain Lanz: Nephew
of Frau Grubach. He lives in the boardinghouse.
Bank President: K.'s
employer. He gets along with K.
Bank Vice President:
Official who covets the bank president's job.
Priest: Prison chaplain
whom K. encounters in a church. The priest advises K. that his case is
going badly and tells him to accept his fate.
Anna: Cook in Joseph
Court and Police Officials
Michael J. Cummings...©
plot summary is based in part on a translation posted by David Wyllie at
lying in bed one morning in his room at a boardinghouse, Joseph K., a thirty-year-old
bank clerk, wonders why the cook, Anna, has not brought him breakfast at
the usual time, about eight o’clock. Irritated he rings for his landlady,
Frau Grubach. But when the door opens, a strange man named Willem appears
at the threshold.
are you?” K. asks.
does not respond.
K. says he has been expecting his breakfast, Willem repeats K’s statement
to another man, Franz, in an adjoining room. Franz and Willem laugh. Then
they inform K. that he is under arrest. Dumbfounded, K. cannot think of
a single thing he did wrong. Someone must have told lies about him. When
he presses them for information, they tell him that they are not there
to explain why he is to be held, only that he is being held. After
K. asks to see a warrant, all they do is tell him he must resign himself
to the fact that he is under arrest.
inspector arrives with three other men, and everyone—including Franz and
Willem—convenes in the room of another tenant, Fraülein Bürstner,
a typist, who is not home. After moving a bedside table to the middle of
the room to serve as a desk, the inspector conducts an official proceeding.
K. maintains his innocence and asks who is accusing him of wrongdoing and
which government office is investigating him. But the inspector says he
knows very little about K.'s case and cannot provide details on the charge
against him. The only thing he can say for certain, he says, is that K.
is under arrest.
then tells him that he would like to contact a government lawyer named
Hasterer, a friend of his, for advice. K. may do so, the inspector says,
but he would be wasting his time. K. is under arrest and nothing can change
that fact. K. decides not to make the call. In the end, nothing is accomplished
in the hearing except for K.'s official notification that he is under arrest.
the inspector leaves, he surprises K. by telling him he is free to go about
his daily affairs as usual, including reporting for work at his bank. Bewildered,
K. thinks being under arrest may not be such a terrible thing. Of course,
there will be a trial, preceded by hearings. The inspector then notes that
three of the men he has brought with him are bank employees who will escort
K. back to work. K. hadn't noticed them before because they did not take
part in the proceeding and instead spent their time looking at a display
of Fraülein Bürstner's photographs. Now, however, he recognizes
them: Rabensteiner, Kullich, and Kaminer, all younger employees on the
bank staff. K. rides to work with them in a taxi.
the evening when he returns from work, K. apologizes to the landlady, Frau
Grubach, for being the cause of the commotion that morning. She seems unconcerned
and tells K. not to take the incident seriously. K. then says he would
like to speak with Fraülein Bürstner to apologize to her, too,
because the proceeding held in her room may have left it in disarray. But
Frau Grubach informs him that Bürstner is still out. She tells K.
not to worry about the room, for it has already been tidied up. Consquently,
there is no need to apologize to her. When K. observes that Fraülein
Bürstner often stays out late, Frau Grubach gossips about her, saying
she has seen her with different men in other neighborhoods.
after 11:30, Fraülein Bürstner returns and K. goes to her room
and describes the morning’s events to her. She seems unconcerned until
she complains that several photographs are out of order. When K. tells
her he does not know why he is being held for trial, she then wonders why
he is bothering her at such a later hour. But K. continues to talk about
the proceeding and even demonstrates where the officials stood. When they
hear a loud bang on a door to an adjoining room, where Frau Grubach’s nephew—an
army captain named Lanz—is staying, Fraülein Bürstner worries
that she and K. are causing a disturbance and tells K. to leave. In the
hallway, he impulsively kisses her on the lips, face, and neck; she seems
work, K. receives a telephone call to report on Sunday for the first of
a series of hearings. When he arrives at the address, he discovers that
the building is a tenement house. Guttersnipes playing marbles on the steps
block his way. One of them grabs a leg of his trousers to prevent him from
continuing on until a marble reaches its destination. K. does not protest
for fear of causing a scene.
inside, he goes from room to room to find the court. Each time a door opens
to his knock, he pretends that he is looking for a carpenter while he looks
inside to see whether he has discovered the court.
a carpenter named Lanz live here?” (K. had remembered that Frau Grubach's
nephew was named Lance, so he decides to use that name.)
repeats the question again and again, mainly to housewives tending children.
