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City. Kafka’s urban setting for The Trial reinforces the ordinary quality of protagonist Joseph K.’s life. K. lives and works as anyone else might in a large, industrialized city. The urban setting also emphasizes the arbitrary nature of his trial, as K. appears to be an ordinary citizen picked at random to face charges for an unspecified crime.

Frau Grubach’s boardinghouse

Frau Grubach’s boardinghouse. Residence of K., in which Kafka sets much of the novel, thereby creating a sense of personal invasion. One morning, while he is still in bed, K. discovers that he is under arrest. Two guards of the court have been sent to deliver the message; however, they give no information about the crime for which he is charged. His arrest is sudden and inexplicable, and because it occurs in his bedroom, the proceedings against him exhibit a confusing and invasive quality. They do not correspond to any rational system of justice. The law condemns Joseph K. in his bedroom in the opening chapter, and it returns for him there at the novel’s conclusion to execute its sentence.


Court. Building to which K. goes, using the address given to him for his initial hearing. There he finds a dilapidated apartment complex, in whose cramped and overheated attic the court that has accused him meets. This unlikely setting for a court of law emphasizes the nightmarish nature of K.’s trial, while also creating questions about the legitimacy of the proceedings. The locations of other court offices in the upper rooms of buildings also suggest the transcendence of the court and its procedures. K. has difficulty breathing the air in the court, as though it exists at a level beyond, or above, normal life.

Junk room

Junk room. Small storage closet in the bank building in which K. works. In one of the most unusual scenes in the novel, K. confronts a functionary of the court in the process of punishing the same two court guards who earlier had informed him of his arrest. The method of administering punishment, in this case by flogging, and the location of the punishment in a junk room of a bank building, augment the irrational quality of K.’s trial.

Huld’s house

Huld’s house. Home of a lawyer whose counsel K. seeks on the advice of his uncle, an old friend of Huld. Huld receives K. in his bedroom, where he is bedridden by illness. Just as the court meets in the attics of apartment buildings, so lawyers hold office hours in their bedrooms, further complicating the nature of the judicial proceedings throughout the novel and adding an increasing surreality to the events of the narrative.

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Titorelli’s bedroom

Titorelli’s bedroom. Small, oddly furnished attic bedroom in which Titorelli, a painter, lives and works—another example of the prominent role bedrooms play in the novel. Titorelli’s bed stands in front of a door leading out of his bedroom. Titorelli explains to K. that through his doorway, officials of the court enter, often while he is sleeping. Titorelli, like many characters in the novel, lives at the mercy of the court.


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Cathedral. Large, ornate church in the city where K. meets a priest who tells him a parable about the law. Rather than providing some measure of comfort for K., the priest complicates matters further by giving him only a cryptic description of the court and its procedures. K.’s discussion with the priest adds a metaphysical quality to his efforts to justify himself against the allegations of the court. Just as those to whom he turns throughout the novel for assistance can provide no substantive help, so the church can provide only parables, whose meanings are open to indistinct and conflicting interpretations.

Stone quarry

Stone quarry. Located outside the city, the quarry is K.’s final destination, the site of his execution. The quarry provides an appropriate setting for K.’s execution, lending a sacrificial quality to the event. Executioners position him on a rectangular stone block, and their behavior during and after the execution resembles a religious ritual, as they stare into K.’s eyes at the moment of his death.

Historical Context

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The earliest known inhabitants of the mountainrimmed nucleus of the Czech Republic were the “Boii” people. Not much remains of them but the name, Bohemia, or, “home of the Boii.” They integrated completely with a Slavic tribe called Czechs around the fifth century AD. By the fourteenth century, Bohemia was the most prosperous kingdom in Europe. In the next century, Jan Hus made Bohemia the center of Protestantism.

