The Trial | Study Guide

Franz Kafka

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The Trial | Chapter 9 : In the Cathedral | Summary



An Italian businessman who deals with the bank is visiting the city. The deputy director asks Josef K. to show him the sights. K. knows that his preoccupation with his trial has compromised his position. He feels that succeeding in this task will improve his status at the bank. K. studies some basic Italian language and grammar. He anticipates difficulties with the Italian, so his boss suggests that K. only take a tour of the city's famous cathedral.

On the day of the tour, before K. leaves the bank, Leni phones him. K. explains why he can't speak now. She says the bank is "harassing" K. K. bristles at the tone of pity in her voice. So he agrees that, yes, he is being harassed. He hangs up to go to the cathedral to meet the Italian at the appointed time.

K. arrives in time. He walks around the mostly empty cathedral, waiting for the Italian, but the man never shows up. After wandering in the cathedral for an hour, K. decides it's pointless to wait any longer as the Italian is probably not coming. K. looks at a painting in which an armed guard stands near the interred body of Christ. K. then examines a stone carving of leaves that seem to "trap a deep darkness ... and hold it prisoner." He notices a man in a cassock who is gesturing to direct him to another part of the cathedral. K. is amused and feels superior to the childlike monk, but he follows anyway. K. notices a tiny pulpit and lamp far from the center of the cathedral. The lamp indicates that a sermon is about to be given there. But for whom? K. is the only person around. Then a young priest goes up into the small pulpit. Will the sermon be only for K? K. wants to leave the cathedral, whose size is almost more than "a man could bear."

Suddenly, the booming voice of the young priest "pierced" the silence of the cathedral, calling out K. by name. K. freezes but realizes that he is still "free" to leave. He might pretend he did "not understand ... [or] chose not to pay attention" to the priest. If he acknowledges the summons, K. will be "trapped." K. turns slightly and sees the young priest beckon to him. K. runs back to the small pulpit and stands before it. "You have been accused" the priest says, and K. admits that it's true.

The young priest says he's the prison chaplain, and so an adjunct of the court. The chaplain asks K. if he knows his case is going badly, but K. insists that he has "expended a lot of effort on it." The chaplain tells K. that "your guilt is seen as proven." K. immediately asserts that he's not guilty, that there's "been a mistake." The chaplain chastises K. for looking too much for help from others, especially women. K. defends this behavior by saying that women can be useful, especially in a court whose judges are "women-chasers." K. rambles on until the chaplain screams at him like "one who sees another fall and, shocked and without thinking, screams against his own will." K. does not understand. He just wants the priest to give him an "acceptable piece of advice" about his trial, such as how to evade it.

The priest comes down from the pulpit, and K. decides to trust him. The chaplain tells K. that the written opening paragraphs of the law describe how those accused, such as K., deceive themselves. The priest then tells K. the parable of the law as it is written in the law. [This section of the book is often called "Before the Law."]

In the parable, a doorkeeper stands before the open door to the law. A. man comes to this door and asks the doorkeeper for entry. But the doorkeeper cannot let him in at this time. The man asks if he can go in later, and the doorkeeper says "it's possible," because the door to the law is always open. So the man decides to sit and wait. He waits for years and contemplates running through the door past the keeper. After all, the law should be "accessible to anyone at any time." But when the doorkeeper tells the man that he is just the lowliest of doorkeepers and that many other, more powerful keepers guard other doors beyond this one, the man decides he will await permission to enter. At one point he tries to bribe the doorkeeper who says he'll take the bribe just so the man believes he's done everything he can to gain entry. As the man is dying, he seems to see a glint of brilliant light coming from the room behind the open door. Just before he dies, the man asks the doorkeeper why no one else has come to this door to gain access to the law. The doorkeeper explains that it's because this door "was meant only for you." As the man dies, the doorkeeper closes the door to the law.

What follows is a lengthy discussion between K. and the priest about what the parable means—and how it has been variously interpreted by the court. They agree that it is extremely ambiguous and contains several contradictions. Who was cheated—the man or the doorkeeper? Why do the man and the doorkeeper act the way they do? Is the doorkeeper empathetic? Is the man too weak or obedient to risk entering the door meant for him? Who is more afraid of what lies beyond the door—the man or the doorkeeper? How much, if anything, does the doorkeeper know about the law? Who has lower status—the doorkeeper or the man? Which of them is freer? Which of them is more deluded? There are numerous moral and philosophical questions raised by the parable.

