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The Trial | Chapter 3 : In the Empty Courtroom: The Student—The Offices | Summary

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Summary

Josef K. waits for a second hearing summons scheduled for the following Sunday, but none ever comes. He assumes that the lack of a summons means he should just show up. On Sunday, he goes to the suburb and into the tenement. Inside, the washer woman of the week before informs him that "there's no session today." K. can't believe it, but she shows him the empty hearing room. The woman says she can give the examining judge a message because she knows the judge. Her husband is the court usher, and she cleans for the court. They discuss the assault of the previous week, but she sloughs it off. She explains that a law student, Berthold, uses her for sex. She doesn't really mind because later on Berthold will have influence at the court.

At K.'s request, the woman allows K. to look at the books on the judge's table. He opens them and finds that they are not law books but books containing pornographic pictures. K. says, "[so] this is the sort of person sitting in judgment over me." The woman turns seductive and tells K. she can help him and his case. K. thinks "she's degenerate," though he admits he finds her attractive. K. rejects her sexual advances, belittling her by saying, "I'm sure you only know the lower employees" of the court. The woman is upset that he's "misjudged" her. K. explains that he doesn't want her to get in trouble and that, anyway, he "just laughs" at his arrest and trial. K. insists his case will be settled favorably, but if court officials expect him to bribe them, he will not do it. K. arrogantly insists that "any unpleasantness for me ... I will make a blow against them." K. is confident that he has power and agency in the court system. Yet the woman tells him that the judge had been up all night writing up a report on K.'s case.

Berthold, the law student, appears and takes the washer woman supposedly to have sex with her. The woman assures K. that if he wants, she'll return and allow him to "do whatever [you like] with me." K. is aroused and can "find no good reason why he should not give in to her allure." Still, he wonders if she is trying to entrap him "on behalf of the court." K. fantasizes about snubbing the court by having the woman all to himself. The woman goes to Berthold, who starts kissing her. K. tries to insult Berthold, but the student reminds K. that his arrogant speech at his first hearing was a "mistake" that harmed his case. Berthold then hoists the woman over his shoulder to carry her away—to an assignation with the examining judge. K. tries to intervene, but the woman screams that he must not because it is the judge that has asked for her. K. backs off, seeing the incident as his first "unambiguous" setback.

K. leaves the assembly room and climbs a flight of rickety wooden stairs. They are the "Entrance to the Court Offices" in the attic of the building. The court usher arrives and recognizes K. The usher is enraged that his wife has been carried off for sex, but he knows there's nothing he can do. The usher says that K. might get revenge on the student for him because there is "no hope" of K.'s trial ending favorably. K. disagrees.

The usher shows K. into the court premises, which are long, dark corridors with offices off them. The walls are thrown together with ill-fitting planks of wood. The people waiting in the corridor—the accused—sit on benches in ratty clothes. They're bent and despondent, like street beggars. When K. asks one broken man what he's waiting for, he can barely answer, but he stutters that he's just "waiting." When he becomes able to speak, he seems proud of his indictment.

K. begins to tire and decides he wants to leave. But he can't find his way out by himself. The usher can't take him to the exit, but a woman approaches who can. K. feels unwell from the oppressive air that "is almost impossible to breathe." A man, the information giver, offers to take K. to the sick room, but K. insists he wants to leave the building. Together, the woman and man support K. and begin to lead him away. K. feels dizzy and "seasick." Finally, they bring him to the exit. The woman opens the door, and K. is quickly refreshed by the outside air. K. is rather alarmed at the contrast between how sick and weak he'd felt in the court offices and how refreshed he feels now that he's outside.

Analysis

The arbitrary and irrational nature of the law is made clear when Josef K. shows up for his scheduled hearing only to find that the court is not in session. He does not understand why, and he wonders how this will affect his case. However, K. begins to understand the absurdity, saying that the court not only "[tries] people who are innocent, but [even tries] them without letting them know what's going on." Yet K. continues to be baffled by this irrationality. He persuades himself that he is in control. He tells the washer woman, "there's nothing hanging on the outcome of this trial ... whatever the verdict, I will just laugh at it" and that "this affair is really not so important to me as they think."

