The Trial

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Justice vs. The Law Theme Analysis

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Justice vs. The Law Theme Icon

The central conflict of The Trial is Josef K.’s struggle against The Law. He stands accused of an unknown crime, and his trial is supposedly required for justice to be served. However, there seems to be little justice in the treatment Josef receives. By most standards, he is denied anything resembling a fair trial: he is never informed of how he has broken the Law, he is forbidden from learning essential details of his case, and he is eventually executed without any deeper understanding of how his conviction was reached or what he could have done to oppose it. More than anything, the actions carried out against Josef seem to epitomize injustice.

Ironically, then, the very Law designed to ensure justice is what generates the greatest injustice. This is the opposition nested at the core of Kafka’s judiciary. The lofty, unattainable goal of absolute justice is muddled by worldly attempts to enforce it: the human impulse to institutionalize the concept of justice has created a corrupt and actively counterproductive judiciary, a judiciary that perpetrates injustice. In The Trial, this uncompassionate bureaucracy is so pervasive that individuals have begun to mistake the system of justice for the ideal of justice. Josef is repeatedly given the paradoxical assurance that whatever treatment he receives from the system will be the just treatment; the system has become the arbiter of what is just, completely separate from any ideal of justice. The system conceives of itself as that arbiter, and therefore considers anything it does to be naturally just. This pernicious feedback loop moves human understanding continually further from the true apprehension and attainment of justice.

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Justice vs. The Law ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Trial related to the theme of Justice vs. The Law.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Someone must have been telling tales about Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested.

Related Characters: Josef K.
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

The famous first sentence of The Trial immediately establishes an atmosphere of strangeness and confusion. The narrator introduces the main premise of the novel: Josef K., the protagonist, is wrongfully accused of an unknown crime for unknown reasons. Note the mix of vagueness and specificity in the sentence––Josef K.'s name is specified (although his last name is anonymized) and the fact that he was arrested "without having done anything wrong" is presented as a clear fact. At the same time, the first phrase, "Someone must have been telling tales," is completely indeterminate. Why is this the most likely explanation for Josef's mistaken arrest, when surely any number of factors could have been the cause? This question is left unanswered, creating a sense of uncertainty and suspense.

The opening sentence also conveys the impression that there is corruption within both the society and justice system being described. The fact that the narrator assumes someone has lied in order to indict Josef indicates that this is a world in which people have duplicitous and mistrustful relationships with one another. Meanwhile, the suggestion that the lie about Josef was enough to warrant his arrest hints that the law is perhaps being used in an irresponsible and unfair manner. 


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What kind of people were they? What were they talking about? Which department did they belong to? After all, K. had rights, the country was at peace, the laws had not been suspended—who, then, had the audacity to descend on him in the privacy of his own home?

Related Characters: Josef K.
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

Two policemen, Franz and Willem, have arrived at Josef's boarding house to arrest him, and have forbidden him from leaving his room. They have refused to tell him why he is being arrested, although they've promised he will find out soon enough. In this passage, Josef puzzles over who the policemen are, why they are arresting him, and why they are behaving in such a strange and unprofessional manner. The Trial is filled with instances of characters asking questions like these––sometimes aloud, or, as in this case, inside their own heads––that rarely receive a satisfying answer. These frustrated questions help convey the idea that the characters expect there to be a reasonable, knowledgable authority to which they can appeal, when in fact that is not the case. 

Indeed, it is clear at this point that Josef still has faith in the system of governance under which he lives. He brings up the department Franz and Willem belong to and the rights and laws he is entitled to as a citizen, implying he believes these structures will ensure he ultimately receives fair treatment. Josef's trust in the bureaucratic operations of the government and law will soon evaporate as a result of the nightmarish, bewildering experiences he undergoes at the hands of these institutions in the rest of the novel.   

Chapter 3 Quotes

He was annoyed that he hadn’t been told precisely where the room was, the manner in which he was being treated was strangely negligent or offhand, a point he intended to make loudly and clearly. Finally he went up the first staircase after all, with the memory of something the guard Willem had said going through his mind, namely that the court was attracted by guilt, so that logically the hearing should be held in a room on the staircase K. happened to choose.

Related Characters: Josef K.
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

Josef has been informed that his first hearing is on Sunday, although the time isn't specified. He has travelled to the suburb where the hearing is to take place, aiming to be there for 9 am, as that is when the courts open. When he arrives, he is unable to locate the room in which his hearing is to take place, and in this passage he describes his frustration at not having been told the exact location. He follows his instinct to take the first staircase, thinking this instinct may be born of guilt and thus correctly lead him to the site of his trial. This observation is curious, as there is supposedly no doubt that Josef is innocent.