In 1526, Ferdinand I’s marriage transferred Bohemia to the Roman Catholic Austrian House of Hapsburg. Despite Protestant grumbling, Ferdinand kept the peace and the Austro-Hungarian Empire thrives. The situation is fine until discontent with Roman Catholic rule boils over. The Protestant uprising that led to the disastrous Thirty Years’ War involving all of Europe began in Bohemia. The Protestants are finally defeated at White Mountain in 1620 and Bohemia again came under Austrian rule. This situation lasted until a Serbian terrorist named Gavrilo Pincip assassinated Archduke Francis Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo. Austria decided the assassination was a good excuse to declare war on Serbia.

World War I
There was no singular event that caused World War I. Several factors contributed to the conflict. It started when Austria-Hungary bungled relations with the Balkan States and, together with Germany, antagonized Russia. In addition, Britain was anxious about losing control of its empire and eager to cement an alliance with France.

In 1908 Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina exacerbated the situation and angered Serbia. Austria-Hungary could have dueled with Serbia in 1909, when that nation was weak. Instead, Serbia emerged, in 1913, prepared to attain its dream of a greater Serbia. Austria-Hungary responded with the creation of Albania in the path of Serbia. Germany, meanwhile, declared itself a friend of Turkey and threatened Russia’s use of the Straits of Constantinople over its grain exports— from which Russia derives 40% of its income. Consequently, the nations of Europe mobilized their armies for an inevitable war. The assassination of the Archduke provided the final act.

Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on July 28th, 1914, activated the two alliances that existed in Europe. Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary comprised the Triple alliance, or Central Powers. England France and Russia made up the Triple Entente Powers, or Allies. Russia, now in the mood to protect Serbia and the Balkan States, sided with Serbia. France and Britain followed. It was a gruesome war.

Hoping to win early, each side went on the offensive. The death toll was huge: of the sixty million men mobilized for war, 8.5 million died, and twenty-one million were wounded. Every city and town in Europe has its memorial to World War I. When the offensives failed, Europe hunkered down into a deadly trench warfare; disease killed more men than bullets. Finally, the Americans were drawn into the conflict on the side of the Allies in 1917 and the simple introduction of new energy turned the tide. The Allies won in 1918 and the Austria-Hungarian Empire was dismantled. Bohemia became the central province of the Republic of Czechoslovakia.

The ghetto was an invention of Pope Paul IV, who, in 1555, decreed that all the Jews in Rome would live in a particular area of the city. Such decrees spread throughout Europe as anti-Semitic fervor waxed and waned. Many ghettos were abolished in the late nineteenth century.

Alhough the Nazi program of genocide is several decades away, anti-Semitism was as natural in Eastern Europe as Jim Crow laws in the American South. Jews, by economic social circumstance, were forced to remain in the ghettos. Such a concentration of Jews in one place made them vulnerable to violence and discrimination. Early in the twentieth century, anti-Semitism flared up in the form of the Russian and Romanian pogroms. In 1903 and 1905, thousands of civilians—mostly Jews—were tortured or murdered. At the time, Germany was appalled and offered refuge to many. One million Jews fled the pogroms to New York City.

Kafka’s Works
Although written against a backdrop of war, Kafka’s writings do not depend on the events of the time. The reason is that Kafka’s aesthetic intent was to create timeless parables about the human condition. Gas jets being the exception, there are few details that allow the novel to be dated. Clothes, for example, are nondescript and described in terms of function and wear rather than style. In fact, the condition of a man who deals with money being under investigation by a court could happen at any time. Due to this timeless quality, innumerable artists have borrowed Kafka’s technique. Many see a prophecy of totalitarianism in Kafka’s novels. Kafka, they say, foresaw the era of hidden courts and death squads.

Literary Style

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Parables are familiar teaching devices that reveal moral lessons through short and simple stories. A parable’s simplicity lends it a timeless quality. For this reason, parables thousands of years old hold relevance today. Parables can also be enigmatic sayings or tales, which obviously contain a message though the precise meaning is anyone’s guess. Kafka intentionally set out to write parables, not just novels, about the human condition. The Trial is a parable that includes the smaller parable of the Gatekeeper. There is clearly a relationship between the two but the exact meaning of either parable is left up to the individual reader. K. and the Priest discuss the many possible readings. Both the short parable and their discussion seem to indicate that the reader is much like the man at the gate; there is a meaning in the story for everyone just as there is one gate to the Law for each person.

