An ambitious, worldly young bank official named Joseph K. is arrested by two warders "one fine morning," although he has done nothing wrong. K. is indignant and outraged. The morning happens to be that of his thirtieth birthday. One year later, on the morning of his thirty-first birthday, two warders again come for K. They take him to a quarry outside of town and kill him in the name of the Law. K. lets them.
The Trial is the chronicle of that intervening year of K.'s case, his struggles and encounters with the invisible Law and the untouchable Court. It is an account, ultimately, of state-induced self-destruction. Yet, as in all of Kafka's best writing, the "meaning" is far from clear. Just as the parable related by the chaplain in Chapter Nine (called "The Doorkeeper" or "Before the Law") elicits endless commentary from students of the Law, so has The Trial been a touchstone of twentieth-century critical interpretation. As some commentators have noted, it has, in parts, the quality of revealed truth; as such it is ultimately unresolvable--a mirror for any sectarian reading.
How to summarize this kind of text? It was written during 1914-1915, while Kafka was an official in the Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia. On one level we can see in The Trial a satirical pillorying of the Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy of Kafka's day. Yet to many readers it is eerily prescient of the psychological weaponry used by the much more insidious totalitarian regimes to come, of the legally-sanctioned death machines Kafka never lived to see. It is also an unfinished novel, and this is apparent in the final chapters. It is at times as suffocating to read as the airless rooms of the Court that it describes. The German title, Der Prozess, connotes both a "trial" and a "process," and it is perhaps this maddening feeling of inevitability that leaves a lasting visceral impression: the machinery has been set in motion, and the process will grind toward conclusion despite our most desperate exhortations.