The Trial | Study Guide

Franz Kafka

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The Trial | Chapter 1 : Arrest: Conversation with Mrs. Grubach—then Miss Bürstner | Summary

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Summary

One morning, Josef K. is arrested. He waits for his breakfast but instead a strange man named Franz enters his bedroom. Josef K. goes into the next room only to find another policeman, Willem. K. asks why he's under arrest, but they can't tell him. For some inexplicable reason, they take his nightshirt and other clothes. They advise him to "get a clear understanding of his position." K. is bewildered, wondering how this can happen in a "free country." K. shows his identity papers to the policemen, but they ignore them. They admit that they're low-level employees in the vast legal system. K. ponders the pros and cons of various tactics to take control of his situation. He looks down on the "coppers" as people of a lower status than himself, and K. plans what to do based on their lowly—and his higher—status.

Rather than risk doing anything rash, K. goes back to his room, lies on his bed, and eats an apple instead of his usual breakfast. He'll be late for work, but excuses this on the basis of the "relatively high position" he holds at the bank he works in. Suddenly, K. is told he has to see the supervisor, but for some unexplained reason he must wear a black coat.

The policemen are assembled in the room of Miss Bürstner, another lodger in Mrs. Grubach's house. This offends K., as they have rearranged some of her furniture. Three other people in the room (K. later learns they work at his bank) are handling Miss Bürstner's photographs, which irritates K. The supervisor is seated and says that K. must be "quite surprised" at what's happened to him this morning. K. says that he thinks this whole scenario must be some kind of "joke" arranged to celebrate his 30th birthday that day. K. asserts that he is innocent, even though he's unaware of what the charge against him is. The supervisor insists he doesn't know anything about the charges but that K.'s profession of innocence is only damaging his case. K. chafes at the way the lowly supervisor treats him. The supervisor states that K.'s arrest should not even interfere with his normal, day-to-day life. K. is allowed to take a taxi to the bank with his three colleagues. Later, instead of meeting a woman, Elsa (who is likely a prostitute), K. returns straight home after work and goes to talk to Mrs. Grubach. He apologizes for any trouble the policemen may have caused that morning. She waves off the apology and seems surprised that he even mentions what had happened. Mrs. Grubach says the situation seems "complicated" but K. counters, saying it's a "fuss about nothing." K. wants to shake her hand and she "tears up."

Mrs. Grubach shows K. that Miss Bürstner's room is back in order, but reveals her suspicions that Miss Bürstner meets strange men, something a "decent" woman shouldn't do. Mrs. Grubach leaves K. to wait for Miss Bürstner to return home. She gets home very late, but K. knocks on her door to speak with her. She invites K. into her room and he apologizes to her for the earlier untidiness of her room, saying it's his fault. Miss Bürstner is confused, as her room is now in perfect order—except for her photographs, which are in the wrong order. When K. tells her the police were there, she laughs at the thought that K. is a "serious criminal." She asks him about his case, but K. admits he has no clue what it's about. Miss Bürstner promises to try to help him. K. takes the unusual step of acting out the early-morning scene with the policemen. During his enactment, K. shouts as one of the cops did. This awakens Mrs. Grubach's nephew in the next room. Miss Bürstner is afraid the landlady will evict her for having K. in her room at night. K. swears he'll protect her. She asks him to leave and pulls him into the corridor, where he covers her with kisses.

Back in his room, K. ponders his behavior with Miss Bürstner. All in all, he decides that "he was satisfied" with what he did.

Analysis

The novel opens with ambiguity, stating that "someone must have been telling lies about Josef K." But who or why a lie was told and the nature of that lie are not stated. K. is arrested by the policemen, but never told what he is presumed to be guilty of. The policemen insist that "they are not allowed to tell" Josef K. why he is under arrest.

The theme of guilt and innocence is made clear from the very beginning. The fact that K. cannot be told what he is being charged with introduces the theme of the absurd. If one is being arrested for some crime, one should be told what it is. K. is shown to be naive not only about himself (he vehemently protests his innocence) but about his society. K. is indignant, thinking that he "was living in a free country, after all, ... all laws were decent and were upheld, who was it who dared accost him in his own home?" Based on what is happening to him that morning, and certainly on what occurs later, K. is clearly naive and ignorant of the true nature of his society and the laws.

His ignorance of the law hints at the possibility that Josef K. may, in fact, be guilty of something. For if a person does not know the law, then it's possible that he may unwittingly break it. Josef K. is blithely unaware of this. K. says he "can't think of [having committed] the slightest offense." The supervisor responds that K.'s insisting on his innocence is only damaging his case. Yet Josef K.'s approach to life, "he crosses bridges when he came to them, [and paid] no heed for the future, even when everything seemed under threat" shows his deliberate lack of awareness about himself and society.

Josef K. took "life as lightly as he could." With this blasé attitude toward life and events, it is little wonder Josef K. is convinced that his arrest is "a mistake" or a "joke" that he will clear up easily. Before they leave, the policemen tell K. that his arrest is not that big a deal, and he'll be able to "[carry] on with [his] usual life." This will prove to be quite misleading.

Josef K.'s character is revealed further by the statement that he "wasn't normally in the habit of learning from experience." This underscores how naive he is, how incurious about himself and the world he lives in. It also foreshadows the events to come. For even if Josef K. was a person who did learn from experience, the irrationality of the things he will experience now that he is under arrest will make learning from them impossible.

The motif of hierarchy is introduced here. Josef K. has a pretty high opinion of himself and his status in society. He thinks he's a keen observer of other people and can easily discern their status relative to his. He refers to the arresting policeman as being of the "lowest position." He feels that he will get the situation sorted if he can speak to someone "of the same social standing" as himself. The policemen know better. When Josef K. demands to know why he's being arrested, a policeman says, "In a position like yours, and you think you can start giving orders, do you?" K. does not understand his position in relation to the court and the law. He sees only the status of the men before him. Based on his false sense of status, Josef K. thinks he will be able to control the situation. Later, he will learn otherwise.

Despite his feelings of superiority, K. submits to the absurd demands of the policemen. He gives them his clothes. He does not tell them to leave Miss Bürstner's room after they have taken it over and rearranged her things to make space for themselves. At times, Josef K. tries to be reasonable with them, though they represent a totally unreasonable (irrational) legal system. K. shouts, "Who do you think you are? You want to see some point in it while you're carrying out something as pointless as it could be?" Without realizing it, K. has stumbled on a truth about his arrest and the law—they are pointless, or absurd. The policemen remain calm, as they have what K. later refers to as the "enormous organism" of the court behind them.

The issue of women and sex arises when K. returns from work that evening and argues with his landlady, Mrs. Grubach, about Miss Bürstner. Mrs. Grubach expresses doubts about her female lodger, saying that she thinks Miss Bürstner may see "different gentlemen" in the evening. K. defends Miss Bürstner's "decency." Later, when she comes back to the lodging house, K. knocks on Miss Bürstner's door and speaks to her in her room. K. reenacts the events of that morning, emphasizing the absurdity of what happened. When he learns that Miss Bürstner works in a legal office, K. immediately says, "that means you'll be able to give me some help with my trial." Although K. does not engage with her as crassly as he does with women later on, he immediately latches on to how he can use her to further his case.

Throughout the novel, K. engages almost solely in transactional relationships. His transactional approach to women and sex is introduced here. Josef. K. might truly like Miss Bürstner, but he cannot resist casting their relationship as a transaction in which he can use her for his own benefit. When he leaves her room, he kisses her "like a thirsty animal." This image reinforces the idea that K. is a kind of predator who is using Miss Bürstner for his own benefit.

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