On the morning of his thirtieth birthday, two policemen come to Josef K.’s boardinghouse and inform him that he is under arrest. Josef, a successful chief clerk of a bank, is not informed of his wrongdoing. After a confusing interrogation, he is told to go to work as usual. Late that night, he goes to the room of another boarder, Fraulein Burstner, whom he kisses unexpectedly.
Josef is assigned a date for his first hearing. He travels to his courtroom, located in a poor tenement building. At his hearing, he stands before a large audience and lambasts the legal system. As Josef leaves, the judge informs him that his conduct will deprive him of the benefits these hearings generally confer.
The next week, Josef is not notified of another hearing, but he turns up at the courthouse anyway. He finds it empty save for its young stewardess, who flirts with him until a law student carries her off to see a judge. Soon afterwards, her husband, a court usher, arrives. He shows Josef around the legal offices. The oppressive air in the offices stifles Josef, and he becomes so faint that he must be led to fresh air.
Josef tries repeatedly to contact Fraulein Burstner, but she ignores him. A few days later, Josef hears moaning sounds as he prepares to leave work for the evening. He opens a supply closet to discover the policemen who arrested him being brutally whipped. They claim they are being punished because Josef denounced their conduct in his hearing. Josef is deeply disturbed but shuts the door and leaves to avoid detection by a coworker.
Josef’s Uncle Karl visits him at work. Karl is has gotten wind of Josef’s trial and is concerned. He takes Josef to see Herr Huld, a friend of his who works as a lawyer. At Huld’s house, they meet the lawyer, who is ill and bedridden. A high-ranking court official also happens to be present, but he ignores Josef, and Josef leaves the room to flirt with Huld’s maid, Leni. Afterward, Karl tells Josef that his indecorous absence has damaged his case.
At work, Josef dwells on his trial and neglects important clients. Finally, he sees one, but is so absent-minded that Josef’s rival, the bank’s deputy director, takes over the case—a blow to Josef’s career ambitions. The client, having heard of Josef’s trial, recommends he meet a court portraitist named Titorelli. Josef takes the painter’s address and leaves work, letting his rival take on his other clients as well. Josef finds Titorelli’s apartment in a wretched cluster of tenements. The painter offers to help Josef and explains the types of acquittal Josef may receive. Titorelli’s explanation reveals that no accused ever seems to gain a meaningful acquittal; trials either continue interminably or end in conviction.
Increasingly preoccupied about his lack of progress, Josef decides to fire his lawyer. He goes to Huld’s, where he meets another of the lawyer’s clients, a tradesman named Block. Block is obsessed with his legal proceedings, which have gone on for five years. When Josef tells Block and Leni that he plans to fire Huld, they try to restrain him, but he reaches Huld’s office. Huld tries surprisingly insistently to win Josef back, but Josef is not swayed. At the end of their meeting, Huld summons Block, who grovels at the lawyer’s bedside. It is revealed that the pathetic tradesman often sleeps at Huld’s in the hopes of getting an audience with the lawyer.
Josef agrees to give a tour of the local cathedral to an important Italian client of the bank. However, the Italian does not show up. Instead, a priest climbs to the pulpit and addresses Josef by name. The priest reveals that he is the prison chaplain, and had Josef summoned to the cathedral to speak about his trial. The chaplain tells Josef a mysterious parable about multiple gatekeepers guarding the way to the Law, which is intended to characterize the Law.
On the eve of Josef’s thirty-first birthday—one year after his arrest—two men come to his room. They escort him to a quarry on the outskirts of town, where they thrust a knife into his heart. Josef, ashamed of his own death, utters the final phrase, “Like a dog!”