Sometimes the housewives repeat the question to others within.
a carpenter named Lanz live here?”
he finally finds the court, the magistrate scolds him for his tardiness
and wants to know whether he is a house painter. At wit’s end, K. harangues
the court, receiving applause from the spectators seated before the bench.
returns to the court the following Sunday. In the courtroom is a cleaning
woman who tells him that no sessions are scheduled for the day. The room
now resembles a living room, and the woman explains that she and her husband
live there when the court is not in session. It is one of the advantages
of his being a court usher. A disadvantage, however, is that a student
at the court continually makes advances toward her, and her husband can
do nothing to stop him for fear that the student will someday rise in the
court system and will have the power to fire him.
several weeks afterward, K. repeatedly attempts to contact Fraülein
Bürstner to apologize for his behavior earlier, but he fails every
time. He even enters his apartment and, finding it empty, waits for her.
When that effort fails, he sends a letter to her office and to her apartment.
She does not respond.
Sunday morning, another tenant—Fräulein Montag, who teaches French—moves
from her apartment into Fraülein Bürstner's, then later sends
a maid to ask K to
him meet her in the dining
room. When they talk, Montag tells him politely that her friend does not
wish see K. again. Fraülein Bürstner does not believe it would
be to the benefit of either herself or K., she says. As K. leaves, Captain
Lanz, a big man who appears to be about forty, enters, greets both of them
with a bow, and kisses Montag's hand.
then goes directly to Bürstner's apartment and knocks. There is no
answer. He enters the room, but it is empty.
working late several days later, K. hears noises in a room and investigates.
Inside the room are the policemen who arrested K., Willem and Franz, and
a man who is about to beat them with a cane. The policemen tell K. they
are to be punished because K. complained about them at court. K. says,
however, that he did not lodge a complaint; he simply reported what happened
on the morning when the two policemen entered his room and announced his
arrest. After the flogger begins beating them, K. tries to persuade him
to stop. But he continues to punish them. The next day, K. discovers the
same scene in the same room—the flogger caning the policemen. Horrified,
he tells two underlings to go into the room and tidy it up. They agree
that the room needs attention and say they will clean it up the next day.
Uncle Carl, a country landowner, hears about the case against his nephew
from his daughter Erna and pays him a visit. Telling him that the legal
action is a serious matter, he takes K.to see a lawyer, an old school friend
of his named Dr. Huld, supposedly a skilled defense attorney. Huld is sick
in bed but is well informed about K.’s case. With him is his nurse. Reluctant
to have the nurse hear the conversation that is about to take place, Uncle
Carl orders the nurse, Leni, to leave the room. After she goes into a kitchen,
Huld says the case will be very difficult to handle and wonders whether
he will have the strength to see it through. However, he says, he is quite
interested in it and is eager to play a role in it.
then introduces them to a court colleague—Albert, whom Huld calls the office
director—who has been sitting in the shadows, unnoticed. A moment later,
they hear a loud noise in the kitchen. When K. goes into the kitchen to
investigate, Leni tells him she threw a plate against the wall to attract
his attention. After acknowledging their interest in each other, they enter
the lawyer's office. It is dark. When Leni asks K. whether he has a girlfriend,
he tells her about Elsa, a waitress at a wine bar whom he visits weekly,
and shows her a photograph of her. Leni then asks whether Elsa has any
physical defects. Before he can answer the question, Leni shows him a defect
of hers: a webbed hand. K. kisses it, saying, "What a pretty claw." Then
they become intimate. Leni says she has replaced Elsa as his girlfriend
and gives him a key, saying he can visit her anytime he wishes.
he leaves through a front door, his uncle emerges from a car. He is furious.
Not only did K. keep him, his lawyer and, most important, the office director—who
will be handling certain details in K's case—waiting for a long time, Uncle
Karls says, but he also may have diminished his chances of successfully
coming through the legal action. Uncle Karl says he did his best to smooth
the bank, one of his customers, a manufacturer, furtively tells K., “I
heard about your trial from a painter named Titorelli.” According to the
manufacturer, Titorelli makes most of his income painting portraits of
judges and, over time, has learned about the inner workings of the justice
system. He might be able to advise K. When K. visits him, Titorelli tells
him that it is impossible to gain outright acquittal. Instead, he must
prolong the case by gaining a temporary acquittal, then a new trial, then
another temporary acquittal, then another new trial, and so on. In the
end, Titorelli is no help at all, and K. leaves–after buying several landscape
paintings that he doesn’t really want.
