The Trial


Franz Kafka

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The Trial can help.
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.
Alienation and Control Theme Icon

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 to manipulate others to his advantage. Every decision he makes at work is a stratagem in his power-jockeying rivalry with the bank’s deputy director. One of Josef’s few uncalculated actions is his spontaneous kissing of Fraulein Burstner, and even this moment of passion only ends in alienation. Josef never speaks to the fraulein again, and when he sees her at the novel’s close, he cares so little—or has been so ground down—that he doesn’t bother to stop walking.

In spite of his efforts, Josef comes nowhere close to controlling his life. He is at the mercy of the Law, his business superiors, and anyone else who might gain some sort of leverage over him. And the ladder of alienation and control extends ever higher: even the individuals who hold power over Josef, like his judge, are in the end nothing more than powerless cogs in a larger machine. This fact is reinforced by the chaplain’s parable: while the first doorkeeper may have authority over the man who seeks to access the Law, the doorkeeper himself is subject to other doorkeepers whose power lies beyond his understanding. Each of these doorkeepers is in turn subordinate to the next. In the same way, individual obsessions with control lead each character to conceptualize his interactions on a hierarchical scale, which in turn leads to further alienated individuals and more exaggerated power dynamics. Ultimately, then, no single person is autonomous or sovereign in The Trial. This is the ironic consequence of fetishizing individual agency and dominance.

Related Themes from Other Texts
Compare and contrast themes from other texts to this theme…

Alienation and Control ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Alienation and Control appears in each chapter of The Trial. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
chapter length:
Get the entire The Trial LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Trial PDF

Alienation and Control Quotes in The Trial

Below you will find the important quotes in The Trial related to the theme of Alienation and Control.
Chapter 3 Quotes

The woman really did tempt him and, however much he thought about it, he could find no plausible reason why he should not yield to the temptation. He easily dismissed the cursory objection that she would tie him to the court. In what way could she tie him? Would he not still remain free enough to crush the court at one blow, at least insofar as it affected him? Could he not have confidence in himself to do that small thing? And her offer of help sounded genuine and was perhaps not to be discounted. Could there be any better revenge on the examining magistrate and his entourage, than to deprive them of this woman and take her to himself?

Related Characters: Josef K.
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

He felt as if he were seasick, as if he were on a ship in a heavy sea. It was as if the water were crashing against the wooden walls, as if a rushing sound came from the far end of the corridor, like water pouring over, as if the corridor were rocking to and fro and as if the people sitting on either side were going up and down. It made the calm of the young woman and the man who were helping him to the exit all the more incomprehensible.

Related Characters: Josef K.
Related Symbols: The Court’s Oppressive Air
Page Number: 56-57
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 5 Quotes

He felt anguish at having been unable to prevent the thrashing, but it wasn’t his fault. If Franz hadn’t screamed—true, it must have hurt a lot, but a man should be able to control himself at decisive moments—if Franz hadn’t screamed then K. would, at least very probably, have found some means of winning the thrasher over.

Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 7 Quotes

It was very important, because the first impression the defence made often determined the whole course of the trial. Unfortunately he [Herr Huld] had to point out to K. that it sometimes happened that first submissions to the court were not read at all. They were simply filed, and the officials declared that hearing and observing the accused was more important than any written material. If the petitioner was insistent they would add that, once all the material had been gathered and before a decision was reached, all the files, including the first submission, would naturally be reviewed as a whole. Unfortunately, he said, that too was mostly incorrect, the first submission was usually mislaid or completely lost, and even if it was kept right to the end it was hardly read, though he, the lawyer, had only heard rumours to that effect.

Related Characters: Josef K., Herr Huld
Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis:

The essential thing was not to attract attention, to stay calm, however much it went against the grain, to try to understand that this great legal organism remained eternally in balance, so to speak.

Related Characters: Herr Huld
Page Number: 86
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 10 Quotes

Then Fräulein Bürstner appeared in the square, coming up a small set of steps from a lower street. It wasn’t quite certain that it was her, though the similarity was great. But K. wasn’t bothered whether it was definitely Fräulein Bürstner or not, it was just that he immediately became aware of the futility of his resistance. There was nothing heroic about his resistance, about making things difficult for the two men, about trying to enjoy the last semblance of life as he defended himself.

Related Characters: Josef K., Fraulein Burstner
Page Number: 162
Explanation and Analysis:

I’m grateful that I’ve been given these two half-mute, uncomprehending men to accompany me on my way and it’s been left to me to tell myself everything that is needful.

Related Characters: Josef K. (speaker)
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:

His eye fell on the top storey of the house beside the quarry. Like a flash of light, the two casements of a window parted and a human figure, faint and thin from the distance and height, leant far out in one swift movement then stretched its arms out even farther. Who was it? A friend? A kind person? Someone who felt for him? Someone who wanted to help? Was it just one? Or all of them? Was help still possible? Were there still objections he’d forgotten? Of course there were. Logic may be unshakeable, but it cannot hold out against a human being who wants to live. Where was the judge he had never seen? Where was the high court he had never reached?

Related Characters: Josef K.
Page Number: 164
Explanation and Analysis:

‘Like a dog!’ he said. It seemed as if his shame would live on after him.

Related Characters: Josef K. (speaker)
Page Number: 165
Explanation and Analysis: