Written from the perspective of a third-person limited omniscient narrator, The Trial opens with the narrator commenting that someone must be telling tales about Josef K., the novel’s protagonist, because he is arrested one morning despite having done nothing wrong.
K. waits for his housekeeper Frau Grubach’s cook to appear with breakfast as usual. Out the window, he sees the old woman who lives across the street watching him with unusual curiosity. Perplexed, K. rings his bell; after a sudden knock on the door a slim but solidly built man enters. The man is dressed in a black uniform with many sartorial details that suggest a practicality but have no clear and apparent purpose. K. asks who he is but the man doesn’t answer. Hearing voices in the living room, K. gets up and puts on trousers, saying he’s going to find out what this disturbance is about. The stranger asks if he wouldn’t prefer to stay put, but nonetheless opens the door.
In Frau Grubach’s cluttered living room K. sees a man sitting by the open window reading a book. Without looking up he tells K. Franz should have told him to stay in his room. K. sees the old woman across the street has moved to her own living room to continue watching. K. makes a move as if to tear himself away from the two men, who set off toward the door to stop him. They say he is their prisoner. K. says that’s what it looks like, and may he ask why. They say it isn’t their place to tell, and command him to go to his room to wait. The man says K. should count himself lucky that he and Franz have behaved in a friendly manner toward him even though it exceeds their instructions. Franz and the man feel K.’s nightgown and say from now on he’ll be wearing a much poorer-quality one. But if he hands over his things now they’ll take care of his clothes and return them, should his case turn out favorably. At the depot, possessions are often sold off or misplaced.
K. hardly pays attention to what they’re saying, unable to clarify the situation in their presence. As the unnamed guard’s protruding belly prods K. in a friendly way, K. tries to think of who they could be or what they are talking about. With the country at peace, and no suspension of laws, K. doesn't understand who has the authority to come into his home like this. It is his thirtieth birthday—perhaps this is a practical joke his friends are playing? K. decides that if it is, he will play along with the hoax.
K. goes to his room, opens his drawers, and searches until he finds his birth certificate. As he reenters the room, he sees Frau Grubach about to enter the living room, but she quickly closes the door. The guards are sitting by the window eating K.’s breakfast. Between dips of bread and honey, they say she can’t enter because he’s under arrest. K. shows his birth certificate and demands to see their proof of identity. The unnamed guard accuses K. of being worse than a child, thinking he can hasten his trial by arguing with minor officials such as themselves. He assures K. that his department goes to great lengths to prepare the case diligently before making an arrest; there is no error.
As K. continues to question the guards’ logic in order to worm into their thoughts and make himself more comfortable in the situation, they accuse him of simultaneously claiming innocence while admitting ignorance of the law. K. thinks that he shouldn’t waste his time arguing with stupid low-level officials; a few words with someone of his own kind would set the matter straight. He sees the woman across the way watching with her husband. Wanting to put an end to the spectacle, K. demands to see the guards’ superior. The unnamed guard, having since been identified as Willem, tells K. that he must wait in his room. If he has any money, they will fetch him breakfast from the café across the street.
K. gives up for the time being and lies on his bed, eating a juicy apple he left on the nightstand. He thinks that he won’t be able to go to work at the bank that morning, but his seniority should mean it isn’t a problem. He idly considers killing himself, but reasons it would be pointless: after all, so far only his breakfast has been interrupted. He hears a shout and learns their supervisor would like to see him. The guards reprimand him for daring to see their superior in only his nightshirt and push him back into his room, insisting he must put on a black jacket. Once dressed, K. meets the supervisor, who has set up in one of the other bedrooms. Three young men stand observing photographs on the wall. Through the windows, the old couple are now watching with a third man who wears a ginger goatee.
K. and the supervisor discuss K.’s confusion at the morning’s events. K. asks who is accusing him, and what is he being accused of. He notes that none of them are in uniform, but are dressed more like travelers. The supervisor says he and Willem and Franz are of little importance and know almost nothing about the case; he couldn’t even say if K. is being charged with something. He advises him to think less about them and more about what will happen to him next. He tells him to speak less and let his behavior speak for him.
K. grows agitated after being spoken to like a schoolboy. He paces and speaks aloud his thoughts about how pointless the whole situation is. The supervisor says he could call a public defender if he likes, but K. cries that it would be pointless. He grows angry at the people across the way, who seem to enjoy the entertaining spectacle. Eventually, K. gives up his protests and offers the supervisor his hand. The supervisor doesn’t shake it, instead putting on his hat. He says that all he needed to do that day was to inform K. of the arrest and watch his reaction; now they will leave for the day and let K. get to the bank.
K. is confused—hasn’t he been arrested? The supervisor says he has, but that should not prevent him from going to work or about his daily life as usual. The supervisor says the three young men who have been in the room the entire time are young employees from the bank, and they will help K. get to work. K. now recognizes them and wonders why he didn’t make the connection before. K. greets the three men, Rabensteiner, Kullich, and Kaminer, who nod and laugh as if eager to get going. On the street they hail a cab, as they are already half an hour late. K. realizes he never saw the three officials leave his residence; the three bank clerks had blocked the view. K. resolves to keep a better eye on things.
The Trial’s opening line establishes the major conflict in the novel: Josef K. is arrested despite having committed no crime. In the opening line, Kafka encapsulates the fundamental illogic and injustice against which K. will spend the novel fighting against in vain. In the sentence’s first clause, which suggests that someone must have been spreading rumors about K., the narrator gives the most concrete—and perhaps only—hint about why K. is arrested. Other than this suggestion of someone spreading lies about K., the reason for his arrest remains a mystery to the reader and to K.
The surreal event of K. waking to find that his usual breakfast is absent and that an unfamiliar, official-looking man of ambiguous authority is standing in his room marks the beginning of the events of his life adhering more to the logic of a dream than of reality. In K.’s frustrating discussion with his guards, Kafka introduces the themes of compliance and futility. As K. panics and tries to refute the claims against him, the guards refuse to divulge any information about his case. Willem and Franz claim they are merely low-level officials carrying out orders of the higher court and thus have very little information about the case. However, they are completely willing to act in compliance with the court’s whims, and they expect K. to comply as well.
As K. attempts to catch them out in conversation, he soon discovers that the guards’ adherence to their place within the hierarchy of an oppressive and inscrutable bureaucratic system means the conversation will lead him nowhere. Feeling confused and angry, K. complies with their suggestion that he stay in his room. K. follows their orders but reassures himself that he is doing so because the men are too stupid and low-class for him to engage with in a meaningful way.
Although K. puts his faith in speaking to someone of his own social standing, when K. speaks with the guards’ supervisor, the man maintains a similar insistence on his lack of information or power to sway the outcome of the case. Thus Kafka establishes the motif of every official K. comes into contact with or hears about through a connection being a low-level official. The higher-ups in the court—the judges who supposedly have real power—become the subject of legend. In this way, the court upholds its inscrutable authority over the population it judges and polices by remaining completely unreachable. It is possible the high-level court officials do not actually exist.
As K.’s anxious morning in the lodging house goes on, Kafka introduces the theme of distraction: While attempting to make sense of what the guards and supervisor are saying to him, K. is distracted by the people watching him from the opposite apartment building. Similarly, he is distracted by the three young men who stand in Fräulein Bürstner’s room and fondle her photographs. While the other characters seem untroubled by the dream-like intrusions into K.’s reality, distraction will play a key part in breaking K.’s spirit as he exhausts himself in his efforts to understand and fight his case.