K. returns to see Dr. Huld, his nurse, Leni, is in the kitchen with another
client, a grain merchant named Rudi Block. Apparently Leni and Block have
been flirting–or more. K. asks whether they are lovers, but Leni dodges
the question and begins making soup for Dr. Huld. When K. talks with Block,
Block says five lawyers have been handling his case, which is still in
the courts after five years. K. goes into Huld’s room to fire him, and
Block and Leni follow. After K. expresses his displeasure with Huld, the
lawyer tells him little progress can be expected in any court case. He
tells Block his case is still at the beginning, even though it is five
years old, and that a judge believes the outcome will be unfavorable. However,
Huld says, he will continue pressing the court on Block’s behalf.
day, the president of the bank where K. works asks him to escort an important
client–an Italian business executive with an interest in art–through a
local cathedral with interesting artworks. K. was chosen because of his
knowledge of art and architecture. When K. arrives at the appointed time,
the Italian is nowhere to be seen, and the church is empty. While K. waits
for the Italian, a priest mounts a pulpit. A sermon? Is there really going
to be a sermon when only one person is in the pews? How absurd. K. quickly
walks down the central aisle, hoping to reach the exit before the sermon
begins. The voice of the priest then reverberates through the church: “Joseph
Surprised, K. turns around.
are being held for trial.”
I’ve been notified,” K. replies.
You’re the one I want.”
priest, it turns out, is a prison chaplain who arranged for K. to be in
the cathedral that morning. He tells K. his trial is going poorly and that
he will probably be found guilty in a lower court. When K. says he plans
to get further help and seek acquittal, the priest frowns on the idea and
lowers his head. The church, meanwhile, has darkened because of a storm.
you angry?” K. says.
wasn’t my intention to insult you.”
a long silence, the priest comes down from the pulpit and talks with K.
After K. compliments the priest for his friendly manner, the priest says
K. is deceiving himself. In a roundabout way–through a parable–he tells
K. that he must accept things as they are; he cannot fight them. What is
important is not whether everything the court says is true; what is important
is that the court’s action is necessary.
six more months pass and K.’s case continues to stagnate, two men wearing
top hats arrive at K’s boardinghouse at 9:30 in the evening.
here for me?” K. says.
they take him by the arms and lead him through the streets. He stops and
resists, gluing his feet to the pavement. Ahead he sees Fraülein Bürstner
in the shadows–or someone who looks like her. In a moment, he decides it
is futile to resist and resumes walking. Eventually, they arrive at a stone
quarry outside the city. One of the men strips K. bare to the waist. When
he shivers, the man pats him on the back as if to say, “It’ll be all right.”
Next, they find a stone block, lay K. down and place his head on it, and
take out a butcher knife. In the top story of a building across from the
quarry, K. sees a figure leaning out of an open window. Who is it?
of the men plunges the knife into K.’s heart and twists it.
presents the story in third-person point of view from Joseph K.'s perspective.
The narrator reveals K.'s thoughts but avoids revealing the thoughts of
other characters except on rare occasions, such as the following one in
Chapter One when Frau Grubach is talking with Joseph K.: "As a result of
this self consciousness she said something that she certainly did not intend
and certainly was not appropriate."
force or entity beyond the control and scrutiny of the individual arbitrarily
determines his or her destiny, justly or unjustly. A man has no alternative
but to accept this destiny. In The Trial, the force or entity is
ostensibly the government and symbolically fate, divine will, luck—in fact,
anything or anyone that rules humans by whim or caprice. Sophocles develops
this theme in Oedipus Rex,
in which the protagonist, Oedipus—powerless to overturn the verdict of
fate—kills his own father and marries his own mother. In King
Lear, Shakespeare sums up this theme when Gloucester observes,
“As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.”
Thomas Hardy made this theme central to many of his novels. His characters
are dominated by environmental, psychological, or biological determinism.
