Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 642
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Joseph K., an employee in a bank. He is a man without particular qualities or abilities, a fact that makes doubly strange his “arrest” by the officer of the Court in the large city where K. lives. K.’s life is purely conventional and resembles the life of any other person of his class. Consequently, he tries in vain to discover how he has aroused the suspicion of the Court. His honesty is conventional; his sins, with Elsa the waitress, are conventional; and he has no striking or dangerous ambitions. He is a man without a face; at the most, he can only ask questions, and he receives no answers that clarify the strange world of courts and court functionaries in which he is compelled to wander.
Frau Grubach, K.’s landlady. She has a high opinion of K. and is deeply shocked by his arrest. She can do nothing to help him.
Fräulein Bürstner, a respectable young woman who also lives in Frau Grubach’s house. She avoids any close entanglement with K.
The Assistant Manager
The Assistant Manager, K.’s superior at the bank. He invites K. to social occasions that K. cannot attend because of his troubles with the Court. He is also eager to invade K.’s proper area of authority.
The Examining Magistrate
The Examining Magistrate, the official who opens the formal investigation of K.’s offense. He conducts an unruly, arbitrary, and unsympathetic hearing.
The Washerwoman, an amiable but loose woman who has her dwelling in the court building. She is at the disposal of all the functionaries of the system.
The Usher, the subservient husband of the Washerwoman. His submission to official authority is, like his wife’s, a sign of the absorption of the individual into the system.
The Clerk of Inquiries
The Clerk of Inquiries, a minor official who reveals court procedures to newly arrested persons.
Willem, minor officers of the Court who must endure the attentions of The Whipper because K. has complained to the Court about them.
Uncle Karl (Albert K.), Joseph K.’s uncle, who is determined that K. shall have good legal help in his difficulties.
Huld, the lawyer, an ailing and eccentric man who is hand in glove with the Court. He keeps his great knowledge of the law half-hidden from K., who finally dismisses the lawyer as a man whose efforts will be useless.
Leni, the notably promiscuous servant at the lawyer’s house. Full of kind instructions to K., she tells him how to get along with the erratic Huld.
Block, a tradesman who has been waiting for five and a half years for Huld to do something for him. He lives at the lawyer’s house so that he can be ready for consultations at odd hours.
The Manufacturer, one of K.’s clients. He expresses sympathy for K.’s plight and sends K. to an artist acquaintance, Titorelli, as a means of influencing the Court in K.’s favor.
Titorelli, an impoverished painter who lives in an attic just off the courts of justice. He paints many a magistrate in uneasy and yet traditional poses. He explains in great detail to K. The different kinds of sentences an accused person can receive. He also reveals the contrast between what the law is supposed to do and how it actually works.
The Prison Chaplain
The Prison Chaplain, whom K. encounters as the preacher at the cathedral in the town. The Chaplain tells K. A long story about a door guarded by a Tartar; it is a door that somehow exists especially for K. Despite his sympathy, the Chaplain finally reveals himself as merely one more employee of the Court.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 308
Joseph K. is the central character of The Trial, although his perspective is not that of the novel itself. As with other figures out of Kafka's fiction readers know very little about Joseph K.'s life or habits. However, he is to all outward appearances a normal, relatively successful, minor bureaucrat working as a chief teller in a banking house. His life as a bachelor appears uneventful to the point of boredom. Once he is arrested his world changes in a nightmarish sort of way. He tries repeatedly to apply the everyday logic which has gotten him through life so far to order or explain or control what is happening to him. All fails and Joseph goes to his death never quite understanding what is happening to him.
The focus is so obsessively on Joseph that the subsidiary characters are easily overlooked. He runs into many figures in his quest to discover the source of his guilt. The most important is the Prosecuting Attorney, Hastier, who is everything Joseph K. is not, large, robust, powerful, gluttonous. He is in control, seems to know what is going on, has power over his life in ways Joseph K. only dreams about. Hastier provides the perfect figure for him to try to emulate. It is part of the irony of the novel though that Joseph K. is so blind that he cannot see that the Prosecuting Attorney also lacks wisdom, a position only available to the reader.
There are a host of other figures who are featured only briefly in the labyrinthine text, most of them functioning as did their literary predecessors in A Pilgrim's Progress (1678), who test the quester or to impart to him some contradictory information or confusing advice. It is part of the structure of the text itself to invite interpretation, an impulse confirmed by the fiction's characters.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2095
K.’s Uncle Albert rushes into town after hearing from his daughter, Erna, that K. is on trial. He is extremely annoyed that K. is unconcerned with his predicament, “Josef, you’ve undergone a total metamorphosis; you’ve always had such a keen grasp of things, has it deserted you now?” K.’s uncle impresses upon him that the honor of the family is at stake. Albert represents the accomplished man and exposes the collective nature of K.’s actions.
