The Trial

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Themes and Colors
Justice vs. The Law Theme Icon
The Absurd Theme Icon
The Unknowable and Interpretation Theme Icon
Alienation and Control Theme Icon
Sex and Seduction Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Trial, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Alienation and Control Theme Icon

There is no collaboration or camaraderie in The Trial. Every individual acts as an isolated agent, and people are focused on controlling themselves and others in order to fulfill personal desires. Josef K.’s interpersonal interactions are governed by hierarchy and ambition. He obsessively tabulates his status relative to others, and calculates how he can use this positioning to his greatest benefit. Josef worries about how he may be manipulated and constantly devises ways to manipulate others to his advantage. Every decision he makes at work is a stratagem in his power-jockeying rivalry with the bank’s deputy director. One of Josef’s few uncalculated actions is his spontaneous kissing of Fraulein Burstner, and even this moment of passion only ends in alienation. Josef never speaks to the fraulein again, and when he sees her at the novel’s close, he cares so little—or has been so ground down—that he doesn’t bother to stop walking.

In spite of his efforts, Josef comes nowhere close to controlling his life. He is at the mercy of the Law, his business superiors, and anyone else who might gain some sort of leverage over him. And the ladder of alienation and control extends ever higher: even the individuals who hold power over Josef, like his judge, are in the end nothing more than powerless cogs in a larger machine. This fact is reinforced by the chaplain’s parable: while the first doorkeeper may have authority over the man who seeks to access the Law, the doorkeeper himself is subject to other doorkeepers whose power lies beyond his understanding. Each of these doorkeepers is in turn subordinate to the next. In the same way, individual obsessions with control lead each character to conceptualize his interactions on a hierarchical scale, which in turn leads to further alienated individuals and more exaggerated power dynamics. Ultimately, then, no single person is autonomous or sovereign in The Trial. This is the ironic consequence of fetishizing individual agency and dominance.

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Alienation and Control ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Alienation and Control appears in each chapter of The Trial. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Alienation and Control Quotes in The Trial

Below you will find the important quotes in The Trial related to the theme of Alienation and Control.
Chapter 3 Quotes

The woman really did tempt him and, however much he thought about it, he could find no plausible reason why he should not yield to the temptation. He easily dismissed the cursory objection that she would tie him to the court. In what way could she tie him? Would he not still remain free enough to crush the court at one blow, at least insofar as it affected him? Could he not have confidence in himself to do that small thing? And her offer of help sounded genuine and was perhaps not to be discounted. Could there be any better revenge on the examining magistrate and his entourage, than to deprive them of this woman and take her to himself?

Related Characters: Josef K.
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

Josef has arrived at the courthouse a week after his original hearing, unsure of when the second hearing is supposed to be; once there, he has again encountered the washerwoman, who it turns out is the court usher's wife, and who flirtatiously offers to help Josef with his case. At first Josef is suspicious of this offer, but in this passage he comes to believe that he might as well accept, reasoning that sleeping with the woman likely won't do any harm and would be a satisfying way of undermining the examining magistrate and other men involved with the court. Such reasoning is a typical example of the way in which all the characters in the novel are constantly seeking to gain power over one another. Note the way in which women are often used as instruments through which men assert their dominance. 

Indeed, as with Fraulein Burstner, it is clear in this passage that Josef feels no particular attraction to the washerwoman as a person. Rather, her appeal lies in the fact that she may be able to help with his case and that seducing her will prove a form of revenge against the men who work at the court. Yet considering Josef harbors no great passion for this woman in particular, he seems oddly quick to dismiss the potential dangers that seducing her might involve—Kafka gives the sense that Josef is caught up in desire and not reasoning well. He insists that sleeping with her would not further tie him to the court and that he would "remain free enough to crush the court at one blow," a claim that highlights Josef's arrogance and misperception of the power of the law. 


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He felt as if he were seasick, as if he were on a ship in a heavy sea. It was as if the water were crashing against the wooden walls, as if a rushing sound came from the far end of the corridor, like water pouring over, as if the corridor were rocking to and fro and as if the people sitting on either side were going up and down. It made the calm of the young woman and the man who were helping him to the exit all the more incomprehensible.

Related Characters: Josef K.
Related Symbols: The Court’s Oppressive Air
Page Number: 56-57
Explanation and Analysis:

The law student has carried the washerwoman away, and Josef has accompanied the court usher into the law office, which has an incredibly stuffy atmosphere, such that Josef begins to feel seasick. The dramatic description of the way the office air makes Josef feel––as if he is on a ship in the middle of a stormy sea––is a peculiar contrast to the tedious, vague conversations he has had with another accused man about the man's case. This contrasts illustrates the way in which the stiflingly dull world of the court is actually severely oppressive, so much so that Josef feels physically sick and is eventually forced to leave. This experience is made worse by the fact that the others in the office seem completely fine, thereby increasing Josef's feelings of isolation.