Of course, one of the most famous expositions of this theme is in the Bible
in the Book of Job.
government is unwieldy, unfair, and unforgiving. In this respect, The
Trial is a visionary novel that warns civilization, wittingly or unwittingly,
of the coming tyranny of totalitarian governments in Nazi Germany, Stalinist
Russia, and Fascist Italy. It also attacks governments of every kind, whether
Democratic or otherwise, that rely on clumsy bureaucracies to conduct day-to-day
affairs. If you have ever had to wait in a long line to conduct business
with a local, state, or federal government—or if you have ever had to complete
government forms with complex and confusing questions—you know how frustrating
government can be.
combined forces of fate and faceless big government isolate Joseph K.,
making him feel lonely, abandoned, friendless. His enemies have cornered
him, and he has no weapons with which to fight back and no champions to
come to his rescue.
sin burdens man with inherited guilt and holds him accountable for that
guilt. According to the Old Testament of the Bible, Adam and Eve committed
the first sin and passed it on to their descendants, the rest of the human
race. In this sense, Joseph K. is guilty of an "inherited crime." He is
held accountable for it just as the surviving members of a family are responsible
for a debt or property mortgage inherited from a deceased member.
climax of a narrative work can be defined as (1) the turning point at which
the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the
final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of The
Trial occurs, according to the first definition, when Joseph K. realizes
that his fate is sealed after the priest in the cathedral tells him, "You
don't need to accept everything as true, you only have to accept it as
necessary." Joseph responds, "Depressing view. The lie made into the rule
of the world." According to the second definition,
the climax occurs in the final chapter when Joseph K., having accepted
his fate, willingly allows two men to escort him through the streets to
a stone quarry, where they execute him.
Impulsivity With Women
K. meets with Fraülein Bürstner the first time, he kisses her
impulsively when he leaves her apartment. When he meets Leni in Dr. Huld's
office, he readily goes into Huld's dark, empty office with her to exchange
intimacies while his Uncle Karl talks with the lawyer, who is sick in bed.
K's behavior with both women suggests that he is trying to take control
of destiny while the government is wresting it from him. (No one told him
to kiss either woman; doing so was his decision.) Ironically, however,
his behavior could also indicate that he is losing control of his own emotions.
says he suffers from heart trouble and has difficulty breathing and sleeping.
Moreover, he says, he is getting weakever every day. His illness appears
to represent the condition of justice in the oppressive country. The more
power the government arrogates unto itself, the weaker the justice system
becomes. Citizens like K. become entangled in interminable legal proceedings
without knowing the nature of the charge against them and appear to have
little hope of receiving a just settlement of their cases.
Bürstner's Rejection of K.
K.'s encounter with Fraülein Bürstner, she manages to avoid him
even though they live in the same apartment building. Whenever he knocks
on her door, he receives no answer. Frustrated, he enters apartment but
it is empty. He writes her letters, one to her apartment and one to her
work address. She does not respond. Finally, her new roommate, Fräulein
Montag acts as a go-between to tell K. that Bürstner does not wish
to seek K. again. Bürstner's rejection of K. helps to develop the
theme of K.'s isolation and alienation. (See Theme 3.)
novel is written in German in uncomplicated, well-crafted, easy-to-understand
sentences designed to depict the feelings evoked in Joseph K. by the world
him, as in expressionism. Sometimes these feelings manifest themselves
in irrational, nightmarish images, as in surrealism. The Trial is
a dark and depressing novel–and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny. In his
attempt to solve his problem, the main character, Joseph K., is as hapless
as the cartoon character Wile E. Coyote in his attempts to snare the roadrunner.
Kafka's bone-dry wit and flair for surreal humor–an example of which occurs
in a passage in which he meets an attractive woman but discovers she has
webbed hands–are unsurpassed in Twentieth Century literature. In a Kafka
short story entitled "The Metamorphosis," the main character, Gregor Samsa,
suffers a kind of loneliness similar to, but even more intense than, Joseph
K.'s: Samsa awakens one day to discover that he has turned into a huge
bug. Following is the opening paragraph of this story:
One morning, when Gregor
Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed
into a horrible vermin. He lay on his armour-like back, and if he
lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and
divided by arches into stiff sections. The bedding was hardly able to cover
it and seemed ready to slide off any moment. His many legs, pitifully thin
compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly as he
looked.–(Wylie, David, translator. Project
is like Joseph K. in that he wakes up one day to find himself in a predicament
that was apparently not of his own making. And, like Joseph K., Gregor
has no way to banish his predicament. In "The Metamorphosis," as in The
Trial, Kafka's eccentric humor tempers the edge of the phantasmagoric
circumstances in which the protagonist finds himself. For example, Samsa
wonders whether he can make it to work walking on so many spindly legs.
Kafka's ability to write humor into a ridiculously surreal story is a hallmark
of his style.
Samsa's sister takes pity on him and feeds him, everyone else rejects him.
