The Trial | Study Guide

Franz Kafka

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The Trial | Chapter 2 : First Cross-Examination | Summary



Josef K. gets a phone call informing him that his first trial hearing is to be that Sunday. He decides he will attend. He is certain that he will clear up all misunderstandings about his arrest at this first hearing. K.'s boss, the deputy director of the bank, invites K. sailing that same Sunday. K. is ambitious and wants very much to go to further his career, but his trial makes that impossible. K. talks himself into believing that the deputy director humbled himself with this invitation. K. is convinced that the invitation shows how high his status is at the bank. K.'s ambitions and sense of superiority are bolstered.

The day of the trial is dull, and K. is tired, as he had been out drinking the night before. He travels to the remote suburb where the hearing will be held. He cannot find his way and is somewhat late, but he refuses to ask for help, as that will "humiliate" him. He also thinks that his lateness is acceptable, as being punctual for a lowly trial committee would be beneath him.

When K. finally finds the correct building, he sees that it's a decrepit tenement filled with poor people and families. He enters but does not know where to go, as there are several passageways and staircases leading to the upper floors. He does not want to lower (or reveal) himself as being on trial, so he knocks on apartment doors, saying he's looking for "Lanz the joiner." No one seems to know where to find this Lanz. K. begins to worry about being far too late for his hearing. Finally, K. asks a woman washing clothes in her apartment about Lanz. The washer woman points toward the open door leading to an adjacent room. K. and the woman enter this room.

The room is filled with people of all kinds. It's stuffy in there, but the woman assures him that's the room where he'll find Lanz the joiner. She leaves and closes the door behind K. A young man leads K. toward a podium. As he walks into the room, K. notices that two distinct groups of people seem to occupy each half of the room. Those on the right seem rigidly divided from those on the left. The people in each group are talking together animatedly. When he reaches the podium, K. sees a small, fat man—the judge—sitting at a small table. The judge looks at his watch and rebukes K. for being more than an hour late. K. replies rather offhandedly, "Well ... I'm here now." A few people applaud this, and K. wonders what else he might do to get the support of more people in the room.

The judge looks in his notebook and asks K. if he's "a house painter." K. uses this mistake to sharply criticize and denounce the whole proceeding, saying, "There are proceedings only if I acknowledge that there are." He says he'll acknowledge them out of "pity" for the judge and the assembly. K. impulsively and arrogantly picks up the judge's notebook. He flaps it in the air and then drops it carelessly on the small table. The old men in the front row are stunned. The atmosphere in the room becomes tense.

K. then launches into a speech in which he condemns the trial and the proceedings. Some folks in the assembly shout "Bravo!" Emboldened, K. then begins a long description of his initial arrest and how outrageous he thinks it was. Yet he describes himself as being calm and respectful throughout that ordeal. He says that, at most, he felt a "temporary irritation" at being arrested. As he speaks, the air in the room becomes oppressive. Yet K. continues his oration, criticizing the "organization" of the court system, what happened during his arrest, the court's habit of arresting "innocent" people and conducting "pointless prosecutions," among other complaints.

Suddenly, a scream rings out. It is the washer woman at the back of the room who is being sexually assaulted by a man. No one moves to help the woman. They even block K. from moving to aid her.

K. notices that everyone in the room is wearing what seems like a color-coded badge. K. is moved to stand and speechify once more. He accuses the assembled crowd of working for the court system, of being "cheats and liars" Speaking loudly and gesticulating dramatically, K. accuses the assembly of "having fun" in their plot to "trap an innocent man."

Throughout, K. has been bold and self-assured, even arrogant and insulting. When K. finishes speaking, the judge tells him that his behavior has "robbed [K.] of the advantages" a hearing might afford the accused. K. arrogantly laughs out loud and calls them all "a bunch of louts" who can "keep their hearings!" He then turns on his heel and storms out the door of the hearing room.


The motif of hierarchy is played out throughout this chapter. Josef K. hesitates to ask for directions because he feels that will humiliate him, or lower his status relative to those he's asking. K. then uses the ridiculous lie about seeking "Lanz the joiner" to cover up his humiliation at being under arrest. He does not want the tenement dwellers to know he's looking for a courtroom where his hearing is to take place. In a sense, K.'s deceit in asking for Lanz is reflected back on him when he's asked if he's a house painter. Is this misunderstanding the court's way of mocking K.'s deception about Lanz? If it is, K. still takes it so seriously that he launches into a tirade about how far above the status of house painter he really is. He uses the court's mistake to reinforce his argument that this court has such low status and is so far beneath him, he cannot take the proceedings seriously. When K. states that he's the chief clerk in a bank, some of the assembly applaud. This leads K. to think of ways to gain the approval of the crowd to improve his position with the court.

