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The Trial

Franz Kafka

Chapter 7

Chapter 6

Chapter 8

Summary

Joseph K. sits in his office on a wintry morning thinking about his case. He goes into a sixteen-page reverie in which he inwardly expresses his frustrations with his lawyer and recounts all the information his lawyer has conveyed to him about the tangled workings of the Court. K. has grown weary of his lawyer's endless talk and seemingly minimal action. The lawyer defends himself by saying that in these cases it is often better to do nothing overt, at least not at this stage. K. is intensely exhausted and recognizes in himself the symptoms of mental strain due to worrying about his case. He can no longer pretend to take the high road and ignore it.

K. is incapable of concentrating on his work. Several important people are kept waiting for excessive periods while he thinks about his case. At last he sees a client, an important manufacturer. K. again is unable to pay attention to the matter at hand. His chief rival, the Assistant Manager, comes in and takes over the case. K. returns to his thoughts. The manufacturer has a few words with K. on his way out. He has heard of K.'s case (it will soon be commonplace for K. to encounter people who know about his situation, but it is still a shock at this point) and has a friendly recommendation to make. The manufacturer knows a lowly painter, called Titorelli, who paints portraits for the Court. This painter informed him of K.'s case. He suggests that K. visit this man, find out what he knows, and see if he might be of any service.

K. takes the advice. After an uncomfortable encounter with the businessmen waiting in the lobby to meet with him (which is resolved--though to K.'s distinct disadvantage--by the appearance of unctuous Assistant Manager), K. goes to call on the painter. The painter lives in a section of the city even poorer than the one K. visited for his interrogation. K. finds the building, climbs stairs, runs a gauntlet of nosy teenage girls, and meets the painter in the latter's tiny studio room. The girls remain outside the door, peeping and listening.

The painter is indeed an official Court painter--a position he inherited from his father. He provides K. with more information about the Court. He offers to use his connections to aid K.'s cause. He describes the three possible acquittals that may be hoped for: definite acquittal, ostensible acquittal, and indefinite postponement. The first is the stuff of legends, and has never occurred in the painter's experience. The second is a non-binding acquittal granted by the lower judges, which may be revoked at any time should another judge or a higher level of the Court demand action. This acquittal requires a fatiguing flurry of petitioning and lobbying, but little effort thereafter--that is until the case is revisited, at which point the efforts must begin anew. Thus the possibility of the case's resumption--of arrest at any moment and a return to square one--hovers perpetually over the accused. Indefinite postponement requires constant attention and contact with the Court but keeps the case in its initial stages. It avoids the perpetual anxiety of possible arrest, but requires constant activity. The advantage to be gained from both ostensible acquittal and indefinite postponement is that they prevent the case from coming to sentencing.

While the painter talks, K. finds the stuffy room more and more unbearable. He is hot and barely able to breathe. At last he takes his leave, without instructing the painter which of the options he prefers. Before allowing him to leave, the painter induces the desperate K. to buy several identical landscapes. As the nosy girls are still outside the door, the painter lets K. out through another door in the tiny room. This leads to a hallway that looks identical to the lobby of the law offices K. visited in Chapter Three. The air is even worse in this hallway. K. is taken aback. The painter informs K. that there are Law Court Offices in nearly every attic. K. holds his handkerchief over his face as an usher escorts him out.

Commentary

Chapter Seven dumps on K. (and the reader) a windfall of information, all of which comes to nothing. Or, rather, all of which leads to a few simple conclusions: the Court is inscrutable and irredeemably corrupt. Both the lawyer and the painter would have K. believe that the only thing that really matters is good relations with subordinate officials. Yet this is the case only because no one knows who the higher officials are. They are unreachable, so naturally all wheedling, supplication, and influence peddling goes through the lower courts. Yet, as the painter makes clear, the stakes are low. No one can really influence the outcome of the case--at most they can tinker with the trajectory, to drag out the proceedings indefinitely while the mantle of guilt hovers above the accused.

Justice delayed, of course, is justice denied. But justice clearly cannot be hoped for. Ultimately, the Court is corrupt not because of the pathetic influence peddling that occurs in its lower levels. It is corrupt because it is not accountable to the society it serves. Perhaps the Law is internally consistent, but those outside its ranks and to whom it applies will never know. Allegations are never disclosed; evidence is never disclosed; ultimate judicial power is invisible; the word of law is available only to those who stand in judgment of the accused. Who can defend himself when he does not know the accusation? Who can defend herself when she does not know the Law? Defense is distinctly frowned upon. The accused is generally considered to be guilty.

The Trial is generally thought to be, among other things, a condemnation of the intractable Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy--which Kafka, ensconced as he was in the State's insurance establishment, knew well. If the book offers a prescient portrait of the manipulative, unjust regimes that would begin to dominate Europe and Asia a decade after the author's death, it is not because the author offers a specific prophesy. Yet he does describe the seed: a society that accepts unaccountable governance in the name of necessity, which regards the law as divine Law because it declines to show itself.

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