As an outcast, he has only one future to look forward to: death. Both Gregor
Samsa and Joseph K. are innocent victims of an uncaring society. .
Kafka is frequently identified with the early 20th Century expressionism.
In literature, expressionism is a movement or writing technique in which
a writer depicts a character’s feelings about a subject (or the writer’s
own feelings about it) rather than the objective surface reality of the
subject. A writer, in effect, presents his interpretation of what he sees.
the depiction is a grotesque distortion or phantasmagoric representation
of reality. However, there is logic to this approach for these reasons:
(1) Not everybody perceives the world in the same way. What one person
may see as beautiful or good another person may see as ugly or bad. Sometimes
a writer or his character suffers from a mental debility, such as depression
or paranoia, which alters his perception of reality.
enables the writer to present this altered perception. When Joseph K. perceives
reality, he sees it through the lens of his mind’s eye. A scene that may
appear normal or even cheerful to another character may appear bleak and
depressing to him. Moreover, the outward appearance of a person, place,
or thing may not reflect its true essence in the first place. Shakespeare
expressed this view in The Merchant of Venice:
A goodly apple rotten at
writers often present the real world as bizarre, fantastic, and nightmarish
because that is how they, or the characters in their works, see the world.
are the real world. Besides Kafka, writers who
used expressionist techniques included James
Joyce and Eugene O’Neill.
O, what a goodly outside
(Antonio to Bassanio, Act
I, Scene III, Lines 98-102)
Questions and Essay Topics
Why did Kafka name The Trial's
protagonist Joseph K. but give other characters a last name?
In a good dictionary, look up
a word derived from Kafka's name and the themes of his literary works.
Then discuss or write about experiences of yours, including dreams, that
you would describe as Kafkaesque.
When The Trial was published
in 1925, totalitarianism was taking root in Italy, Germany, and the Soviet
Union (Russia). What is totalitarianism? In what ways are totalitarian
governments similar to the government in The Trial?
If you were in Joseph K's place,
what action would you take to exonerate yourself?
Does the government justice
system in The Trial resemble in any way the justice system in present-day
America or any other country? Explain your answer.
Do you believe that it is possible
that the justice system in The Trial symbolizes Kafka's domineering
father? If so, write an essay or generate a discussion in which you cite
passages from The Trial, as well as incidents from Kafka's life,
that support this interpretation.
Are Joseph K.'s encounters with
women in The Trial based on author Kafka's encounters with women?
Explain your answer.
Does Joseph K. resemble his
creator, Franz Kafka?
In what ways does Joseph
K.'s ordeal resemble the sometimes frustrating experiences you face when
dealing with big government?
Kafka was well primed to write a novel about an isolated individual. His
father despised him, he never married, and he was a Jew at a time when
anti-Semitism was gaining sway again in Europe.
was born on July 3, 1883, in Prague (now part of the Czech Republic but
then part of Austria-Hungry). When he was an adolescent, he was a good
student, but he disliked the traditional, hidebound, authoritarian approach
to education at his school, the Altstädter Staatsgymnasium. Although
he later earned a law degree at the Charles University in Prague, he did
not practice law but instead worked in Prague for an insurance company
and then for an insurance institute. He found insurance work tedious. Nevertheless,
he did his job well, earning the respect of colleagues, and remained an
office worker until 1923, when he moved to Berlin to pursue writing. By
then, however, he was suffering from tuberculosis and died the following
his life, he was never close to his parents, Hermann Kafka and Julie Löwy
Kafka. His father, a successful merchant, was a tyrant who bullied Franz
psychologically. In some ways, the court system in The Trial represents
the negative influence of Hermann Kafka on his son. Although Kafka had
relationships with several women, one to whom he was engaged, he never
married. At the end of his life, Kafka was almost completely isolated–from
his family, from a regular job and the companionship of co-workers, from
the wife that he never had, and from anti-Semitic Germans whose language
he wrote in. He tried desperately to find God—whom he regarded as an "indestructible"
reality—but felt that God remained distant from him. He did have one close
friend, however: Max Brod, an essay writer, drama critic, and novelist
who published Kafka's works after he died even though Kafka had told him
to destroy all of his manuscripts.
Franz Kafka's other works are
(1912), The Metamorphosis
In the Penal Colony (1919), "A
Hunger Artist" (1922),
The Castle (1926), and Amerika
(1927). He died on June 3, 1924, at Kierling, Austria. For a more detailed
biography of Franz Kafka,