When K. handles and then drops the judge's notebook, he thinks that it is a "deep humiliation" for the judge. The pointless exercise was intended to lower the status of the judge and raise the supposed power of the accused. K. hoped the judge's humiliation would draw the crowd's approval, but they are shocked. Later, in his oration, K. asserts that he's defending himself so vehemently in order to safeguard his "reputation" and his "position at the bank." He is concerned with his status and doesn't understand the seriousness or the nature of the proceedings against him.

This chapter also deals with the theme of guilt and innocence. Finding a courtroom in a large, labyrinthine tenement by asking for a joiner would seem to be impossible. Yet the washer woman leads K. to the hearing room as soon as he asks for Lanz. This shows that K.'s guilt is known and is obvious to the people in the tenement. As is written later, it's one's guilt that draws the law to you. K.'s guilt is obvious to everyone but himself. When K. shockingly mishandles the examining magistrate's notebook, K. says, "I really don't have anything in this charge book to be afraid of." He is arrogantly confident of his innocence and so is dismissive of the court. He says that the court's purpose "is to arrest innocent people and wage pointless prosecution against them ... that are devoid of meaning."

The theme of justice and the law relative to the individual is also presented in this chapter. Josef K. tells the crowd that he is openly challenging the current proceedings not only for himself, but "on behalf of [the many] who are similarly charged." He does not understand, as the Chapter 9 parable makes clear, that each person must face the law as an individual. K. is haughty and arrogant throughout the proceedings. He thinks he is in control of the court and his fate. He alone speaks and is "satisfied to hear nothing but his own quiet words." K. mocks the court by stating "assuming that this so-called court is of any real importance ... he will [be able to] make a calm assessment of it." He insists that "none of this concerns me." Yet K. is aware enough to realize that the court system is "some enormous organization" and a huge bureaucracy. He boldly asserts that the court and its proceedings are "devoid of meaning" and have the sole intention of "trap[ping] an innocent man!"

After K. has finished his astonishing oration, the judge informs him of "something you seem not yet to be aware of: today you have robbed yourself of the advantages that a hearing of this sort always gives to someone who is under arrest." Incredibly, the naive K. laughs at this and, as he's leaving the hearing room, calls, "You can keep your hearings as a present from me." K.'s arrogance and ignorance of the law is shocking and will be his undoing.

The motif of deformity by the court is introduced when K. notes that the people in the gallery are pressed down by the low ceiling. They could only stand "bent down with their heads and their backs touching the ceiling." The court, as represented in the hearing room, deforms the body by forcing it into a servile posture.

The symbol of oppressive air in the court is introduced here. As those in the assembled crowd mingle and seem to discuss K.'s oration, he notices that "the air in the room was fuggy and extremely oppressive." The oppressive air represents the oppressiveness of the court and the law. The court deprives the accused of life-affirming fresh air. It thus muddles K.'s mind during his hearing, preventing him from either comprehending what is happening to him or of mounting a creditable defense.

The motif of sex and the court is made plain in the assault, or rape, of the washer woman at the back of the hearing room. She screams as she's attacked, but no one in the packed room comes to her aid. It's as if assaulting a woman for sex is an ordinary occurrence at court. Why would sex be an accepted transaction in the court system? This will become clear later in the novel. When K. tries to help her, his way is deliberately blocked by the crowd in the room. K. thinks that "his freedom was being limited, as if his arrest was being taken seriously." Is he beginning to see the reality of what is happening to him?

The theme of the absurd is clearly present. The hearing room is packed, yet K. has no idea who the people are, what purpose they have, or what their different badges mean. Significantly, he has no real notion of how he is supposed to behave or present his defense. For how can an accused, such as K., defend himself when he is not told of the charges against him? The unpredictable reactions of the assembled crowd to the things he says confuse K. still further. He wants their support. He wants to impress them, yet he has no guidelines as to how to go about it. It is possible that the confidence he shows in his oration is merely bravado that K. uses to cover up his confusion about what is really going on.

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