Perhaps the most central theme in The Trial, the court system's inscrutable authority is a constant source of distress and confusion for Josef K. Although he endeavors to understand who has charged him with a crime and what the alleged crime might be, K. finds any attempt at comprehending the enigmatic and illogical court system is futile. The court maintains authority by disclosing nothing about the cases it brings against defendants, having no central location, and concealing the higher-ups supposedly in charge of the low-level officials who claim to have no power to influence the whims of the court. Ultimately, the impossible-to-comprehend legal system triumphs over K. as he is forced to accept his fate, however illogical or nonexistent the case against him may be.
Another of the novel's most important themes is oppressive bureaucracy. Kafka depicts the court system as being powerful in part because it is organized by officials who need not answer to the population over which it has dominion. The officials with whom K. manages to come into relative proximity are always stationed at a low level within the system's hierarchy, which means they carry out the whim of higher-ups and have little personal power to influence the greater bureaucracy. The bureaucratic court system oppresses K., other defendants, and its own lower officials by keeping those who are truly in charge far away from the people who the court sentences, making it impossible for the accused to have an opportunity to plead their case.
Throughout The Trial, things happen to K. according to a logic more applicable to a dream than reality. K. often finds that people or objects appear suddenly, but he is quick to assume the person or object has been there all along and he merely hadn't noticed. K. also makes decisions seemingly without considering his actions beforehand, such as when he smothers Fräulein Bürstner with kisses. The need constantly to assimilate new information, behavior, people, and objects without questions resembles the manner in which dream narratives require the dreamer to accept what is happening even while the dreamer may sense that reality has grown distorted.
Given the oppressively bureaucratic court's unassailable authority over its members and the people it accuses, the only alternative to resisting the court's power to is become compliant. Throughout the novel, K. encounters people who do not understand how the court works or who exactly runs it, but these people nonetheless accept the court's authority. The guards who first arrest K. cannot tell him why he is being arrested, but the reason for his arrest is immaterial to them, as they assume the court uses sound reasoning in its judgments. Similarly, Frau Grubach doesn't understand the details of the case against K., but she considers her ignorance of the law to be a failing on her part, and not due to the inscrutability the court uses intentionally as a weapon to keep the public confused. Grubach's instinct is not to question the court or its authority to send guards into her home, but rather to comply with their demands. At the end of the novel, K. is so worn down by the trial that he is incidentally compliant in his execution, unable to summon the strength to continue fighting the court.
Throughout the novel, K. discovers that any attempt he makes at influencing the outcome of his trial is futile. The lack of results his efforts produce is compounded by other characters' repeated assertions that it will be impossible for him to sway the court: Willem and Franz insist that arrests are not ordered without good cause, Titorelli says he has never heard of someone being declared innocent by the court, and Leni insists he must confess, despite not knowing what he is alleged to have done. The theme of futility is also encapsulated in the parable "Before the Law," which the prison chaplain recites to K. in the cathedral. In the parable, a man waits his entire life to gain entry through a gate to the Law, only to learn, as he dies, that he was never going to be admitted, and thus his waiting has been futile.
Several of the novel's female characters either attempt to seduce K. or are themselves the target of K.'s lust. Even though K. tells himself he is not particularly interested in Fräulein Bürstner, he stays late in her room and then suddenly kisses her all over her face and neck, lusting after her like a thirsty animal lapping up water. The theme of lust also arises when K. attends the courthouse a week after his first hearing and learns from the washerwoman (who attempts to seduce K.) that the examining magistrate and a legal student have been attempting to have sex with her. At Herr Huld's home, K. meets Leni, who is sexually attracted to all accused men and successfully convinces K. to become her lover. Although lust's significance in The Trial is ambiguous, lust is the most sinful and morally frowned-up act K. engages in, leaving open the interpretation that K.'s sexuality may be a component in his unspecified crime.
Even though K. is not confined to prison after his arrest, he finds himself too distracted to go about his life as usual. K. wishes to ignore the trial, but as rumors circulate in society and family members, acquaintances, and bank clients ask K. about the trial, K. becomes increasingly worried about the trial's outcome. While distracted with his trial, K. is unable to focus on his clients' contracts and stops seeing Elsa, the lover he used to visit every week. Ultimately, the subject of his trial leads to so much distraction that K. may as well be imprisoned in his mind.
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.