On a winter morning, Josef worries that his lawyer, Herr Huld, is doing nothing to help him. Josef has come to learn that the judicial system is a bureaucratic morass, in which documents are often kept secret or misplaced entirely. The entire system is biased against the defendant, and even Josef’s right to counsel is unclear. Fortunately, Herr Huld has a great deal of personal connections to high-ranking officials, which are an accused’s best chance at beating a charge. Josef meditates at length about different aspects of this sinister, convoluted judiciary, which no individual can hope to understand or influence.
Josef is further realizing that the justice system that dominates him seems to be entirely inhuman—beyond the control or understanding of any individual—and largely arbitrary and based not on guilt or innocence but rather connections. The workings of the judiciary appear random; Josef cannot discern whether or not any action of his matters at all. However, even though his conduct seems to make no difference, Josef is unable to stop obsessing over its minutiae. In a vicious cycle, his anxiety heightens the harmfulness of the judiciary, which in turn heightens his anxiety still more. Again, there is an aspect of the court that seems like a metaphor for life, while at the same time the court also resembles an exaggerated version real judicial systems where connections really can matter more than justice or facts.
Although Josef is extremely tired, he realizes that he must play a more decisive role in his own trial. It is no longer an isolated part of his life, and has steadily begun to affect his work and relationships. Josef resolves to make the effort to prepare his legal documents himself, but instead of acting, he continues to daydream.
Josef’s bewildering entanglement with the legal bureaucracy has paralyzed him in every aspect of his life. The absurd system has conditioned him to think his behavior is meaningless. Josef’s trial is toxic: his resolve to influence the system has, paradoxically, simply made him unable to control all other areas of his life, as well.
As Josef grows more disheartened and more distracted, he realizes that he has kept a number of important clients waiting. He at last meets with one of these clients, a manufacturer who monologues about business problems to Josef, but Josef remains unable to focus on anything but his case. The manufacturer is perturbed by Josef’s inattention.
When Josef was first arrested, he was able not only to challenge the system in theory but in practice, by leaving his room when instructed not to. Now, however, Josef cannot resist in action or even in thought. His thinking is dominated by the trial.
The deputy director of the bank enters Josef’s office. The manufacturer criticizes Josef’s unwillingness to conduct business, and Josef can only stare pathetically from his desk as the two men converse. The deputy director condescendingly takes over Josef’s responsibilities.
The deputy director symbolizes the way in which Josef’s professional environment will punish an individual for the slightest form of weakness or distraction. The justice system, however, operates on a slightly different principal: the weakness and distraction it causes appear designed to be part of the punishment itself.
Now alone, Josef worries about the burden he has assumed by taking responsibility for his own defense in his trial. He putters around his office, absent-minded but anxious. The manufacturer reenters. He comments to Josef that he seems preoccupied and confesses that he has heard that Josef is on trial. Josef is taken aback and imagines that his rival, the deputy director, has revealed this to the manufacturer. The manufacturer explains that he got word of Josef’s trial from a friend of his named Titorelli, who makes a living painting portraits of court officials. The manufacturer offers to introduce Josef to the painter, in the hopes that this connection could help his case.
The powerlessness Josef experiences in the legal world is in turn making him powerless in his professional life. Josef’s trial is gradually beginning to dominate his existence. Importantly, Josef is beginning to be defined to others by his status as a defendant. The manufacturer no longer sees him as a meaningful business partner; instead, he is simply an accused man in need of charitable help.
Josef accepts a letter of recommendation and Titorelli’s address from the manufacturer. He decides to visit the painter straightaway. In the lobby, he encounters three businessmen who had been waiting to meet with him for hours. Josef’s dismissal of these clients leaves them dumbfounded. The deputy director arrives yet again to usurp Josef’s role. He handles the clients, and Josef fears his professional reputation will be irreparably damaged.
Earlier in his trial, when he was determined not to seek the help of others, Josef would never have left work prematurely to meet Titorelli. Josef’s willingness to hinder his career ambitions in order to follow a tenuous lead illustrates the degree to which his trial has taken over his life.
