The Trial | Study Guide

Franz Kafka

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The Trial | Chapter 5 : The Whip-Man | Summary



One day in the bank where he works, Josef K. hears strange sighing sounds coming from behind a door. As far as K. knows, the room the sounds are coming from is just the bank's supply room, or "junk room." K. is curious and opens the door. He's shocked to see three men in the tiny, closet-like room. One of the men is powerful and leather-clad. He holds a long cane in his hand. The other two K. recognizes as Willem and Franz—the policemen who had initially arrested him. The two policemen cry out to K. to save them from the beating they are about to endure. They are to be beaten because of K.'s complaints about them.

K. is confused, saying he did not complain about them. Yet it turns out that some of the things he said about his arrest at his first hearing might well have been interpreted as complaints about the arresting policemen. For example, K. had mentioned that the policemen had taken his clothes. Although this is common practice, it is actually not allowed by the court. That is why, the whip-man says, "this punishment is both just and unavoidable." The two policemen blame K. for their plight. They tell him that they'll likely lose their jobs because of him.

The whip-man orders the coppers to take off all their clothes. K. feels very guilty about their situation, and he offers the whip-man a bribe not to beat them. The whip-man declines, saying that if he took the bribe, K. would likely then complain about him—and then he'd be beaten. K. tries to shift the blame from himself to the "organization," or the court. He holds the court system responsible for the policemen's actions, not the policemen themselves. K. boldly claims that if he could, he would have the top court officials beaten, not these lowly employees.

Franz begs for mercy, claiming that it was Willem who led him astray. The impatient whip-man brings the cane down on Franz, who screams loudly. K. is unnerved, but he is more worried that the screams will be heard by everyone in the bank—including his boss. How would this reflect on him? How would it affect his reputation and position at the bank? K. shoves Franz, who falls to the floor. The whip-man continues beating him while he's prostrate.

K. leaves the closet and opens a window. The screams have stopped. K. is uncertain what to do. He doesn't want to go back into the junk room, but neither does he want to go home. He feels "anguish" at being unable to stop the beatings. K. feels he must "maintain control of [himself]." K. realizes that if he really wants to act against the court, he should act against it here and now by preventing the beatings. But, of course, he thinks it's "impossible for him to do anything."

K. then realizes that acting to stop the beatings might negatively affect his case. He thinks, "Nobody could really expect that sort of sacrifice of him." Though K. is upset that he can't help the policemen, he will see "somebody" who will have higher court officials punished, as it is they who "really were guilty."

K. thinks about the beaten policemen throughout the next day. He is so consumed with them that he can't concentrate on his work at the bank. As he leaves for home that day, he casually opens the door to the junk room. Everything is exactly the same as it was. The whip-man and the two policemen are still there. The policemen begin to wail and call to K. to save them. K. slams the door shut. Nearly in tears, K. orders a subservient coworker to "get that junk room cleared out!" They agree to do it the next day. K. feels numb as he heads home.


The fact that the whip-man and the policemen are in a closet at the bank shows that the court and the law are everywhere, and its judgments and punishments are inescapable. His case is closing in on Josef K. and intruding into all aspects of his life. Of course, it is irrational that the punishment being meted out to the policemen is taking place in a bank's junk closet. The brutality of the punishment reveals that K.'s case has taken a decidedly sinister turn. This cruelty also reveals the savage and unforgiving nature of the overwhelming court system.

The theme of ambiguity surrounding guilt and innocence is paramount. The two terrified policemen accuse K. of being guilty of having them punished. His guilt lies in his description at the hearing of what transpired during his initial arrest. Some of the things K. said revealed improper behavior on the part of the policemen. K. was ignorant of these rules, but that fact has no bearing on their punishment. Ignorance of the law is no defense. The court system is implacable.

K. did not know how to behave or what to say at this hearing. He'd been given no guidance. He said what he did to defend himself. The policemen's petty theft would have gone unnoticed if not for K. "Do you call that justice?" asks one policeman. That raises some important questions. Is guilt truly guilt only if one is caught at it? Is justice truly justice if its foundation is so flimsy? The court system is not only ubiquitous, it is beyond appeal. It is a monstrous "organism" that infiltrates everything. It judges and metes out "justice" as it pleases according to rules that are beyond the ken of ordinary people.

In contrast to the policemen who blame K. for their punishment, the whip-man justifies the punishment based on the infallibility of the court system. The whip-man takes justice and the law at face value. He says, "This punishment is both just and unavoidable" because the law says it is. Justice is the law and the omnipotent court, so punishment for acting against the law or the court is always just.

K. tries to bribe the whip-man not to beat the policemen. But the whip-man refuses the bribe in case K. then complains about him. In that case, he would be whipped. K. finally realizes that the system is so deranged that it is those who run "the degenerate" court who truly deserve punishment. Instead of beating these low-level policemen, the whip-man should whip those who prop up the rotten court system, such as "senior judge[s]" and "high officials." But the whip-man will not be diverted from his duty. As K. closes the closet door on Franz's screams, he is deeply disturbed. Yet he feels that there's nothing he can do. His main concern, however, is that no one at the bank becomes aware of the horrific beatings taking place in the closet. When K. thinks "nobody could really expect that sort of sacrifice of him," he is not thinking of the monetary bribe he'd offered but the damage to his reputation at the bank if he asked coworkers to help him stop the torture.

K. reasserts his need to "maintain control of [himself]" to maintain his position at the bank. He thinks of the policemen as "junior officers [who] were contemptible" yet who he sincerely wanted to "get ... freed." K. ponders his guilt and his powerlessness, thinking he was "no longer in a position to help anyone." He's coming to realize the enormity of being entangled in the court system and how ambiguous guilt and innocence really are.

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