The Russian formalist, Viktor Shklovski, formulated the term ostranenie in his 1917 article, “Art as device.” This term has been variously adopted in the West as defamiliarization or, more popularly, by way of Bertold Brecht, as “the alienation effect.” Quite independent of both, Kafka employs defamiliarization with unrivaled mastery. This process works by making the reader/audience perceive familiar, everyday reality in a new and unsettling way, hence the term “defamiliarization.” The result, the artist hopes, is a newfound sense of appreciation or reconsideration by the perceiver of the norm.

The world is presented in a strange way so that the viewer sees things as if for the first time. Shklovski conceives of the device as operating in an artwork on three levels. First, at the level of language, words, or linguistic rhythms, not normally associated with each other can be brought together to expose new meanings (examples can be found in the poetry of the Dadaists or the work of John Cage). Second, at the level of content, accepted concepts and ideas are distorted to reveal new perspectives on the human condition. Finally, at the level of literary forms, the canon is departed from and subliterary genres (like detective and crime stories) are elevated to high art.

Kafka accomplishes defamiliarization on all three levels with a crime story whose suspect’s reality becomes so distorted as to approach the absurd. The story’s language is precise even at the moment where it is circumventing the key to understanding. As a result the basic concept of law is newly perceived. At the linguistic level, Kafka uses words like “assault,” “guilt,” and “trial” in different contexts but in such a way that the meaning of the term is just as useful (and is interchangeable) with another.

An explicit example of Kafka using everyday understandings to defamiliarize the reader occurs in the form of the tools employed by the Inspector. The Inspector takes great pains to make the announcement of K.’s arrest look official by rearranging a bedroom to look like a court in the way a child arranges furniture to play house. Instead of a gavel and a law book, the Inspector has a random book, a pincushion, and matches. Finally, by simple and almost legalistic attention to wording, Kafka causes a constant air of doubt to cover anything said or thought. Phrases like, “could he really rely so little on his own judgment already?” are always double entendres where K. refers both to his slip of the tongue with the Manufacturer as well as the greater judgment he awaits.

Every element of the story is pregnant with allegorical significance. The position of bodies and their size symbolize a person’s value before the Law. The men of the court sit with their heads bent up against the ceiling of an attic because they are so close to heaven. An arrested person, however, hangs their head. A strong and free person stands tall and straight. Furniture exaggerates this body language. K. points out whether there are chairs for him to sit on and how this strips him of power.

K. awakens, like Adam, from sleep to the customary comfort of his bedroom where he waits for Anna. Instead of Anna, he finds himself under arrest by guards from a department which does not seek the guilty, rather, “as the law states, is attracted by guilt and has to send us guards out.” After wandering about the room, he returns to his bed and eats an apple—the allegorical fruit from the tree of knowledge—and, thereby, becomes aware of his being on trial. The Apple signifies original sin and eating the apple ends innocence.

One of the keys to Kafka’s success is his consistent employment of atmosphere. He uses a clear prose style at all times. Even when Dr. Huld is imparting the intricacies of law, the sentence structure is not complex. The rooms are fastidiously described in terms of where the air may enter and the risk of soot and dust this entrance holds for the human lung. His use of shadows and obscurity cause both K. and the reader to redouble their efforts to pay attention. Shadows are attributed with intelligence as they seem to intentionally obscure the object of K.’s vision.

Literary Techniques

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One of the techniques most discussed in Kafka's fiction is his tendency to use parables, little stories which in their interpretation reveal the core meaning of the larger fictional whole in which they are set. By extension it is possible to see Kafka's longer prose works like The Trial as not only embodying parables within them but as being lengthy parables in themselves. This technique reinforces the main purpose behind the opacity of Kafka's plots and the indeterminacy of his characters; namely, to encourage, perhaps even force, interpretive readings of his prose. To this end Kafka wrote open-ended, convoluted, and often fragmentary works. It is interesting to note that he felt those stories which did have more conventional "endings" such as The Metamorphosis (1915) as botched affairs, lending themselves too easily to simple, i.e., single, readings.