The “first student of the unknown system of jurisprudence” that K. meets is Bertold. “This horrible man” with bandy legs and a scraggly red beard, is in pursuit of the Usher’s wife. At first it appears that he is pursuing her for himself but he carries her off to the Examining Magistrate.
“Block, Block the merchant” is a little man. Before he divested all his holdings, he tells K., so as to focus himself entirely on his case, he was a successful grain merchant. When he meets K., he has illegally employed five petty lawyers, called hucksters, to his cause. His crime is unknown too. His relationship with Dr. Huld, however, is strange and masochistic. Mr. Block, from K.’s viewpoint is a dog with no self-respect.
Bürstner is K.’s neighbor. She is a single, independent woman making her way in the world. As such, she is K.’s ideal of femininity but the traditional Frau Grubach is suspicious of her morals for the same reason. When K. stops by to apologize for an event she was never aware of, he learns that she too is “fascinated with court matters. The court has a strange attraction … ” She also tells K. that she will “start next month as a secretary in a law firm.” With a possible intelligent female ally before him, K. launches into a noisy summary of that morning’s events that ends with a strange declaration of love in the form of an unwanted sexual advance. This assault is a symbolic arrest of Bürstner’s equanimity with the world, which she acknowledges by carrying her head bent at the neck back into her room.
K.’s failed attempt to create a positive relationship with a decent woman is indicative of his actions at large. He believes himself to be good with details and negotiating, but he is boorish and heavy-footed in his approach. As a final reproach to K., she is the last person—other than his wardens— that he sees on the way to his execution.
The Chief Clerk
When the Chief Clerk emerges from the corner of Dr. Huld’s room, he represents the obscurity of the Law.
K. pays a weekly visit to Elsa, a waitress in a wine house who receives daytime “visitors only in bed.” Leni says she is too tightly corseted in her photo. K. chooses, on one occasion, to see her instead of going to court. This preference for a distraction doesn’t help K.’s standing with the court.
The Examining Magistrate
Although he writes all night in a school exercise book and sits in court all day, The Examining Magistrate never reveals the charges against K. The one time The Examining Magistrate has a role, he says, “You’re a house painter?” This apparent mistake sets K. off on a defiant speech. The Examining Magistrate appears to seek solace in his notebook while K. talks. Throughout the rest of the novel, The Examining Magistrate is referred to in hushed tones though he is “so small he’s almost tiny.” He chases the Ushers wife and reads pornography.
The first guard K. sees, after he rings his bell for Anna, is Franz. He is a young man with a wife who pleads with K. to save him from the whipping. Along with Willem, Franz asks K. for a bribe and for his clothes. To K.’s protestations, Franz says, “You see, Willem, he admits that he doesn’t know the Law and yet he claims he’s innocent.” The two guards eat his breakfast; K.’s complaints about their actions lead to their punishment.
“The only person I can discuss [my case with] is an old woman,” K. says to himself while looking at Frau Grubach. To her the trial “seems like something scholarly.” Frau Grubach is K.’s landlady and she is very fond of him, though, like most everyone else, she avoids shaking his hand. Grubach also owes K. a large sum of money. She suspects K. is guilty.
See Prosecuting Counsel
The ailing Dr. Huld is a famous lawyer although he is not a great lawyer. K.’s uncle introduces him to Dr. Huld. Huld is important enough that court officials pay him visits and, in fact, when K. and his Uncle enter, the Chief Clerk is sitting, unseen, in the corner. K. is frustrated by Dr. Huld’s style as it does not match with his own financial sense of efficiency. He bemoans the fact that Dr. Huld takes forever with the first petition.
The sole purpose of the Inspector is to inform K. that he is under arrest. His very presence, however, as a high functionary of the Law, causes K. to talk in a guilty manner. Having performed his duty, he departs from the house unseen.
The Italian Colleague
K. is volunteered by the President to show an important client from Italy around the city. The Italian’s presence reminds him that there is a whole world out there. The labyrinths of the trial are reflected in the convoluted Italian that this man speaks. K. can not follow him but the President can. Even in this instance, K. is left out of the information loop and, therefore, simply accepts the President’s directions as to the place and time for the tour.
The novel begins with the protagonist, Chief Financial Officer Josef K., asleep in bed on his thirtieth birthday. “Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” K., however, is incapable of accepting his new situation because, as he admits to his guards, “I don’t know the Law … it probably exists only in your heads.” Eventually, the court renders its verdict and sentences K. to death on his thirty-first birthday.