Chapter 5 Quotes

He felt anguish at having been unable to prevent the thrashing, but it wasn’t his fault. If Franz hadn’t screamed—true, it must have hurt a lot, but a man should be able to control himself at decisive moments—if Franz hadn’t screamed then K. would, at least very probably, have found some means of winning the thrasher over.

Related Characters: Josef K., Franz and Willem, The Cane-Wielder
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:

While leaving the office at the end of a workday, Josef has heard cries behind a door in his office building, and discovered Franz and Willem about to be "thrashed" by a man wearing a leather executioner's outfit—a punishment for their behavior during Josef's arrest. Josef has attempted to bribe the thrasher into sparing Franz and Willem, but to no avail, and in this passage he attempts to assuage his feelings of guilt by telling himself that if Franz had not screamed he would have been able to successfully intervene. This reasoning reveals how flimsy Josef's sympathy for Willem and Franz really is; not only does he blame Franz in order to escape blaming himself, he judges Franz for not restraining himself from crying out. 

The episode with the thrasher is characterized by the physical experience of shame. When Josef tries to bribe the thrasher he does so with lowered eyes, and in this passage he clearly experiences a sense of shame through association with Franz's audible pain. These details suggest that the feeling of humiliation, rather than creating empathy and solidarity, instead has the stifling, paralyzing, and isolating effect of driving people further apart. Yet Josef will not admit that his own behavior made him somewhat complicit in Franz and Willem's punishment; instead, he arrogantly claims that without Franz's screams he would "have found some means of winning the thrasher over"––a statement that seems unlikely given Josef's own ineffectual nature and the seemingly limitless power of the legal system. 

Chapter 7 Quotes

It was very important, because the first impression the defence made often determined the whole course of the trial. Unfortunately he [Herr Huld] had to point out to K. that it sometimes happened that first submissions to the court were not read at all. They were simply filed, and the officials declared that hearing and observing the accused was more important than any written material. If the petitioner was insistent they would add that, once all the material had been gathered and before a decision was reached, all the files, including the first submission, would naturally be reviewed as a whole. Unfortunately, he said, that too was mostly incorrect, the first submission was usually mislaid or completely lost, and even if it was kept right to the end it was hardly read, though he, the lawyer, had only heard rumours to that effect.

Related Characters: Josef K., Herr Huld
Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis:

It is winter and Josef has started to feel increasingly consumed by his trial and worried that Herr Huld is not going to be of sufficient help. Feeling exhausted, he reflects that although Huld appears reluctant to listen to Josef, at least he has a lot of experience and has almost finished the first plea. Huld has advised Josef that the first plea is highly important, but that unfortunately this document is often lost by the court and never read at all. This passage is a typical example of the way in which bureaucratic incompetence can appear to be a relatively mild problem, but in fact has nightmarish consequences. It is also a good example of Kafka's dark humor: the passage starts out making one point, and then gradually undercuts it with frustrating, convoluted examples of contrary exceptions, until by the end of the passage the original intent has been entirely reversed—and then there is a final twist at the end, that the whole thing is just hearsay and probably not true.

In terms of Josef's case, part of the problem lies in the completely contradictory information Josef receives about the legal system. He knows that the first plea is important, yet is also being told that this first submission is almost never read; such inconsistency makes it impossible to know the truth, and decreases the likelihood that Josef will be able to successfully appeal against his arrest. To make matters worse, none of this knowledge is transparently available, but instead transmitted via "rumours." Although Josef has placed hope in the fact that Huld is experienced, this means little in a legal system where procedures are disorganized and opaque, and where information is dispersed through conjecture. 

The essential thing was not to attract attention, to stay calm, however much it went against the grain, to try to understand that this great legal organism remained eternally in balance, so to speak.

Related Characters: Herr Huld
Page Number: 86
Explanation and Analysis:

Josef has described what he has learned about the secretive, chaotic, and oppressive legal system, including the powerlessness of any individual to protest or change its workings. Josef admits that even if one were to indulge the delusion that he might be able to make an improvement, he would never be able to benefit from this himself, but would have to sacrifice his own case in the hope of improving the system for others––a hope that would almost certainly be in vain. As a result, Josef resolves "not to attract attention, to stay calm" in order not to jeopardize his own chances, and to accept that the law works as an "organism" that is "eternally in balance." 

Once again, Josef proves himself to be a fundamentally self-interested character, whose resentment of the law is based entirely on how it impacts him as an individual, as opposed to the damage it does to society as a whole. Although Josef stresses the futility of any objection to the workings of the law, it is clear that his selfish desire not to risk harming his own case is a big part of the problem. Note that in contrast to Josef's unwillingness to empathize with others, the different components of the law are described as working so well together that the law becomes a single, living "organism... eternally in balance." Unable to achieve even a minimal level of connection and co-operation with others, Josef remains isolated and powerless before the legal system. 

Chapter 10 Quotes

Then Fräulein Bürstner appeared in the square, coming up a small set of steps from a lower street. It wasn’t quite certain that it was her, though the similarity was great. But K. wasn’t bothered whether it was definitely Fräulein Bürstner or not, it was just that he immediately became aware of the futility of his resistance. There was nothing heroic about his resistance, about making things difficult for the two men, about trying to enjoy the last semblance of life as he defended himself.