One way to achieve such interpretive insistence is developed by the tension Kafka creates between the perception of Joseph K. and the narrator who is associated with him but who is able to see beyond him at the same time. Readers are given a privileged position to observe and judge the vision and the discrepancies between the two.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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The elliptical nature of Kafka's narrative invites interpretation and no novel more so than The Trial. With its labyrinthine bureaucracy, governmental office upon governmental office, which leads nowhere, readers are constantly reminded of a drab and threadbare middle-European culture that the city of Prague perfectly evokes. K.'s descent into the nether world of the legal system provides ample means for raising a host of questions involving the law and its applications.

In addition, like his other longer works. The Trial, also seems to generate religious concerns. Is the magistrate really God? Is Joseph K.'s experience really a purgatory of sorts? These religious questions are also buttressed by the fact that the novel also raises lots of others that are religious in nature about the place of sin and innocence, pain and joy, suffering and redemption. The novel has on occasion been read as a quintessential existentialist work which balances freedom and responsibility against a deterministic universe which controls all human destiny.

1. What is the role of "justice" in this novel? How does this concept differ from legal questions of guilt and innocence?

2. To what extent is Joseph K. responsible for his predicament? A victim of forces beyond his control?

3. What do you make of the "unfinished" nature of the ending of the novel? How does this open-endedness extend our analysis of the fiction?

4. What is the role of the women in the novel? In what ways are they ministrative angels, avenging furies?

5. What is the place of the idea of "freedom" in the fiction? In the context of the narrative what does "freedom" mean?

6. Discuss the religious overtones of the novel. Do not be bound by conventional notions of religions but rather let your ideas flow from more broadly encompassing ideas of the "religious."

7. Why does Joseph K. keep pursuing his innocence? Why doesn't he just "plead out" his case?

8. In what ways is the title of the book an extended metaphor for modern life as Kafka envisioned it?

9. Why doesn't Kafka provide his narrative hero with some way out of his dilemma?

10. The image of the father plays a central part in Kafka's fiction. How does the role of the father figure work in this fiction, and what is the connection between the father and the law?

Literary Precedents

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The Trial like Kafka's other novels defines a genre of its own. Although other authors have written about the labyrinth of the western legal system — Charles Dicken's Bleak House (1853) comes immediately to mind — no one has done so with quite the eeriness that Kafka employed. The emotional detachment of his prose also finds echos in the work of other European moderns such as Max Frisch or even more recently the late novels of Jerzy Kosinski, but no one really is able to maintain quite the same odd aloofness which is so characteristic of Kafka's writing.

The utter sense of futility and alienation which the various characters named "K" experience in his novels has really not been duplicated. Even the central character of Albert Camus's The Stranger (1942), seems a rather passionate by comparison.

All of this is not to say that Kafka wrote in a vacuum, but he did tend to set precedent rather than follow it, and that is why his writing remains so central to the study of literary modernism in the twentieth century.


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The Trial was filmed in 1963 by Orson Welles, produced by a French-Italian-German conglomerate, and reflects Welles' eccentric but always interesting approach to film. One critic has remarked that the movie is a bit muddled — but then so is Kafka's novel — and the international cast, including Welles playing the Prosecuting Attorney, seems at times, adrift. The film's interest focuses primarily on its director. Welles had a reputation as a filmmaker of the first order and even minor works directed by him have received considerable notice. The film was plagued by production problems because of a scarcity of financing and reflects the shoestring budget on which it was shot.

However, Welles managed to capture the Kafkaesque quality of the novel through his film style which is elliptical and distancing as much as the prose style of the novel creates a barrier between text and reader. Welles' performance as the Prosecuting Attorney is wonderfully oblique, if at times bordering on self-parody, but Anthony Perkins as Joseph K. is a bit foggy as are at times the performances by Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider and Elsa Martinelli. Only Akim Tamiroff seems appropriately cringing and dislocated to be a part of the world of Kafka.

Media Adaptations

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“Say what you like, but The Trial is the best film I ever made!” So says Orson Welles, director of a 1963 adaptation of the novel to black and white film. Welles played the advocate opposite Anthony Perkins as Josef K.

