K. goes to Huld’s house to dismiss him. A scrawny defendant named Block opens the door to K. K. treats Block with suspicion after he sees Leni run down the hall wearing only her shift. Block brings K. to the kitchen, where Leni is making soup. K. accuses her of being Block’s mistress, which she denies. While Leni serves Huld his soup, K. learns from Block that his trial has been active for five years; he has ruined his finances by hiring five lawyers, and he goes to the court office to sit with the other defendants almost every day. When he saw K. walk through with the usher recently, Block and the others, following a court superstition, determined from K.’s face and how he held his lips that he would soon be condemned. K. takes out a pocket mirror to examine his lips, saying he can’t see anything special about them.
Hoping for useful information, K. listens to Block explain how, when his case began and he was naïve about court proceedings, he hoped for tangible signs of progress. Instead, he received interrogations on the same subject, which he answered with the same answers, and steadily rumors spread among his business associates and family, leading to anxiety without a first hearing date set. None of his lawyers have been able to set a final hearing date, as none of them believe they can influence the court by demanding one. Leni returns and tells K. that Block is a terrible chatterbox who isn’t to be believed. Huld often makes him wait three days at the house before he will see him, and so he sleeps in the dark, cramped maid’s room. Suddenly K. can’t stand the sight of Block.
Leni tries to stop K. when he says he’s going to dismiss Huld. K. rushes to Huld’s room and locks the door. The lawyer comments on Leni’s advances and tells K. not to give the matter too much importance, as Leni is attracted to all the defendants. K. believes this to be one of Huld’s usual distractions. K. tells Huld he is dismissing him: when K. didn’t have a lawyer, the case barely affected him, but since Huld has been on the case, anxiety over the case has taken over K.’s life. Huld implores K. to reconsider, which confuses and annoys K. Huld invites Leni and Block into the room. Huld humiliates Block, which K. interprets as a show of power for his benefit.
Block and Leni kneel at Huld’s bedside. Leni tells Huld that she kept Block in the maid’s room all day, periodically checking to see that he was attempting to read the legal books Huld had lent him. Huld says the books are too complex for Block to grasp, but he had intended to demonstrate to Block how difficult the legal fight is. In a patronizing tone, Huld recounts the conversation he had with a judge earlier that day: while Huld defended Block’s commitment to his case, the judge advised Huld not to trust Block, who was merely cunning enough to have his trial drawn out. Block begins to stand for an explanation but Huld orders him back on his knees. Huld says Block’s fear at his every word disgusts him. Block sinks down submissively and mindlessly plucks at the sheepskin rug next to the bed.
K. is tasked with showing one of the bank’s important Italian business associates some of the city’s artistic treasures—a task he fears will leave the deputy manager free to snoop through K.’s papers and see K.’s clients. He meets the Italian early in the office and they arrange to meet at the cathedral at ten o’clock. While K. is brushing up on Italian vocabulary, Leni calls to tell him “they’re hunting you down.” K. takes a cab through cold rain and then waits in the frigid cathedral for the Italian. A priest takes to the pulpit. K. decides to leave before the sermon begins, but the priest calls out to him by his full name. The priest introduces himself as the prison chaplain and says he has been summoned to the cathedral to speak with K.
The priest tells K. that his trial is going badly because K. has been seeking help from too many people. He tells K. he is deceiving himself about the court and recites a parable about deception: Outside the Law stands a doorkeeper, who tells a man from the country that beyond his door are successive doors with increasingly powerful doorkeepers. The doorkeeper forbids him to enter. The man waits for years on a stool, asking many times whether he can enter the Law; the doorkeeper always tells him no. The man from the country grows old and withered while waiting. At the end of his life, he asks why, if everyone seeks the Law, no one apart from him has asked to be let in. The doorkeeper bellows that no one else could be granted entry because the entrance was intended for him alone. The doorkeeper says he will now go and shut it.
As he and the priest walk in the dark, K. interprets the parable as the doorkeeper deceiving the man, but the priest says the doorkeeper was merely performing his duty. The priest shares the opinion that it is not the man but the doorkeeper who was deceived. The simple-minded doorkeeper is more afraid of the Law than the man whom he wishes to make afraid of the Law, and it could be said that the doorkeeper knows nothing about the inside. The two trade opinions until K. is too tired to go on talking and walking. The priest dismisses him, telling him to go back to the bank if he must. K. is confused by the priest’s sudden disinterest, as he had been treated as important moments earlier. The prison chaplain reminds K. that he—the chaplain—belongs to the court, which does not want anything from K. The court receives K. when he comes and dismisses him when he goes.
On the evening before K.’s thirty-first birthday, two pale and fat men wearing formal long-tail frock coats and top hats arrive at K.’s room. K. is similarly dressed. He didn’t know the men were coming, but he greets them by acknowledging that they are the ones who have come for him. In the street, the men stand on either side and grip K.’s hands. He resists until he sees Fräulein Bürstner—or perhaps a woman resembling her—and becomes aware of the futility of resistance. There is nothing heroic about resistance, he thinks. The only thing he can do now is retain a calm clarity of mind. It wasn’t right of him to interfere in the world with ten pairs of hands. It was the wrong approach to his case, he thinks.
