One morning, Josef K.’s breakfast does not arrive at the usual time. He is surprised by this unprecedented change in routine, and he rings for his landlady’s cook. Immediately, an unfamiliar man arrives and instructs Josef to remain in his room.
From the very outset of the book, its theme of the unknowable is prevalent. Josef’s arrest appears startling and aberrant, rather than a fulfillment of justice, but its most distressing aspect is its inexplicability.
Josef exits his room anyway, hoping to speak to his landlady, Frau Grubach. He finds a second man sitting in the living room. This man tells Josef that he and his companion, Franz, have arrived to arrest Josef. They assure him that he will be informed in due time of the charges against him.
Although Josef’s experience runs counter to the basic principles of law and order, none of his captors seem to mind. Instead, they are confident that the system will manage to sort things out beyond their understanding.
The policemen continue to talk, and Josef tries to analyze his position, calculating the costs and benefits of each possible response. Because it happens to be his thirtieth birthday, K. imagines that this could be a practical joke by his colleagues.
Josef’s strategizing reveals him to be obsessed with social dynamics and gamesmanship. He is intent on retaining every bit of control he can, because he is unable to control or understand his current situation.
Josef asks the men to produce an arrest warrant. The men respond that they cannot answer his questions because they are only low-level functionaries, but insist that they are simply acting in accordance with the law. Josef, indignant, returns to his room, but not before noticing that an elderly couple has been watching the altercation from their window.
The policemen display an attitude that is widespread in The Trial: they act not as accountable individuals, but as ignorantly complicit cogs of a controlling, impersonal system.
Suddenly, the men yell to Josef that their supervisor wants to see him. The police insist that Josef put on his best black suit, and lead him into another room of the house that is rented by a typist named Fraulein Burstner. The supervisor is seated at the desk, and there are three young men in the room with him. Josef demands more details of his arrest, but the supervisor forcefully replies that he knows nothing of Josef’s crime—only that he is under arrest. Josef protests louder and louder; he also notices that the old man and woman watching from their window have been joined by a third man. He yells at these spectators to leave him alone.
Although Josef’s cooperation with the police is designed to expedite the process of law and order, it in reality reinforces his anxieties and subjugates him to the authority of the court. Josef may voice outrage, but he nevertheless complies with the investigation, and this is what legitimatizes the absolute authority that the court exerts over him. Moreover, Josef’s rage at being watched by the three spectators shows that he is ashamed of being perceived as powerless or, perhaps, guilty. Even though he is sure that he is not guilty it makes him upset to think that others might think he is.
The supervisor tells Josef that he may leave for his job at the bank. They tensely part ways, and Josef goes to the bank with the three young people who were in Fraulein Burstner’s room, whom Josef has realized are colleagues of his.
Josef’s arrest has so alienated him from his everyday routine that he did not even recognize his coworkers until his normal workday context is restored.
After work, Josef usually takes a walk and goes to a pub with his colleagues; once a week, he calls upon a cocktail waitress named Elsa. After this workday, however, Josef heads straight home. He apologizes to Frau Grubach about the morning’s disturbance. She is unwilling to find fault with him because he is her favorite tenant, although her manner betrays some anxiety.
Daily routine appears to be a source of comfort for Josef. His arrest has so disturbed him because it has made him unable to immerse himself in this routine. Notably, however, the system of law and order disturbs him in part because of its very routineness: the policemen and supervisors simply fulfill their roles and assure Josef to trust the system simply because it is systematic.
On his way out of Frau Grubach’s room, Josef asks about Fraulein Burstner’s whereabouts. Grubach tells him that the young woman hasn’t yet returned from one of her late nights at the theater. The landlady also insinuates that Burstner fraternizes with men in an immodest way. Josef snaps angrily at the landlady for impugning Burstner.
Josef’s impassioned defense of Fraulein Burstner is out of character, and likely arises more from anxiety about his own arrest—his own innocence despite the charges being made against him—than from genuine indignation about Frau Grubach’s remarks.
Josef waits until 11:30, when Fraulein Burstner arrives. She invites him into her room, where Josef explains the day’s events and apologizes for disturbing her space. While reenacting his encounter with the supervisor, Josef lets out a yell that startles Fraulein Burstner and wakes Frau Grubach’s nephew, who sleeps in a nearby room.
Frau Grubach’s description of Fraulein Burstner appears to have motivated Josef to seek her out, perhaps with the aim of seducing her. This may be Josef’s way of rebelling against societally-prescribed standards after feeling particularly constrained by the Law.
Josef comforts Fraulein Burstner, who is concerned about the disturbance he has caused. Impulsively, he showers her with kisses. He returns to his room surprised by, but satisfied with, his behavior, and he worries whether his conduct will raise trouble for Fraulein Burstner.
Josef’s lusty but impersonal encounter with Fraulein Burstner is an indication of his isolation, and a desperate need for meaningful interpersonal contact. This need is so acute that Josef’s outburst defies his ordinarily calculating nature.