Using a script by Harold Pinter David Hugh Jones directed a 1993 remake of the film. Josef K. is portrayed by Kyle MacLachlan and Anthony Hopkins plays The Priest.

Throughout the 1990s, The Trial has been adapted to the stage several times. Most recently, Ivan Rajmont used Evald Schorm’s adaptation at the Theatre of Estates in 1998.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Walter Benjamin, “Franz Kafka: on the Tenth Anniversary of His Death,” in his Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, edited by Hannah Arendt, Schocken, 1968, pp. 111–45.

Max Brod, Franz Kafka: A Biography, translated by G. Humphreys Roberts, Schocken, 1947.

Albert Camus, “Appendix: Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka,” in his The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, translated by Justin O’Brien, Knopf, 1955, pp. 124–38.

Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari, in Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, translated by Dana Polan, Theory and History of Literature series, Volume 30, University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Ralph Freedman, “Kafka’s Obscurity: The Illusion of Logic in Narrative,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. VIII, No. 1, Spring, 1962, pp. 61–74.

Herman Hesse, “Eine Literatur in Rezensionen un Aufsatzen,” in his Gesammelte Werke Vol. 12, Suhrkamp Verlag, 1970, p. 482.

Thomas Mann, “Homage” in The Castle by Franz Kafka, translated by Willa Muir and Edwin Muir, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1940, pp. ix–xvii.

Edwin Muir, “A Note on Franz Kafka,” in The Bookman, Vol. LXXII, No. 3, November, 1930, pp. 235–41.

Philip Rahr, “Franz Kafka: The Hero as Lonely Man,” in The Kenyon Review, Winter, 1939, pp. 60–74.

R. O. C. Winkler, “The Novels” in Kafka: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Ronald Gray, Prentice Hall, Inc. 1982, pp. 45–52.

Further Reading
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, Anchor Books, 1998. Using Kafkaesque devices, Atwood satirizes society’s obsession with reproductive rights. In a strange future, women are valued only if their ovaries function.

Terry Gilliam, Brazil, Universal Studios, 1985. Named as the best film of the year by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Brazil is the story of a bureaucratic cog named Sam Lowry and is often compared to Kafka’s The Trial. Lowry’s life is destroyed when an insect bug causes a typo on a print- out. Due to this accident, he is labeled a miscreant by the bureaucracy he works for.

Ernst Pawel, The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka, Noonday Press, 1992. This book is held to be the best biography of Franz Kafka.

Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1979. Ayn Rand presents a different view of the individual than Kafka in this story from 1949. Her individual is an architect who successfully meets the challenges of the world and his rival. In Rand’s work, good wins and the individual is triumphant.


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Flores, Angel, ed. The Kafka Problem. New York: New Directions, 1946. An important and relatively early collection of essays, three of which deal specifically with The Trial.

Flores, Angel, and Homer Swander, eds. Franz Kafka Today. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1958. Two essays treat the structure and meaning of The Trial, respectively; useful as a companion volume to the previous Flores collection. Includes a long bibliography.

Gray, Ronald, ed. Kafka: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. Fifteen excellent essays on general themes in Kafka, two dealing with The Trial in particular and several dealing with it in part. Almost all of the contributors are well-known critics. Also contains an introduction, a chronology of important dates, and a survey of recent Kafka criticism.

Rolleston, James, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Trial.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976. Ten essays with an introduction, “On Interpreting The Trial,” offer a wide sampling of critical responses to the work’s “opaqueness.” Presents Kafka’s relationships to psychoanalysis and other modern modes of interpretation. Extensive critical bibliography.

Tauber, Herbert. Franz Kafka: An Interpretation of His Works. Translated by G. Humphreys Roberts and Roger Senhouse. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1948. Places The Trial in the context of literary analysis of Kafka’s major works. Chapter 7 compares the book to The Castle in terms of both themes and execution. Should be read in conjunction with Max Brod’s seminal Biography of Franz Kafka (1937) for interesting comparison.

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