An important Italian partner of the bank is visiting the city, and Josef is assigned to show him around. Though this would ordinarily be an honor to Josef, he is anxious to miss still more time to work in the bank offices. However, he accepts the assignment unconditionally, as he has accepted other recent assignments—to do otherwise would betray weakness.
Josef’s unwillingness to display weakness simply renders him weaker still. This illustrates that Josef’s inflated sense of self and misguided attempts to be independent actually make him less able to act on his own. He is as controlled by his job as he is by the trial.
The day before the tour, Josef reviews Italian grammar late into the night. The next morning, Josef arrives early, hoping to take care of some of his work. However, the Italian has also arrived early, and Josef must attend to him. The Italian is an animated speaker whom Josef finds difficult to understand, but the bank’s director subtly assists Josef. At the Italian’s suggestion, Josef agrees to give him a tour of the cathedral at ten o’clock.
Josef’s every attempt to control and comprehend his surroundings is undermined. His extra professional responsibilities prevent him from getting work done even when he comes in early for that specific purpose. On top of this frustration, he is unable even to understand the man whom he needs to show around the cathedral.
Through the morning, Josef struggles to learn the vocabulary he will need to tour the cathedral. He receives a call from Leni and, when he explains his work at the bank, she tells him that he is being harassed. He hangs up quickly, but has no choice but to agree.
In a rare instance of two individuals interpreting an event in the same way, Leni recognizes that Josef’s professional obligations seem designed to thwart him and keep him from controlling his work.
Josef is worried that he may arrive late, but reaches the cathedral at the stroke of ten. The Italian is nowhere to be found. To shelter himself from the cold rain outside, Josef walks around the candlelit cathedral. A cloaked church employee gestures at him, and Josef begins to follow the man, but soon loses interest and returns to the nave.
The Italian’s unexplained absence highlights Josef’s lack of control over his situation. The mystifying gestures of the church employee hint at still another form of communication that Josef cannot apprehend or properly interpret.
As Josef studies a small pulpit in the corner, he notices a priest preparing to give a sermon. Josef thinks it a bizarre time of day for a sermon, especially given that he is the sole congregant. He gets up to leave, but as he approaches the exit, the priest’s voice calls out to him by name. Josef considers ignoring the command but decides to acknowledge the priest. The priest beckons, and has Josef stand directly below the pulpit.
Josef now seems to be targeted not only by human institutions, but by divine ones as well. This appropriately comes after the judicial system has consistently revealed itself to be more and more powerful and extensive, and less and less understandable. The system seems less like a bureaucracy than a religious faith. Another way to look at it would be to say that the judicial system on display in the story seems to be constantly revealed as bigger than Josef thought—perhaps so big that it should not even be described as a judicial system by merely as “the system,” encompassing everything.
The priest reveals that he is the prison chaplain, and that he had Josef summoned to the church in order to speak with him. The chaplain tells Josef his case is going badly, and that many think him guilty. He asks Josef what he plans to do next, and Josef explains that he still can seek more help. The priest tells him he already seeks too much assistance, especially from women. Josef responds that women might help influence a judiciary of philanderers, and the priest responds with pointed silence, and finally screams at Josef: “Can you not see two steps in front of you?”
The chaplain’s collusion with Josef’s employers suggests a conspiracy against Josef that encompasses every aspect of his life. Furthermore, the priest’s remark to Josef implies that Josef lacks the ability to perceive essential details for understanding his predicament. This is the archetypal nightmare of the accused: to fail to take helpful action out of ignorance.
Josef asks the chaplain to descend from the pulpit, and the priest agrees, having fulfilled his initial obligation to speak from a distance. The two men pace the aisles, and Josef tells the chaplain that he appreciates his friendliness. The chaplain tells Josef not to fool himself.
While this interaction superficially seems like one of the most sympathetic Josef has experienced, the chaplain is quick to remind him that he can rely on no one. Thus, in a disturbing reversal, Josef’s arrogant self-reliance has changed from a luxury into a necessity. It’s not that he should rely on himself because to do so is a show of strength; he must rely on himself because he is fundamentally alone.
