Someone must have been telling tales about Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested.
With the novel's opening line, Kafka introduces the story's major conflict. Even though K. has done nothing, as far as he knows, to warrant his arrest, he learns he is being prosecuted by a court he has never heard of for a crime that is never revealed. The suggestion that someone was spreading rumors and lies about K. is the first and only hint the narrator reveals about how or why K. has ended up in this hopeless situation.
"Look, Willem, he admits he doesn’t know the law and at the same time claims he’s innocent."
During his baffling arrest, K. attempts to question the court guards who occupy his home about why he is being arrested. As they refuse to give K. any helpful information, the guards dismiss his reasonable questions and protests. In this passage, one of the guards attempts to stump K. by pointing out contradictions in K.'s defense of his innocence. The tactic succeeds in confusing K. into silence. The moment is significant because it marks the beginning of K.'s gradual acceptance of his fate, despite the court's illogical nature.
"You have been arrested, true, but not the way a thief’s arrested. When someone’s arrested like a thief, then it is bad, but this arrest . . . It seems to me like something very learned, excuse me if what I’m saying is stupid, but it seems to me like something very learned that I can’t understand, but which one doesn’t have to understand."
On the evening of his arrest, K. discusses with his landlady what she knows about his case. From what she overheard the guards discussing, Frau Grubach believes K.'s arrest is for something that goes beyond her intellectual capacity. Her ignorance of the exact details leads her to assume that the learned authorities must know more than her, and thus she accepts the arrest as valid, thereby complying with an authority she doesn't understand. This passage is significant because it demonstrates how the court maintains power over people's lives through secrecy and inscrutability.
"Please don’t ask me for names, but stop making this mistake, stop being intransigent, no one can resist this court, you just have to confess. Confess at the next opportunity. It’s only then there’s a possibility of escaping, only then, though even that’s not possible without outside help."
During their flirtation, K. questions Leni about her knowledge of the court. Leni tells him that his approach is all wrong; she believes he must stop being so stubborn and simply accept the case against him. This passage is significant because the irony inherent to Leni's statement encapsulates the court's illogic. Contrary to standard understandings of guilt and innocence, it is only by pleading guilty to an unspecified crime that K. can hope to escape. With no other recourse to justice, an accusation from the court automatically proves the defendant's guilt, making an actual trial and sentencing redundant.
In general, the proceedings were kept secret not only from the public but also from the accused. Only as far as possible, of course, but that was to a very great extent. The accused was not allowed to see the court documents either, and it was very difficult to deduce anything from the hearings about the documents on which they were based, especially for the accused, who was prejudiced and had all sorts of worries to distract him.
In this passage, the narrator summarizes Huld's long-winded explanation of the corrupt and illogical manner in which the court system operates. This passage is significant because it describes how the court maintains power over defendants by refusing to let them see any of the documents pertaining to their case. The lopsided advantage the court has over defendants ensures that the defendants are kept in the dark as to how their cases are going, and makes it impossible for them ever to mount a suitable defense. The effect is that the court system steadily drains the defendants of morale and money until they are made compliant.
The essential thing was not to attract attention, to stay calm, however much it went against the grain, to try to understand that this great legal organism remained eternally in balance, so to speak.
After his long explanation of court proceedings, Huld—like so many characters familiar with the court—tells K. (in this summary by the narrator) not to resist the illogical nature of the court. While the court seems perfectly designed to make a person lose their mind in frustration, Huld insists that K. must remain calm and not try to upset the system. This passage is significant for the way Huld likens the court to a delicate organism. The implication is that the court proceeds not based on the actions of the men who run it, but of its own volition, as if the men who run it have no power to change or question the court's structure, even if they wanted to.
If he had been alone in the world it would have been easy to ignore the trial, though it was also certain that in that case the trial would never have come about.
As the trial comes to occupy increasingly more space in K.'s thoughts, K. considers how he wouldn't care about the trial if it wasn't for the rumors his trial spawned. As much as he would like to ignore them, family members and bank clients express concern for him. This passage is significant because it speaks to the fundamentally social nature of the trial. Although the novel is named The Trial, K. very seldomly appears in court. The real trial occurs in his personal life, as the forces of society collude with the court until his spirit is broken and he is made to comply with the court's authority.
"I’m sure you know the court much better than I do. I don’t know much more than what I’ve heard about it, though from very different people. But they all agreed on one thing: charges are not brought lightly, and when the court does bring charges it is firmly convinced of the guilt of the accused and can only be persuaded to change its mind with difficulty."
In this passage, Titorelli attempts to help K. by telling him what he has gleaned from his years as a court painter. His statement speaks to the inscrutability of the court, because even though he should be party to classified information, he has heard conflicting information about how the court operates. The only agreed-upon piece of information is that the court members presume the guilt of defendants and are unyielding in their opinions, which is an inversion of the standard of justice that presumes a person's innocence until they are proven guilty.
"The trial has to be kept going round and round in the little circle to which it is restricted. The consequence of that is a certain inconvenience for the accused, though it isn’t as bad as you might imagine."
In this passage, Titorelli explains to K. that the best outcomes he can hope for are either a temporary end to his trial or a protraction of proceedings, which would involve K. having to keep his case in the preliminary stage indefinitely by currying favor with the childlike judges and expending great effort to ensure the case is always kept open. Titorelli suggests it isn't such a terrible option, even though it would mean the case would dominate K.'s life indefinitely.
But the hands of one of the men were placed on K.’s throat, whilst the other plunged the knife into his heart and turned it round twice. As his sight faded, K. saw the two men leaning cheek to cheek close to his face as they observed the final verdict. "Like a dog!" he said. It seemed as if his shame would live on after him.
In the novel's final paragraph, K. is abruptly and brutally executed. His final words—"Like a dog!"—describe the inhumane and undignified way in which his trial is brought to a swift end. The narrator comments that the shame K. feels in his dying moment will live on after him, suggesting that even in death he cannot escape the distress and humiliation that his unwarranted trial has brought him.
The Trial Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Trial is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.