K.’s plight is that of every person who attempts to understand the intricacies of life. Each person, like the man in the Priest’s parable, has his or her own gate to enter. K. wants, very much, to enter with success. A very detail-oriented person, he tries to ferret out the rules of his trial so that he may best deal with them in a dignified manner. Against his will he shows signs of resistance, “the pressure of the crowd behind him was so great that he had to actively resist.” Doing so, however, lends him an air of resistance that is interpreted by others as a potential source of salvation, “Do you think you’ll be able to improve things?” asks the Usher’s Wife. But K.’s appearance as a Christ-like figure is a stretch. In fact, he is unable to deal with real life with the same brilliance with which he handles financial transactions. He is unable to go with the flow because he needs to understand his situation. Therefore, much like the truthseeker in Plato’s parable of the Cave, he is executed.
Kaminer always wears a smile due to a muscle twist and is repulsively modest. He is a witness to K.’s arrest and hands K. his hat when they finally set off for the bank.
Kullych is one of the three low-level bank assistants present at K.’s apartment when he is brought before the Inspector. Later, when K. is leaving the bank in order to visit his mother, Kullych pursues him. This assistant is a “dull-witted … big-headed blond fellow” who doesn’t seem to understand that K. is asserting his right as a highpowered bank official to wave off his responsibilities. Kullych wants to consult K. about a letter but K. tears it into pieces, though he wishes—in an obvious allusion to spanking—to give the Aryan “two loud slaps on his pale round cheeks.”
Captain Lanz is the nephew of Frau Grubach who happens to be sleeping in the living room while K. is talking to Bürstner. When Montag moves in with Bürstner, he moves into her room. He stands nearby when Montag confronts K.
Dr. Huld’s maid and nurse is a young woman named Leni who is sexually attracted to men involved in trials. She promises to help K. but only introduces him to Block. Leni has a webbed hand and this deformity attracts K. In the only instance of affectionate display in the novel, K. tenderly kisses Leni’s “claw.”
A businessman with whom K. has done business with in the past seeks K.’s help again. The Manufacturer also offers K. some information, which he hopes will be useful in his trial. He gives K. a letter of introduction to the court painter.
Fraülein Montag moves in with Bürstner soon after K. assaults her. It is Montag who answers K.’s protestations and tells him to stay away from Bürstner.
Instead of finding the Italian in the cathedral, K. meets a Priest who turns out to be the court’s chaplain. It is the clearest exchange in the work and the Priest reveals that K.’s case is going very badly. The Priest puts K.’s position into perspective with the parable of the Gatekeeper. The Priest represents religion in the novel and his presence, and his speech, leads to an easy interpretation of the novel as a theological commentary.
Prosecuting Counsel K. strikes up a wonderful friendship with a well-regarded prosecuting counsel named Hasterer. They have long conversations and hold court in a tavern. Due to the high regard in which Hasterer holds K., many lesser figures seek audiences with Hasterer through K. Despite Hasterer’s standing in the court, he is no help to K. Hasterer and K. become so inseparable that Hasterer’s girlfriend, Helene, becomes jealous and eventually she leaves.
“Wooden, arm-swinging” Rabensteiner is the first of the three lowly clerks that K. recognizes. To K., Rabensteiner is the epitome of lethargy.
Titorelli is the painter of the court. K. is introduced to him by The Manufacturer. In one of the fragments, the encounter between K. and the painter is wrought with sexual tension. Titorelli is more informative about the practical workings of the court than Dr. Huld. Titorelli represents the art world and reveals the way in which the law spills over into all other aspects of life. In the same way that only a man versed in the law can be an advocate, only a man who knows all the rules of art can be a painter. Titorelli is fortunate enough to have grown up learning the rules of painting.
The Usher takes K. on a tour of the Law offices while asking him to bring his wife back. Though in the service of the court, he is not unaware of its brutality. He answers K.’s comment about stumbling over a step, saying, “they show no consideration of any kind.”
The Usher’s Wife
The Usher’s Wife cleans the courtroom. K. believes that she is offering herself to him. But when Bertold takes her away, K. realizes “he had suffered defeat only because he had sought to do battle.” From the Usher’s Wife, K. gains an insight into the industrious character of the Examining Magistrate. He doubts the image as soon as she allows him to see the Examining Magistrate’s books—a pornographic book and a novel.
The Vice President
K.’s trial occurs when it is essential for him to be at his professional best. The President is in decline and his subordinates are jockeying for position. The Vice President views K. as his rival. Consequently, he takes advantage of K.’s distraction to siphon off K.’s clients.
Willem is the other lowly employee paid to watch K. for ten hours a day. He is older than Franz and has seniority. He reminds K. that, in comparison to K., he and Franz are free men.