At work, Josef receives a phone call informing him that the first of many frequent cross-examinations of his case will take place the coming Sunday. He makes note of the address, which is in a faraway suburb he has never visited, and resolves to attend the hearing. He is confident it will be the only one necessary to clear up his case. Immediately after the call, the bank’s deputy director attempts to improve his tepid relationship with Josef by inviting him sailing on Sunday morning. Josef has no choice but to decline.
Though he is determined to keep it compartmentalized, Josef’s trial has already begun to interfere with other aspects of his life. However, Josef is unable to go sailing only because he feels obligated to play by the justice system’s rules. In other words, Josef himself is the person who gives legitimacy to the justice system and allows it to encroach on his personal affairs.
That Sunday, Josef awakes groggily; he had been out drinking the past night. Though he does not know when his appointment is, he aims to arrive at the address by nine o’clock. He travels on foot out of a desire not to rely on any strangers. He arrives at the address, which is in a loud, bustling neighborhood full of tenements for the poor.
The hearing’s unknown start time represents yet another key piece of information that is withheld from Josef. His determination not to rely on others further reinforces the image the reader has been given of his solitary, isolated lifestyle.
The building itself is a sprawling complex. There are many stairwells to choose from, and Josef is irked that he was not given more precise directions to the room of his hearing. He picks at random, wondering if his unknown guilt might somehow lead him to come upon the correct room by chance.
Josef’s situation appears to be designed so that he cannot fully understand how to handle it. By considering that his guilt might lead him to the correct room, Josef shows that he is beginning to believe that the workings of the Law should remain beyond him, as they seem designed to do.
Josef works his way up the stairs, walking through a group of children at play. As a pretense to look into each of the rooms, he pretends to be in search of a joiner named Lanz. On each floor, families in cramped rooms offer a barrage of confusing suggestions on where Josef might find the man he might be looking for. Josef reaches the fifth floor, tired by the chaos.
The hectic tenement building creates a bizarre and de-familiarizing environment for a court hearing. Importantly, Josef’s individualistic pretense of looking for Lanz—intended to save him the embarrassment of being publicly exposed as an accused man—actually make his task of finding the hearing much more difficult.
Josef knocks on a door, and a young woman washing children’s clothing motions him into a stuffy, crowded room that is overlooked by a gallery. A young boy leads Josef past throngs of people, many of whom are dressed in long, black coats and have their backs turned to Josef. Josef is led to a man on a podium who informs him that he is one hour and five minutes late for his appointment. Josef decides not to defend his lateness, and simply replies that he is here now. After he makes his statement, the right-hand side of the room breaks into applause.
The courtroom atmosphere is decidedly unfriendly and, more importantly, largely incomprehensible. The audience’s applause seems entirely arbitrary, and there is no clear way for Josef to discern how he is expected to act. This destabilizing uncertainty represents the hostile inscrutability of the legal system as a whole.
The man, who appears to be a judge, informs Josef that he no longer has an obligation to hear his case, but that he will do so anyway. The judge asks Josef if he is a house painter, and Josef assertively replies that he is the chief clerk of a large bank. The people on the right side of the room burst out in laughter, which the judge seems powerless to silence. Meanwhile, the left side of the room remains quiet.
Josef’s hearing is filled with signals that are difficult to interpret unequivocally. Do the audience’s differing reactions signify contempt or sympathy? Does the audience’s opinion signal anything about Josef at all? Josef at this point seems to think that the power of his position will impress the court and help his cause.
Josef tells the judge that his uninformed question suggests that the proceedings against him are careless and unsubstantiated. This rebuke comes across more harshly than Josef intended, and the room falls silent. The judge seems surprised, and Josef asserts himself further: he picks up the judge’s notebook, flips through it, and drops it back on the table. Josef pontificates about how he has been wronged, though a group of silent spectators in the front row rattles his composure slightly. He gives a dramatic account of his arrest. At a break in his story, Josef notices the judge appearing to signal into the audience, and calls him out for this mysterious signing.
The audience’s indecipherable reactions set Josef off balance, and make him behave uncharacteristically hotheadedly. He has no way of knowing whether his passionate speech is helping or hurting his case. Again, it is important to note that Josef is not directly coerced or provoked at any point during his hearing: rather, it is his own interpretations of his baffling surroundings that motivate his rash actions.
In response to Josef’s insolence, the judge rocks back and forth in his chair. The previously divided crowd has begun to mingle, and some members gesture at Josef and the judge. Josef announces defiantly that he has no time for this affair, and that he will soon be leaving, and the room falls silent again. He launches into another screed against his pointless prosecution, but is interrupted by a sudden screech from the rear of the hall. The washerwoman who met Josef at the door is being pressed against the wall by a man, who is screaming. The crowd does not intervene, and a hand grabs Josef by the collar to hold him in place.
The crowd’s intermingling implies that their division was a largely meaningless one, and this erodes whatever sense of order was present in the room previously. It is likely this breakdown in order that unsettles Josef enough to attempt an exit. Whatever inkling of the crowd’s logic he thought he possessed has been revealed to be a misconception. Meanwhile, this court of law stands idly by while a woman appears to be sexually assaulted.
Josef jumps down from the podium. He looks at the crowd anxiously and begins to doubt himself. The somber, bearded men who surround him are all wearing at least one of an assortment of badges. Josef turns around and notices a badge on the judge’s collar. He then impugns the crowd as cronies of the judge’s corrupt system and walks briskly towards the door. When he reaches the exit, Josef finds the judge standing before him. The judge calmly tells Josef that his haughty conduct has led him to forfeit the benefits that such a hearing usually confers to the arrested. Josef calls out an insult and leaves in a huff, while the room behind him erupts in lively discussion.
The badges present yet another menacing and indecipherable system to Josef, and the unpredictability of this environment is beginning to rattle him. The judge’s cryptic and uninformative warning reinforces a reader’s perception of the judiciary as an unforgiving, arbitrary body that is governed by an inaccessibly logic all its own. The court clearly sees itself as important, as being owed deference and respect. Yet the “benefits” of a hearing are never explained or described, just as the accusations against Josef are never described.