Josef spends the next week waiting for another court summons, and is aghast when none arrives. The next Sunday, he assumes he is supposed to report to the same place. When he arrives, however, the same washerwoman from the week before tells him that there is no session that day. She shows him the room his hearing had been held in, and it is empty. A few books have been left on the judge’s table, but the woman tells Josef he cannot consult them.
Josef has submitted now to the power of the court. He lets it dominate his Sunday morning even when it does not demand his time. This illustrates the way in which the judiciary’s hold over Josef is legitimized and strengthened mostly through his own voluntary behavior. He thinks he can beat it or outsmart it, but all attempts to do so mean that he is giving it power over him. Furthermore, the inconsistent schedule makes the court seem irritatingly unsystematic, and Josef’s inability to consult the books represents still more obscurantism within the Law.
The woman explains that her husband is a court usher, and that the two are allowed to inhabit the space for free in exchange for their work there. Josef seems indignant that the woman is married, but she explains that the man who assailed her the week before is a law student who has long pursued her. Her husband tolerates the advances, because the student will one day wield power.
The washerwoman’s predicament illustrates how she, like Josef, is largely at the mercy of a system more powerful than she. However, Josef is remarkably unsympathetic to her, despite their similar situation. Instead, he takes advantage of his social station to pass judgment.
The woman flirtatiously offers to help Josef with his trial. He asks her to show him the judge’s books, and she obliges, but Josef finds that they only contain pornographic drawings and novels. Josef recognizes that the woman is trying to seduce him, and tells her he doubts she can help him fight the disorganized and sinister system. The woman responds that the judge is interested in her, and, judging from his constant report-writing, likely holds some influence.
Even when Josef manages to view information about the court’s methods, it is completely meaningless—and almost insultingly nonsensical—to him. The Law does not appear to be something any individual can understand alone, and Josef certainly treats it that way by initially dismissing the washerwoman’s ability to help.
The woman then warns Josef that the amorous law student, Berthold, is watching them. Sure enough, the man stands in the doorway, stroking his beard. The woman tells Josef that she must go speak to the student, but promises to return quickly and let him do whatever he wants to her. Josef wonders whether or not the woman has been sent to entrap him. He finds both the woman herself and the prospect of undermining the judge quite attractive.
Josef views his relationship to the washerwoman as a game of power-brokering, rather than a romantic endeavor. He is just as interested in subverting the judge’s control as he is in exercising sexual control himself. This strategizing reveals Josef’s arrogant assumption that his own interpretations of the proceedings will be most likely to help him find freedom, as opposed to the helpful perspectives of others.
Josef lingers in the room while the woman and the student talk. After some time, the student snaps at Josef and asks him to leave. Josef offers a retort, but the student physically picks the woman up and leaves. The woman explains that she has no choice but to go along, as the judge has demanded her. When Josef asks if she would prefer to be liberated, she responds with a fearful denial.
The fact that the washerwoman finds oppression less objectionable than liberty may explain why the system exerts such power over her. It also articulates Josef’s predicament: he is so desperate for routine and structure that he accedes to the court’s commands, thus affirming its authority.
The student carries the woman away. Josef understands this altercation as the first genuine setback he has suffered thus far, and realizes that it only came because he sought a fight. He decides that the proper course of action is to resume his normal life and thus remain superior. From the doorway, Josef watches the student carry the woman up to an attic. She looks ambivalent, and Josef concludes that she deceived him.
At this point, Josef remains faithful that individualism and devotion to routine will help him navigate his unfamiliar predicament. He is also becoming increasingly less able to trust his interpretations of external facts: the washerwoman he initially thought benign now strikes him as a deceiver.
The court usher enters the room and introduces himself to Josef, whom he recognizes as a defendant. The usher confesses that his superiors constantly abuse his wife, and that their authority is the only thing that stops him from fighting back. The usher indulges in a violent fantasy of harming the student, and suggests that Josef carry out the deed. Josef says that he cannot because the student might influence his trial; the usher responds that the trials themselves rarely affect an individual’s sentence.
The court usher’s insider knowledge is disturbing: it implies that Josef’s fate is entirely out of his control. The usher himself seems to have adopted this fatalistic view: he, unlike Josef, views himself as completely subjugated by the legal system’s corruptions. He is unable to resist because the system controls vitally important aspects of his life.
The usher has to report to the law office, and asks if Josef would like to join him. Josef comes along, and the usher leads him into a dimly lit corridor. Josef walks past a group of accused men. Josef asks one of them, a dignified-looking man, what he is waiting for, but the man can only stammer a few words in response. The other men in the corridor try to gather around, but the usher shoos them. Josef asks the man a few more questions, and the man can only give vague, pathetic answers about how his trial is going.
Josef’s first run-in with fellow accused men is a disheartening omen of his future. However, instead of being sympathetic, he superciliously interprets their behavior as a sign of their own weakness, and acts as though he is above their status.
Josef continues along the corridor, with the usher following behind him. Suddenly, he begins to feel very tired, and asks the usher to lead him to the exit. The usher reproachfully tells Josef that he cannot. A woman hears Josef’s exchange with the usher and emerges from an office to ask what Josef’s business is. Josef is overcome with dizziness and is unable to respond. The woman gets him a chair and assures Josef that he will get used to the stifling atmosphere after a few visits.
The legal offices’ oppressive air is a literal manifestation of the overwhelming power that the institution has over Josef. His willing entry into the bureaucratic world has ended up rendering him too weak to leave voluntarily.
The woman tells Josef that he cannot stay sitting where he is, and asks a well-dressed man to bring him to a sick room. Josef tries to stand on his own but cannot. The well-dressed man recognizes that Josef wants not to go to the sick room, but simply to leave the building. Josef responds enthusiastically to this suggestion, but the man simply laughs at him.
These legal officials seem to understand Josef’s problem, but do not seem at all interested in helping him—yet another indication of an unfriendly justice system. Moreover, unlike Josef, they seem to have the power to correctly interpret others’ behavior.
The woman introduces the man as the official information-giver, and together, the two lead Josef out of the offices. On the way, the woman explains to Josef that neither she nor the information-giver has bad intentions. The trio passes the pathetic man whom Josef had spoken with before, and Josef is embarrassed by his own weakness.
Josef’s obsession with hierarchically comparing himself to others makes him acutely embarrassed to show weakness before other defendants. This is an ironic inversion of the haughtiness with which he regarded these men just minutes earlier.
Finally, they reach the door to the outside, and Josef is so weak that he hardly realizes that he can leave. He is revitalized by the fresh air, and notices that the information-giver and the woman who helped him seem as enervated by the outdoors as Josef was by the office’s oppressive air.
The bureaucrats have become so comfortable in their stifling environment that they are viscerally disturbed by the air outside. This suggests that liberty is anathema to the judicial bureaucracy.