However, part of what makes the world of the novel so disturbing is the way in which perversion of the law begins to blur distinctions between guilt and innocence. The position of being accused comes to make Josef feel guilty in itself, partly because it results in further acts of wrongdoing (such as showing up to the hearing at the wrong time) that Josef commits unknowingly. Willem's claim that "the court was attracted by guilt" also suggests that the law has become a self-perpetuating tool for condemning people that is alarmingly independent from the notion of justice.

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 6 Quotes

Please don’t ask me for names, but stop making this mistake, stop being intransigent, no one can resist this court, you just have to confess. Confess at the next opportunity. It’s only then there’s a possibility of escaping, only then, though even that’s not possible without outside help. But you needn’t worry about that, I’ll provide the help myself.

Related Characters: Leni (speaker), Josef K.
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:

Josef has been visited by his uncle and former guardian Karl, who is worried about Josef's case and takes Josef to the house of his friend, a lawyer named Herr Huld. At the house, Huld's maid, Leni, smashes a plate in order to get Josef's attention, and privately urges him to confess to the accusation against him. She insists that this is the only means by which Josef can "escape," although even this is not guaranteed. Like the washerwoman, Leni is involved with the courts through her association with men who work in the law, and like the washerwoman, Leni flirts with Josef, offering to help him as a means of seduction. This again emphasizes the corruption of the legal system.

Leni's advice also adds another line to the contradictory chorus of voices telling Josef what he should do about his case. While at this point in the novel Josef remains confident that he will be able to escape the charges, it is becoming increasingly clear that this is not likely. Leni's claim that "no one can resist this court" is given a double meaning by her attempts to seduce Josef through helping with his trial, while further conveying the sense that Josef is trapped within a system that is labyrinthine and all-encompassing.

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. 

‘Yes,’ said the painter, ‘it was in the commission that I had to paint her like that, it’s actually Justice and the Goddess of Victory at the same time.’ ‘That’s not a good combination,’ said K. with a smile, ‘Justice has to be in repose, otherwise the scales will wobble and a just verdict will not be possible.’ ‘I’m following my client’s wishes,’ the painter said. ‘Yes, of course,’ said K., who had not intended to offend anyone with his remark. ‘You’ll have painted the figure as it is on the chair.’ ‘No,’ said the painter, ‘I’ve never seen either the figure or the chair, but I was told what I was to paint.’

Related Characters: Josef K. (speaker), Titorelli (speaker)
Related Symbols: Titorelli’s Painting of the Judge
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:

One of Josef's clients has admitted that a friend of his named Titorelli has told him that Josef is on trial; Josef decides to visit Titorelli, a painter who paints portraits of court officials. Titorelli is confused about why Josef has come, though he still shows Josef his paintings, including a portrait of the judge, which features a depiction of the figures of Justice and Victory mixed into one. In this passage, Josef points out that the combination makes it looks as if Justice's scales are tipped, which would symbolize unfair judgment; Titorelli, indifferent, responds that he only paints what he is told to paint. 

The portrait of the Judge is a perfect representation of the corrupt and skewed legal system. Titorelli's attempt to fuse the symbols for Justice and Victory show how far the law has strayed from the aim of delivering fair, unbiased judgment to citizens; after all, if the aim of the law is victory, this prohibits the courts from acting impartially. Furthermore, Titorelli's reason for painting the portrait in this way proves how the law came to be so unjust in the first place. When questioned by Josef, Titorelli responds that he simply follows orders, showing that when people mindlessly obey authority without using their own rational judgment, the outcome will be a system that is nonsensical and absurd. 

Whenever I had the opportunity to go to the court myself, I always availed myself of it, I’ve listened to countless trials at important stages and followed them as long as they were held in open court, and, I have to admit, I have never come across a single genuine acquittal.

Related Characters: Titorelli (speaker)
Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:

Having discussed his paintings with Josef, Titorelli asks Josef if he is innocent; Josef has responded that he is, and Titorelli says that this makes the situation "simple." Titorelli has told Josef that there are three kinds of acquittal, but then says that he has witnessed "countless trials" and has never seen "a single genuine acquittal." Titorelli's descriptions of the legal system throughout this scene are contradictory and bizarre. He claims to have extensive knowledge of how the court works, though his explanations are largely nonsensical. Even more disturbingly, Titorelli does not seem troubled by the bias he describes, and insists that Josef's innocence will make the trial easy, even though it is obvious from his description that people are always condemned whether they are innocent or not.  

Chapter 8 Quotes

I don’t know who the great lawyers are, and I presume you can’t get to them. I know of no case where it can be said for certain that they took part. They defend some people, but you can’t get them to do that through your own efforts, they only defend the ones they want to defend. But I assume a case they take on must have progressed beyond the lower court. It’s better not to think of them at all, otherwise you’ll find the consultations with the other lawyers, their advice and their assistance, extremely disgusting and useless. I’ve been through that myself, you feel like throwing everything up, taking to your bed, and ignoring everything.