Sexual seduction in the court plays an important role in this chapter. All of the so-called relationships in this chapter are wholly transactional. The washer woman explains that she allowed herself to be raped the previous Sunday because the student who assaulted her would one day "be very powerful" in the court. She allows herself to be raped to curry favor with a man who will one day have influence at the court. Sex is transactional, or occurs to further one's self-interest or status. It's got nothing to do with affection, intimacy, or even pleasure. The student, too, uses sex as a way to assert his power and to control others. The washer woman is powerless to fend off any sexual demands coming from those in the court. The importance of sex in the court—and a symbol of its absurdity—is underlined when K. finds that the so-called law books he opens contain pornographic pictures.

K. and the washer woman start flirting, but their sexual interest in each other is entirely transactional. K. rubs her soft hands. She asks him to help make things better for her at court. He says he might but only "because you [the woman] can be of some help to me." When the woman says K. has nice eyes, he decides she's "degenerate." He will have nothing to do with her because he doesn't think she "can be of any real assistance to me." K. then shows his obsession with status by rejecting her with the statement, "I'm sure you only know the lower employees [at the court]," while he needs someone who has influence with "high officials."

The washer woman defends her good reputation but she continues to flirt with K. K. is attracted to her and thinks about having sex with her. Yet he's suspicious that she's setting a trap for him. He dismisses this suspicion and thinks that having sex with her would be a kind of "revenge" on the judge and the court.

When Berthold enters and kisses the woman, K. thinks, "this is a confirmation of the tyranny the student held over the woman." Is she truly helpless when faced with Berthold's demands, or is she willingly submissive to gain his influence in the court for her own benefit? As Berthold carries her off, the woman informs K. that she's been summoned for sex with the judge. She cannot refuse someone who has that much power in the court. She pushes K. away. It's even a bit humorous when K. muses that losing her is the "first unambiguous setback" he has suffered in his trial. He's oblivious to the ambiguities of his first hearing and how (in the court's view) unambiguously badly that hearing had been for him.

When K. meets the court usher, the usher is very upset about the way his wife is used by the court for sex. Yet he says there's nothing he can do about it. The court has the power, and the usher is afraid to insult court officials more powerful than he is. He suggests that K. might be able to intercede because, after all, "there's no hope at all" for K.'s case. So K., supposedly, has nothing to lose.

The hierarchical motif of the attic is used here. K. condescendingly dismisses the judge because he seems to be in the attic, waiting for the woman. K. condemns the shoddy attic, but does not yet understand its potential for having many levels for those of differing status. K. compares his large office at the bank with what he assumes is a cubbyhole in an attic that the judge occupies. This makes K. feel superior.

The court usher escorts K. up the narrow stairs to the first level of the attic. It must be assumed that the judges have offices at higher levels of the attic, which indicate their higher status. K. and the usher reach a floor where shabby and dejected people are waiting on benches. The supplicants are described as being "bowed," as "none of them stood properly upright." Thus, they are almost deformed by their endless waiting at the court. These two motifs—deformity and waiting—underscore the way the court oppresses and crushes its victims. The endless, and no doubt hopeless, waiting indicates the court's indifference to the accused. The accused have sacrificed their lives to waiting in the court to further their cases. K. refuses to identify with the humiliated supplicants. When he is with the waiting accused man, K. makes a point of mentioning that he has been indicted, too. It's as if K. was proud of this fact, which somehow makes him superior to the accused waiting on the benches.

K. becomes sick and dizzy after breathing the foul air in the court attic. The bad air symbolizes the oppression of the court. Tellingly, over time and through long waiting the others in this part of the court building have become inured to the vile air. When the woman and the information-giver lead K. to the exit door, he begins to revive. It is interesting to note that the people who work at the court "found it hard to bear the comparatively fresh air" near the door. When one is fully acclimated to the oppressive atmosphere of the court, one is no longer able to breathe the free, open air.

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