The chaplain recounts a parable given in the law, in which a man from the country tries to gain access to the law, but is forbidden by a doorkeeper. The doorkeeper tells the man that it is possible for him to gain entry at a later time. The man attempts to see around the doorkeeper, but the doorkeeper simply laughs at his attempts to circumvent his guard. The doorkeeper explains that behind him lies another, more powerful doorkeeper, and behind him lie an indefinite number of still more powerful guardians. The man waits outside for years. He had brought some provisions with him, and he offers these in an attempt to curry favor with the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts the bribes the man gives him, but states that “I’ll only accept this so that you don’t think there’s anything you’ve failed to do.” Over the years, the man first rages at his condition, but then he grows senile and deaf and only grumbles quietly to himself. Finally, he asks the doorkeeper why only he has tried to gain entry at this door. “Nobody else could have got in this way, as this entrance was meant only for you,” responds the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper then closes the door.
This parable is an allegorical representation of Josef’s futile quest to understand the law. Like Josef’s ordeal, the man’s experience before the doorkeeper seems devoid of reason and compassion. Furthermore, the doorkeeper himself is simply following the mandates he receives from a larger, more powerful system—one whose extent and power the doorkeeper himself cannot grasp. Crucially, the doorkeeper’s willingness to accept the man’s bribes illustrates the way in which the justice system fuels itself by convincing citizens that there may be some way for them to influence their case. This is the impulse that prompts Josef to devote himself so fully, and so futilely, to his trial. Finally, the deafness the waiting man develops symbolizes the absurdity of his confrontation with the Law. Again this parable of the Law also can be read metaphorically as a parable of a larger Law than of innocence or guilt: it could be the Law of life, governing the facts of life and death, the unknowable “meaning” of life, etc. And the tailoring of the door to the man seems to imply the way that each person is alone in this journey, each gets a door just for him or herself, and it is a door they never get to go through. Everyone’s experience is theirs alone, and no one ever gets understanding.
Josef responds that the man has clearly been cheated, and the chaplain tells him this conclusion is far from unequivocal. Josef tries to find contradictions within the parable that indicate an overarching moral, but the chaplain points out that it is phrased in such away that no definite moral can be ascribed to it. The two consider several ways to interpret the story and debate which characters are arrogant or deluded, and how their positions compare. Josef begins to realize that it is possible to see the doorkeeper’s role as anything ranging from a considerate, dutiful servant to a small-minded cheat. The chaplain even produces an interpretation maintaining that the doorkeeper is the one who has been cheated. As the ambiguities are tallied, Josef begins to understand that the law is open to interpretation. However, the chaplain gives him the paradoxical warning not to worry too much about others’ opinions, as the text itself cannot be altered. When Josef laments the absence of any single clear, true interpretation of the parable, the chaplain responds, “you don’t need to accept everything as true, you only have to accept it as necessary.” “Depressing view,” retorts Josef: “The lie made into the rule of the world.”
Josef’s inability to pin down the parable’s significance marks a crucial point in the novel. He has begun to realize that his trial may not in fact be undergirded by any truth or meaning whatsoever. He will get a “verdict”—but the judiciary of The Trial is completely detached from these concerns of truth, and thus out of touch with justice itself. This is a deeply disturbing structure, but it isn’t unrelated to Josef’s own approach to life. His obsession with hierarchical status and control, coupled with his need to routinize his lifestyle and to impose rules upon himself to mitigate his own agency, are the individual practices that legitimize the absurd, inhuman judicial system that oppresses him. For example, when Josef devised a story to avoid being spotted near Franz and Willem’s whipping, he himself concocted a lie that he then rationalized into a rule of his own world. It is also significant that Josef is told this message by the chaplain, in a cathedral: the justice system has been elevated to the level of a god.
After extensive discussion, the chaplain asks Josef if he wants to leave. Though Josef hadn’t considered leaving, he remembers his position at the bank and decides to return to work. The chaplain leaves, allowing Josef to find his own way out in the dark, and Josef is dismayed by how abrupt this parting is. He cries out to ask the chaplain if he wants anything further, and the chaplain responds that “the court doesn’t want anything from you. It accepts you when you come and it lets you go when you leave.”
Josef cannot make sense of this encounter, and his only response is to revert to the routine to which he has become accustomed. When meeting a chaplain one expects guidance and comfort. But the chaplain leaves Josef alone, in the dark—he still has no understanding or connection. The chaplain’s parting words further characterize the judiciary as an entity unconcerned with truth and justice—a system that operates simply in order to perpetuate its own meaningless structures, and which is vastly bigger than any individual.