Study Guide

The Trial

by Franz Kafka

The Trial Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Trial was begun in July, 1914, when Kafka turned thirty-one. He had just broken off his first engagement to Felice Bauer. He had also been unable to write any literature for more than a year, and he was feeling simultaneously frustrated by this writer’s block and guilty for having been unfair to either Bauer or himself (depending on how one looked at it). Out of this inner turmoil arose The Trial, which was completed within six months.

Like all Kafka’s writing, The Trial achieves a fine balance between the real and the imagistic, containing enough references to everyday life that the reader is initially tempted to confront the content of the surface story with logical argumentation. Were this a standard crime story, one would say that K., who was a banker by profession, misses three excellent opportunities to save himself. At the beginning of the novel, when arrested without being told why, K. neglects to contact his friend the public prosecutor. In the middle of the novel, when it would help to get away for a while, K. turns down his uncle’s invitation to stay with him in the country. At the end of the novel, K. avoids the policeman, who clearly wants to intervene.

The premise of fantasy, though, is that it details inner reality. Kafka was involved in coming to terms with himself, and he presents the reader with strong evidence that K. and the court are one and the same. Names are always significant in Kafka’s works, and one of the two warders who arrests Josef K. on his thirtieth birthday is called Franz—that is, the reader is to understand, Franz Kafka. Josef K. subsequently complains to the Examining Magistrate about the man’s behavior and is surprised, on...

(The entire section is 708 words.)

The Trial Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Perhaps someone has been slandering Joseph K., because one morning, without having done anything wrong, he is arrested. Each morning around eight o’clock the landlady’s cook usually brings K., as he is called, his breakfast, and the old woman who lives across the way from him usually stares at him with a curiosity unusual even for her.

This morning, the old woman fails to stare at him, so K. begins to ring her but first hears a knock on his door. Without waiting for a response, a man dressed like a traveler and whom K. does not recognize enters the room. When K. hears a short burst of laughter from another room, he jumps out of bed to investigate. The stranger asks Josef if he would not rather stay in his room, but K. answers that he has no wish to stay in the room nor to be addressed by the stranger, whose name turns out to be Franz. In the next room, K. sees another strange man, whose name is Willem, sitting in front of a window and reading a book. When K. asks to see Frau Grubach, his landlady, Willem puts down his book and informs K. that he is being detained.

Bewildered, K. asks many questions of Franz and his companion, only to find that they can tell him very little about his case. They cannot tell him the reason why he is being held, for they themselves do not know the reason. K. shows these strangers, now his guards, his identification papers. They tell him that they cannot settle his case and that they have been sent to guard him. They also tell K. that they share a similar situation with him because neither of the three knows the intricacies of the law.

The guards think of K. as a reasonable man, and K. is mystified that they are by turn kind to him, yet demanding as well. In a moment of levity, the pair tells K. that he should give them his underwear to hold for him while he undergoes this trial period, and that they will return the underwear to him when he is released. Finally, the inspector arrives; Franz and Willem tell K. that he must wear a black coat before he faces the inspector. K. complies, and then walks into the adjoining room to face his first interrogator.

To his dismay, K. discovers that the inspector is sitting in Fräulein Bürstner’s room. Although he seldom speaks to Bürstner because her job as a typist requires that she leave early and return late, K. is protective of her space and offended that the inspector and the other men are using her space as their own. When the inspector asks K. if he is surprised by the morning’s events, K. replies that he is surprised but not greatly surprised. The inspector gives no further hint as to the reason for the arrest, and he cannot tell K. whether or not K. has been accused of anything. He advises K. to think more about himself and not about the guards or the inspector, and advises K. not to make such a fuss about his innocence. When K. attempts to reconcile simply with a handshake, the inspector shrugs it off and declares how simple everything seems to K.

The inspector tells K. that he can go to work at the bank as usual, but only if accompanied by K.’s three colleagues, who have been in the interrogation room all along. During the day, several visitors stop by K.’s office with deferential birthday greetings, for it is his thirtieth birthday. Rather than following his usual pattern of arriving at his room around 11 p.m.—after drinks with friends or sometimes a visit to a prostitute—he goes home by 9:30 to talk with Fräulein Bürstner. First, however, K. talks to his landlady and asks her if she knows anything about his situation or about the men in his room earlier in the day. She tells him that she knows he is under arrest, but she knows little more. He then waits for Bürstner to arrive home so that he can apologize to her for the disruption of the proceedings. She finally arrives, and K. tells her his story; she listens with feigned interest only. She has trouble believing that K. has come to her room only to tell her this incredible story. Weary of his presence, she asks K. to leave, but before he does, he seizes her wrist and then kisses her passionately before returning to his room.

A few days later, K. receives a telephone call ordering him to appear before the court for interrogation on Sunday. The authorities tell K. that his hearings will be on Sundays so they do not disrupt his professional life. The hearings take place in a building on a street in a distant district with which K. is unfamiliar. Although the phone call notes the day of the meeting, it does not state a specific time. Recognizing that most such meetings occur at 9 a.m., K. decides to arrive by that time.

K. discovers indistinguishable gray apartment buildings set against industrial buildings; the building to which he proceeds has the look of a warehouse, but it is filled with apartments and activity. Because he does not know the exact room to which he must go, he...

(The entire section is 2029 words.)

The Trial Summary

The Arrest
At the start of The Trial, Joseph K. awakes on the morning of his thirtieth birthday. He is greeted...

(The entire section is 1037 words.)