The men leave the city and take K. through fields to a little desolate quarry. Everything is bathed in moonlight. The men wipe the sweat from their brows and politely discuss with each other who is meant to do what next. One of them removes K.’s clothing and carefully folds the garments, as though they are going to be used again. K. shivers in the cool night air. The men lay K.’s head on a stone that had broken off the quarry face. One man removes a double-edged butcher’s knife from his coat. They examine the blade in the moonlight.
As the men pass the knife back and forth, arguing over who is meant to use it, K. looks at the top story of a house next to the quarry. He sees a faint and thin human figure open the windows and stretch out their arms. He wonders if it is a friend or a kind person who wants to help. He wonders if there are still objections to make and concludes that of course there are: even unshakeable logic cannot hold out against a human being who wants to live. He wonders where was the judge he never saw, or the high court he never reached? K. raises his hands and splays his fingers to the figure in the window. One of the men holds K.’s throat while the other man plunges the knife into K.’s heart and turns it around twice. In his fading vision, K. sees the men leaning close to him as they observe “the final verdict.” K. says, “Like a dog!” The novel ends with the narrator commenting that it seems as if K.’s shame will live on after him.
The themes of lust and distraction return with K.’s arrival at Huld’s house. Even though K. has come with the express purpose of dismissing Huld, he is distracted by the possibility that Leni has also taken Block as a lover. Leni dismisses the accusation, but Huld later informs K. that Leni is pathologically attracted to all accused men, suggesting that she is in fact also sleeping with Block.
K.’s distraction continues as he discusses the court system with Block, who has been defending himself in court for five years. K. grows interested in what Block has to say, as the news that Block has hired additional lawyers reinforces K.’s belief that he must dismiss Huld. However, Block’s pathetic state comes to serve as a premonition of K.’s future as a compliant defendant. Block has lost his livelihood and has been reduced to a servile state, waiting to receive attention from Huld and the court judges. Hoping to distance himself from Block’s fate, K. can hardly look at the broken man, and he recommits himself to firing Huld, who then demonstrates his power over Block, treating him like a disobedient dog.
K.’s meeting with the prison chaplain in the cathedral further develops K.’s dream-like reality: Although he went to the cathedral for one reason, when the priest declares that he came there to meet with K., K. quickly assimilates and accepts this new reality, no longer curious about where the Italian bank client might be. The priest’s parable functions as a microcosm of K.’s predicament, as the parable also involves the themes of oppressive bureaucracy, inscrutable authority, compliance, futility, and distraction. After being barred entry into the Law, the man complies with the guard’s suggestion that he may wait on a stool. He doesn’t understand why he is not admitted, but he waits nonetheless, spending his entire life distracted by the promise of passing through the gate. It is only at the end of the man’s life that the guard informs the man that the gate was built on purpose for him and he will not be admitted. The gate thus functions as a futile distraction.
K.’s case is similar to the man’s situation in the parable, in that the nature of K.’s crime is withheld from him, leaving him stuck in a state of permanent distraction and confusion as he waits in vain to pass through to a new reality in which his guilt will be either confirmed or dismissed. The parable—and indeed, The Trial itself—can be considered allegories for the futility of existence. Both K. and the man in the parable spend their lives distracted by the promise of receiving knowledge about their circumstances that neither will attain.
Kafka wrote the novel’s final chapter directly after writing the first chapter. Because Kafka never finished the full manuscript, the circumstances that lead to K.’s execution are not written into the plot that proceeds the final chapter. What is clear is that K. is not particularly surprised when the executioners come for him a year after his arrest. He considers putting up a last fight, but the court has worn him down: he is exhausted and dispirited, and so he has little choice but to comply with the executioners and walk with them to the quarry where he is executed.
Throughout the novel, K. seeks the help of other people only to discover that they can be of no help to him; this motif is repeated in K.’s dying moment, when he sees a person in the house overlooking the quarry and hopes briefly that they will somehow save him, despite the “unshakeable logic” of the court. K. reflects that he never did learn of the crime or meet any of the high-level court officials and judges that people spoke of. That K. is being executed without knowing his crime encapsulates the capricious and illogical nature of his entire ordeal. The presence of crime or evidence of guilt was never important: all that was needed to confer guilt was an accusation.
Kafka ends the novel with a concise and brutal description of the long, thin butcher’s knife twisting in K.’s heart. K. compares his killing to that of a dog, implying that it is undignified, akin to the slaughter of an animal. The narrator comments that it seems K.’s shame will live on. Ultimately, the court’s tactics prove successful, as K. dies feeling painful and distressing humiliation, as though he has in fact done something wrong.