By Franz Kafka (1883-1924)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised and Enlarged in 2010
.......The 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.
.......Der 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.
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010
The plot summary is based in part on a translation posted by David Wyllie at Project Gutenberg.
........“Who are you?” K. asks.
........Willem does not respond.
........When 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.
........An 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.
........K. 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.
........When 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.
........In 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.
........Finally, 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 impassive, uncaring.
........At 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.
........Once 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.
........“Does a carpenter named Lanz live here?” (K. had remembered that Frau Grubach's nephew was named Lance, so he decides to use that name.)
........He repeats the question again and again, mainly to housewives tending children. Sometimes the housewives repeat the question to others within.
........“Does a carpenter named Lanz live here?”
........When 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. He leaves.
........K. 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.
........Over 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.
........One 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.
........K. then goes directly to Bürstner's apartment and knocks. There is no answer. He enters the room, but it is empty.
........While 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.
........K.'s 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.
........Huld 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.
........After 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 things over.
........At 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.
........When 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.
........One 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 K.!”
Surprised, K. turns around.
........“You are being held for trial.”
........“Yes, I’ve been notified,” K. replies.
........“Good. You’re the one I want.”
........The 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.
........“Are you angry?” K. says.
........“It wasn’t my intention to insult you.”
........After 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.
........After 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.
........“You’re here for me?” K. says.
........Outside, 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?
........One of the men plunges the knife into K.’s heart and twists it.
.Point of View
.......Kafka 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."
.......A 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.
.......Big 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.
.......The 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.
.......When 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.
.......Huld 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.
.......After 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.)
Style and Content
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 Gutenberg text.).......Gregor 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.
.......Although 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 and Expressionism
.......Franz 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.
A goodly apple rotten at the heart:.......Expressionist 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. Their distortions are the real world. Besides Kafka, writers who used expressionist techniques included James Joyce and Eugene O’Neill.
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!
(Antonio to Bassanio, Act I, Scene III, Lines 98-102)
Study Questions and Essay Topics
.......Franz 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.
.......Kafka 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 year.
.......Throughout 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.
.......Among Franz Kafka's other works are Meditation (1913), The Judgment (1912), The Metamorphosis (1915), 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, click here.