Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The Trial (German Der Prozeß) is a surreal novel by Franz Kafka about a character named Joseph K., who awakens one morning and, for reasons that one never discovers, is arrested and subjected to the rigours of the judicial process for an unspecified crime.
Like Kafka's other novels, The Trial was left unfinished at his death, and was never intended to be published. Its manuscript was rescued by his friend Max Brod. It was first published in German in 1925 as Der Process [sic].
Plot Synopsis by Chapter
The Arrest - Conversation with Frau Grubach then Fräulein Bürstner
On the morning of his thirtieth birthday, a junior bank manager, Josef K., who lives in lodgings, is unexpectedly arrested by two unidentified agents for an unspecified crime. The agents do not name the authority for which they are acting. He is not taken away, but left at home to await instructions from the Interrogation Commission. That evening K misses his regular visit to a prostitute, Elsa.
Frau Grubach, his landlady, tries to console Josef but unintentionally offends him by speculating that perhaps the arrest was related to an illicit relationship with Fräulein Bürstner, the tenant next door to Josef K. Josef visits the Fräulein to discuss his plight, but ends up kissing her, belatedly fulfilling the landlady's speculation. This is an early indication that Josef K. is no longer in control of his own fate.
K is instructed to appear at a local court, but the time of the trial is not specified. This causes him to waste his time waiting to be called. When he is finally called, he is told, confusingly, that he is late. As the interrogation begins, he is asked an ill-informed question, which he uses as the basis for his attack on the preceding events and the general competence of the court. As he leaves, the Examining Magistrate tells K that "...today you have flung away with your own hand all the advantages which an interrogation invariably confers on an accused man."
In the Empty Interrogation Chamber - The Student - The Offices
Josef K tries to visit the Examining Magistrate, but finds only the Law-Court Attendant's wife. Looking at the Magistrate's books, he finds that they are not law books, but pornography. The woman tries to seduce him. As Josef resolves to succumb to the woman as an act of defiance against the Court, a law student appears and, after an argument with Josef, carries the woman off in his arms.
Josef later spots the Attendant, who complains about his wife's wantonness and offers Josef a tour of the court offices. There are many other defendants waiting hopelessly for information about their cases. Josef struggles to cope with the "dull and heavy...hardly breathable" air, and almost faints. To his shame, he has to be carried out of the court by two officials.
Fräulein Bürstner's Friend
Josef returns home to find Fräulein Montag, a lodger from another room, moving in with Fräulein Bürstner. He suspects that this is to prevent him from pursuing his affair with the latter woman. Yet another lodger, Captain Lanz, appears to be in league with Montag.
Later, in a store room at his own bank, Josef K discovers the two agents who arrested him being whipped by a superior. This surreal event appears to have been staged for his viewing, either to simply frighten him, or to demonstrate the seriousness in which the court views incompetence and corruption. The next day he returns to the store room and is shocked to find everything as he left it, including the Whipper and the two agents.
K.'s Uncle - Leni
Josef K is visited by his influential uncle, who by coincidence is a friend of the Clerk of the Court. The uncle is, or appears to be, distressed by Josef's predicament and is at first sympathetic, but becomes concerned that K is underestimating the seriousness of the case. The uncle introduces Josef K to an Advocate, who is attended by Leni, a nurse. K visits Leni, whilst his uncle is talking with the Advocate and the Chief Clerk of the Court, much to his uncle's anger, and to the detriment of his case.
Advocate - Manufacturer - Painter
K visits the advocate and finds him to be a capricious and unhelpful character. K returns to his bank but finds that his colleagues are trying to undermine him.
Josef K is advised by one of his bank clients to visit Titorelli, a painter, for advice. Titorelli has no official connections, yet seems to have a deep understanding of the process. He explains: "You see, everything belongs to the Court." He sets out what K's options are, but the consequences of all of them are unpleasant. The labourious requirements of these options, and the limited outlook that they offer, leads the reader to lose hope for Josef K.
The Commercial Traveller - Dismissal of the Advocate
Josef K decides to take control of his own destiny and visits his advocate with the intention of dismissing him. At the advocate's office he meets a downtrodden individual, Block, a client who offers K some insight, from a clients perspective. Block's case has continued for five years, yet he appears to have been virtually enslaved by his dependence on the advocate's unpredictable advice. This experience further poisons K's opinion of his advocate, and K is bemused as to why his advocate would think that seeing such a client, in such a state, could change his mind.
In The Cathedral
K has to show an important client from Italy around the Cathedral. The client doesn't show, but just as K is leaving the Cathedral, the priest calls out K's name, although K has never known the priest. The priest works for the court, and tells K a fable that is meant to explain his situation, but instead causes confusion, and implies that K's fate is hopeless. The gravity of the priest's words prepares the reader for an unpleasant ending.
On the last day of Josef K's thirtieth year, two men arrive to execute him. He offers little resistance, suggesting that he has realised this as being inevitable for some time. They lead him to a quarry and brutally murder him. His last words describe his own death: "Like a dog!".
The Trial is a chilling story that maintains a constant, relentless atmosphere of unease, right up to the brutal ending. Superficially the subject matter is political; an illustration of a truly twisted brand of law enforcement. However, one of the strengths of the novel is in its description of the effect of these circumstances on the life and mind of Josef K. It presents the absurdity of human nature, of drudging along without direction, and without result. It can also be considered allegorically in a number of frameworks, for example, emotional. If it were published today, it might be described as a "paranoid thriller", but it is unusually uncompromising and depressing by modern standards.
Comparisons with other works
- Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics, ISBN 0-14-018113-X
- Freely available at DigBib.Org (German version, text, pdf, html)
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