Related Characters: Block (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Court’s Oppressive Air
Page Number: 128-129
Explanation and Analysis:

Josef has gone to Huld's house to inform him that he no longer wants Huld to be his lawyer; there he has discovered Block, another of Huld's clients, who tells Josef about his own case. Block has confessed that he secretly sees five different lawyers and has spent five years on trial. In this passage, he admits that "the great lawyers" only defend some people and that he doesn't know who they are or how a person could access them; he advises Josef not to think about these mysterious great lawyers or else he will become too dissatisfied with his own lawyer, Huld. What Block does not realize as he gives Josef this advice is that Josef is already dissatisfied with Huld, to the point that he has decided to cease using Huld's services.

Block's story of struggle and frustration is similar to what Josef has endured. Indeed, Block's description of wanting to throw up and hide in bed shows that Josef is not alone in experiencing a physical reaction to the stress of his trial (although in Josef's case, he feels stifled by the court's air). However, like many other characters in the novel, Block seems somewhat resigned to the inevitability of the injustice of the law. In contrast to Josef, who has decided to fire Huld as his lawyer, Block claims it is best to simply ignore the possibility that more effective lawyers exist. This willful ignorance creates a claustrophobic, stagnant situation, as people refuse to resist or protest against the absurd legal system.

Chapter 9 Quotes

I am only accepting this so you will not think there is something you have omitted to do.

Related Characters: The Doorkeeper (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Prison Chaplain’s Parable
Page Number: 156
Explanation and Analysis:

Josef has thanked the prison chaplain for his apparent kindness, to which the chaplain has responded that Josef should not deceive himself about the nature of the court. The priest then begins to tell Josef a parable from the introductory writings about the law. In the parable, a man from the country tries to get access to the law, but is prevented by a doorkeeper who tells him he cannot enter. The man asks if he might be able to enter later; the doorkeeper says it's possible, so the man waits for years and bribes the doorkeeper, who, when taking the bribes, says he only accepts them "so you will not think there is something you have omitted to do." 

The bribes given by the man from the country symbolize the efforts of Josef and other accused characters to act in a way that pleases the court, whether by performing well at hearings, composing convincing pleas, or hiring an experienced lawyer. Like the doorkeeper, the court accepts these efforts in ambivalent terms; on the one hand, the doorkeeper's words suggest that if the man did not bribe him it would have been an omission, but at the same time, he implies that the bribes will not actually influence his decision. Furthermore, the doorkeeper emphasizes that he only accepts the bribes for the man's own peace of mind. This point indicates that the efforts of the accused really only matter insofar as they reassure the accused that they are doing everything they can, even if this is ultimately in vain. 

No one else could be granted entry here, because this entrance was intended for you alone. I shall now go and shut it.

Related Characters: The Doorkeeper (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Prison Chaplain’s Parable
Page Number: 155
Explanation and Analysis:

The prison chaplain has now come to the end of his parable. The man from the country has waited for so many years that he has become senile and deaf, and eventually asks the doorkeeper why no one else has come along and tried to get through the door. The doorkeeper replies that the door was intended for the man alone, and then shuts it. The strange and frustrating end to the parable makes it difficult to see what the moral of the story might be. Indeed, the man from the country's failure to get through the door seems only to reinforce the futility of understanding the law, and to discourage people from trying. 

The fact that the parable concludes in this manner indicates the importance of coming to the realization that––although the law is supposed to unite citizens by applying to all of them equally––in reality it divides and isolates them. At the same time, the acceptance of this reality seems to only further prohibit access to knowledge of the law and to justice, as after the doorkeeper delivers this message he closes the door. 

The court does not want anything from you. It receives you when you come and dismisses you when you go.

Related Characters: The Prison Chaplain (speaker), Josef K.
Related Symbols: The Prison Chaplain’s Parable
Page Number: 160
Explanation and Analysis:

The prison chaplain has finished his parable, and Josef has remarked that it conveys a distinctly depressing view of the world. Josef asks if the chaplain wants him to do anything else, to which the chaplain replies that the court doesn't want anything from Josef; "it receives you when you come and dismisses you when you go." This comment echoes Josef's own observation earlier in the novel that the law is like an organism that is "eternally in balance," immune to the actions of any individual. Both descriptions turn the law into an organic, living being, yet portray it as completely indifferent, making any interaction with the law a distinctly one-sided experience that only isolates and alienates people further. 

The chaplain's statement that "the court doesn't want anything from you" also contradicts common sense understandings of what the law is and does. The law ostensibly exists in order to encourage certain kinds of behavior and discourage others; thus the notion that the law is self-sufficient and uninterested in human behavior shows just how far from the idea of justice the law has become. 

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. 

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.