Related Characters: Josef K., Fraulein Burstner
Page Number: 162
Explanation and Analysis:

It is Josef's thirty-first birthday, and he has been forcefully taken from his apartment by two well-dressed men and marched into a town square. In the square, Josef notices a woman who appears to be Fraulein Burstner, although he isn't sure. As he looks, he realizes he doesn't care whether it is her or not, and is suddenly overwhelmed by a more general feeling of indifference over what happens to him. He decides that "there was nothing heroic about his resistance," which is completely futile and only makes life more difficult for him. This marks a shift in Josef's attitude. Not only has he completely lost all optimism and desire to influence his trial, he finally seems able to "see two feet in front of him" and accept that he is being slowly marched to his death. 

On the one hand, Josef's indifference to Fraulein Burstner's identity can be seen as the result of a year of exhaustion, struggle, and frustration which has led him to accept the inevitability of defeat. At the same time, recall that during his interaction with Fraulein Burstner at the beginning of the novel he did not seem particularly concerned with who she was as an individual either. He admitted that he did not know her very well, and seemed more excited by having an audience for the reenactment of his arrest than by engaging with Fraulein Burstner as a person. It is therefore possible to interpret the events of the novel as simply confirming Josef's pre-existing alienation and disinterest in others, rather than creating it. 

I’m grateful that I’ve been given these two half-mute, uncomprehending men to accompany me on my way and it’s been left to me to tell myself everything that is needful.

Related Characters: Josef K. (speaker)
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:

Still being forcefully walked along by the two men, Josef has given up all hope of resistance, and vowed only to cling onto his logical understanding of the world until he dies. He tells himself he is lucky to be accompanied by two men who aren't saying anything, so he can think everything over. This passage presents the experience of solitude in ambiguous terms. Throughout the novel, people have been depicted as profoundly alienated from one another, unable to properly empathize or connect. Meanwhile, Josef's experience of his trial has further isolated him from others. While so far this has been shown to be almost wholly negative, in this passage Josef finds solace in his own mind and in fact feels grateful to be left alone with his thoughts, a detail that suggests there may be some positive sides to isolation. 

His eye fell on the top storey of the house beside the quarry. Like a flash of light, the two casements of a window parted and a human figure, faint and thin from the distance and height, leant far out in one swift movement then stretched its arms out even farther. Who was it? A friend? A kind person? Someone who felt for him? Someone who wanted to help? Was it just one? Or all of them? Was help still possible? Were there still objections he’d forgotten? Of course there were. Logic may be unshakeable, but it cannot hold out against a human being who wants to live. Where was the judge he had never seen? Where was the high court he had never reached?

Related Characters: Josef K.
Page Number: 164
Explanation and Analysis:

Josef has continued being marched along by the two well-dressed men, at one point even helping them to evade an encounter with a policeman. The men have led him to a quarry next to a single house and politely asked him to remove his coat and shirt, before handing him a knife. The police want Josef to stab himself with the knife, but he hesitates, noticing a person in the house with outstretched arms and briefly wondering if they could be "a friend" or "a kind person."

Although up until this point Josef has been determined to accept the reality that the court is all-powerful and not to die clinging to the mistaken delusion that there is any hope of justice, in this passage he relents and finds himself hoping that someone will help him or that he might finally understand the law. He observes that no matter how committed he is to logical thinking, this desire cannot withstand the desperate situation he has found himself in, of wanting to live while knowing he is about to die. 

Like many other parts of the novel, it is ambiguous whether this last glimmer of hope represents a positive interpretation of the nature of humanity or not. On one hand, perhaps the fact that despite everything, Josef still manages to retain a tiny sliver of optimism about the possibility of justice and solidarity shows the resilience of the human spirit. Alternatively, however, this moment can be seen as a final, resounding failure, as Josef has not managed to achieve the only consolation he found within his terrible fate, which was his vow to die without deluding himself about reality.

‘Like a dog!’ he said. It seemed as if his shame would live on after him.

Related Characters: Josef K. (speaker)
Page Number: 165
Explanation and Analysis:

On a rock by the quarry, Josef has been stabbed in the chest by one of the well-dressed men while the other grasps his throat. He begins to lose consciousness, but can see the men looking at his face as he dies. Josef exclaims "Like a dog!" and, in the final line of the novel, expresses the thought that his shame will live on after him. The ending of the novel conveys an unequivocally dark view of Josef's character and fate. He dies alone, with no witnesses apart from his executioners and no indication that anyone really cares about the injustice of what has happened to him. Indeed, his death is so undignified that Josef himself proclaims he has lost his humanity and been reduced to the status of a dog. 

There is no moral or meaning to be found in Josef's death; it is both absurd and assumedly unexceptional, due to the seemingly limitless power of the law over the lives and deaths of citizens. Indeed, the only legacy Josef leaves behind is his shame, implying that he is connected to the rest of the world only through his degradation and humiliation.