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The Trial

Franz Kafka

Chapter 1

Characters

Chapter 2

Summary

When his landlady's cook does not bring his breakfast at the expected hour, Joseph K. rings for her. A man whom he has never seen before knocks and steps into his bedroom. Another waits in the next room. The men inform him that he has been arrested, and request that he return to his room. They can offer no explanations--they are mere underlings, his warders. K. does not know whether this is some sort of joke or not. It is his thirtieth birthday, and perhaps his colleagues at the Bank are playing a prank. But he doesn't want to be too rash or show his hand, especially with these fools to whom he feels superior.

He returns to his room and stews. Through the windows of the apartment across the way an old man and woman have been following the proceedings. With a startling shout, one of the warders summons K. to see the Inspector. The warders make him change into a black suit and walk him into an adjoining room. The room has recently been rented to Fraulein Burstner, a typist. Now it has been temporarily taken over by an Inspector and three young men. The Inspector can tell K. no more than that he has been arrested, and that his protestations of innocence are unbecoming. K. is infuriated, but unable to extract any useful explanation. The Inspector says that K. is free to go about his business for the time being, then departs.

K. goes to the bank, but foregoes his usual evening stroll, appearance at the beer hall, and weekly visit to Elsa, the cabaret waitress. He feels that the morning's events have caused an upheaval in the household of Frau Grubach, and wants to set things to right. Frau Grubach is darning socks in her room when K. returns. K. knocks, enters, and has a chat with her. She was not troubled by the presence of the warders or the inspectors. K. is her most valued lodger, and she will find no complaint with him. He asks if Fraulein Burstner has returned. Frau Grubach says no, the young woman is out at the theater, from which she always returns quite late.

K. waits for Fraulein Burstner to return. When she does, he goes with her to her room and apologizes for its being used by strangers on his account. He explains to her what happened, and in his re-enactment of the morning, gives a shout that rouses Frau Grubach's nephew sleeping in an adjoining room. Fraulein Burstner is startled. K. rushes to her to comfort her, and ends up covering her in kisses. He returns to his room in good spirits, though he's concerned that the captain might make trouble for Fraulein Burstner with the landlady (she is concerned about running a respectable establishment).

Commentary

Joseph K. is ambitious, successful, demanding, curt--a man of business and no nonsense. He is arrogant, calculating, intolerant of his perceived inferiors, and yet (at least in the larger question of guilt, innocence, and civil liberty) wholly in the right. A typical Kafka protagonist, he achieves the difficult and separate balances of complexity and unreality, sympathy and aversion. But what is he guilty of? What would warrant his arrest and prosecution (not to mention persecution)? Ostensibly nothing. As the novel bears out, the Court that has claimed him is thoroughly vile. Yet no one is free of guilt. Tempted as he is to laugh the whole thing off, to call the warders' bluff and declare the whole event a practical joke, he cannot. In part this is because he calculates it to be unwise to show his hand, or to force that of his opponents', but also because there is a lingering question in his mind of whether somehow, in some way, he has been remiss. Is it his inherent apolitical nature? He has always taken law, order, and justice for granted. They have been a steady and invisible framework within which he has achieved his success, without ever having pause to consider them. He is not a man who contemplates the larger questions. Is this inability to "think outside the box," his susceptibility to the machinations of the machine into whose path he has been thrown, the basis of his eventual, inevitable guilt?

K.'s experience with the warders and the Inspector sets the tone for his various encounters with representatives of the Law. Most are friendly enough with him, if not always decorous. Almost all of them strike him with their small-mindedness. They are functionaries, robots, far down on the totem, following orders and fulfilling duty without understanding or attempting to understand underlying motive. The Court is unimpeachable; the Law is its own justification and the only one these underlings need.

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