Josef makes his way to Titorelli’s neighborhood, which is located near the courts. The painter’s building is utterly squalid. Josef ascends a staircase and is surrounded by young teenage girls who look at him in a “depraved” way. Titorelli, shabbily dressed, lets him into his tiny apartment. The girls peer in and jeer from outside.
Interestingly, now that Josef has resolved to seek out and accept the help of others, many no longer seem willing to offer that help. Instead of the well-intentioned inhabitants of the tenement he met at his first hearing, he comes across disrespectful teenagers. He feared earlier in the novel being seen as someone accused by the court. Now it is shown that his fear wasn’t groundless!
Titorelli reads the letter from the manufacturer, but still does not seem to understand why Josef has come. The painter asks Josef if he is interested in buying paintings, and Josef realizes that the letter could have said anything—he had not bothered to read it himself. The painter shows Josef some of his work, including a court-commissioned portrait of a judge. On the judge’s chair is a combined rendering of Justice and Victory, which shows a deity flying on winged heels. Josef observes that this is not a faithful representation of Justice and instead looks more like the God of the Hunt, but Titorelli responds that he simply paints as instructed.
The figure in the portrait that is on the judge’s chair is a clear symbol of the way the judiciary distorts the pure concept of justice. Instead of a sturdy, impartial figure, justice to the court is winged and ever-changing. By comparing it to the God of the Hunt, Josef unwittingly characterizes himself as prey for the justice system. Meanwhile, Titorelli, an artist who is supposed to explore truth or beauty or the world as he personally sees it, just paints what he is told. Art, too, is co-opted by the judicial system.
Titorelli explains his knowledge of the court. If Josef is to be acquitted, the painter says, it can happen in one of three ways: “absolute acquittal, apparent acquittal, and deferment.” Absolute acquittal is the most favorable outcome for a defendant, but rarely, if ever, occurs. Josef is frustrated to hear this. The painter says such acquittals may occur, but are unknown to him because rulings are kept secret.
Titorelli’s explanation shows the workings of the court to be entirely nonsensical and fundamentally unjust. However, the system is designed to offer a glimmer of hope in the form of the theoretical possibility of absolute acquittal. This forces defendants to feel like they themselves are somewhat in control of their fate and impels them to obsess over trial proceedings, to try to work through the court, and therefore entangles them completely in the court proceedings. What if the defendants just didn’t engage? But asking that question is also like asking: what if people just truly didn’t care what other people think; what if people didn’t care or think about death? Asking the question opens a door to a beautiful possibility that in reality no one will ever reach because it is beyond possibility.
As Josef grows increasingly uncomfortable in the stifling air of the poorly-ventilated apartment, Titorelli explains the apparent acquittal. This acquittal is temporary and can be reversed at any time by higher-ranking judges. Finally, deferment simply halts the trial in its earliest stages, and requires the constant attention of the defendant to sustain.
The legal system appears to be organized in such a way that prevents an accused man from ever breaking free of its clutches. As Josef learns of this systemic oppression, the very air of the apartment starts to oppress him, further symbolizing his inability to escape the system.
Josef is disappointed to hear that it is essentially impossible for a defendant to regain his freedom. He leaves Titorelli’s apartment in a rush, but promises to let the painter know what sort of acquittal he would like to pursue. As Josef leaves, Titorelli badgers him into purchasing three identical landscape paintings.
Titorelli’s characterization of the legal system further emphasizes its absurdity and irrationality. In addition, Josef’s inability to distinguish between the paintings he purchases insinuates that he lacks a perspective essential for understanding his situation, much in the same way he has been unequipped to make sense of the judiciary. It also shows how Titorelli, too, finds a way to profit from Josef’s despair and bad situation.
To avoid the girls outside, Titorelli leads Josef out the back door. Josef is shocked to discover that this door leads to a corridor of court offices just like the one he visited for his hearing. The painter matter-of-factly explains that most attics contain court offices. A civil servant escorts Josef through the corridor, and Josef finds the air so stifling that he covers his mouth with a handkerchief.
As Josef learns more about the justice system, it seems to dominate his life further and further. He cannot avoid the offices of the law in his mind, and now, he seems unable to avoid them in space as well—the offices are a seemingly ubiquitous part of his landscape.