The Trial

Themes and Colors
Justice vs. The Law Theme Icon
The Absurd Theme Icon
The Unknowable and Interpretation Theme Icon
Alienation and Control Theme Icon
Sex and Seduction Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Trial, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

The central conflict of The Trial is Josef K.’s struggle against The Law. He stands accused of an unknown crime, and his trial is supposedly required for justice to be served. However, there seems to be little justice in the treatment Josef receives. By most standards, he is denied anything resembling a fair trial: he is never informed of how he has broken the Law, he is forbidden from learning essential details of his…

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The word “absurd” derives from the Latin word for “deaf,” and, fittingly, the absurd universe of The Trial is utterly deaf to any character’s attempts to influence or understand it. Josef’s protracted mission to understand the Law never culminates in any larger comprehension. The more Josef explores the system that holds him captive, the less that system appears to be undergirded by any logical, predictable structure whatsoever. Accordingly, there is nothing any individual—defendant, lawyer, and…

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The fundamental absurdity of Josef K.’s world is a consequence of its inscrutability: there is no decisive way to make sense of Josef’s situation. Because there is no unequivocal truth in The Trial’s universe, every fact can be recast in conflicting ways. Moreover, the facts themselves are often dubious or altogether inaccessible. This theme is evident from the very first words of the book: “Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K.” This…

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There is no collaboration or camaraderie in The Trial. Every individual acts as an isolated agent, and people are focused on controlling themselves and others in order to fulfill personal desires. Josef K.’s interpersonal interactions are governed by hierarchy and ambition. He obsessively tabulates his status relative to others, and calculates how he can use this positioning to his greatest benefit. Josef worries about how he may be manipulated and constantly devises ways…

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The Trial is rife with overt sexuality. A large fraction of the female characters, like Leni, try to seduce Josef or are regarded by him as potential sexual conquests, like Fraulein Burstner. However, this lustfulness is hollow and insincere. Just like nearly every other interaction in the book, romantic encounters are depicted as individuals’ attempts to use others to achieve their goals, rather than as moments of tenderness, vulnerability, and connection. Josef is…

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