As the priest's lamp lights their way toward the exit, K. sees it briefly illuminate a saint that "glitter[s] ... with silver," a sight reminiscent of the man's glimpse of light through the door to the law. The priest points toward the way out, but K. seems to panic. He begs the chaplain not to "abandon" him. But the prison chaplain replies coldly that, as he "belongs to the court," he "doesn't want anything" from K. He is indifferent to K.


Josef K. agrees to show the Italian businessman around in order to retain his position and status in the bank hierarchy. He's been so distracted by his case and unable to do his job, he feels that he must help out his boss in this way. K. feels somewhat paranoid that the mission is to "get him out of the office ... [because he was] dispensable." He realizes, though, that if this tour goes well, his boss will think of K. as a "success at work."

When K. gets to the cathedral, he waits more than an hour for the Italian man to show up. His waiting intensifies K.'s paranoia about his job and his status at work. After wandering the cathedral, K. feels that there's "no point in waiting" any longer. Waiting here, as in the court, seems to K. to be pointless. The Italian never shows.

The motifs of deformity and status are introduced. The man in a cassock gesturing to K. is probably a monk. The monk walks with a limp. This deformity may imply that the man in the cassock is associated with the court. K. feels superior to the "old man [who] is like a child" and who "doesn't have the sense for anything more than serving in a church." For no apparent reason, K. asserts his superiority over someone he knows nothing about. Yet with a condescending smile, K. decides to follow the monk. The motif of deformity is presented again when K. is led to a pulpit whose low, curved top would make it impossible for anyone to stand upright. K. wonders if perhaps this cramped pulpit was designed "to make the priest suffer"—in the way that the court deforms the accused and makes them suffer.

A lighted lamp by this pulpit indicates that a sermon is about to be given there. K. wonders if he should leave right away. K. is the only person around. Can K. be the sole recipient of the sermon? Is it somehow planned and intended only for him? These thoughts foreshadow the parable to come. K. hastens toward the exit of the cathedral as a priest mounts the small pulpit. As he moves toward the exit, K. hears a voice calling out his name. K. considers running away because if he turned toward the voice, he would be "trapped."

When K. returns to the pulpit, the chaplain states, "You are Josef K. ... You have been accused." K. admits it's true. The priest says that he has specifically summoned K. to the cathedral. That makes it clear that K.'s boss knows of his trial. The meeting with the Italian was a ruse to get K. to the cathedral. K. is caught in some widespread conspiracy that involves the court in every aspect of his life.

The irrational court seems to be omnipresent. The priest tells K. that he is the prison chaplain. This makes him an official of the court system. The system in which K. is entangled becomes vastly, if not infinitely, enlarged. That the court system is operating within a religious setting reveals its vast new scope. The reader may interpret this situation as the court and its unknowable procedures, and judgments as encompassing the infinite omnipotence and omniscience of God. Yet the question remains: Is the court part of God's infinite and ineffable power, or is God the ultimate unreachable and unknowable pinnacle of the court system? Are God and the irrational, meaningless, and absurd court system one and the same? Is divine justice as arbitrary and absurd as court justice? Is there as little rationality and hope for justice with God as with the court?

The prison chaplain tells K. that his "case is going badly" and that he's "considered guilty ... your guilt is seen as proven." K. protests: How can he have been proven guilty when there's been no charge, no evidence, and no reasons given for this verdict? Yet the chaplain tells K. that "[his guilty] verdict does not come suddenly, proceedings continue until a verdict is reached gradually." K. thinks this is absurd, because as far as he knows there's been only one hearing. What has been happening "gradually" that has proven his guilt to the court? He has no idea. The system is not rational and cannot be understood.

The chaplain tells K., "You look for too much help from people you don't know—especially from women." K. tries to retain a modicum of control by reasonably explaining why he sought help with his case. The chaplain then screams at K. "Can you not see two steps in front of you?" The implication here is that there is no outside help that can affect an individual's trial. In the same way as the chaplain was in the cathedral for K. alone, K.'s guilt or innocence before the law rests with him alone. This, too, presages the parable to come. It also reinforces the idea that the court encompasses the judgmental God, for each individual is judged by God for his or her own actions and motivations. No other person can have any effect on God's judgment of an individual.

K. persists in his misunderstanding. He wonders if it's still possible for the chaplain to give "him some acceptable piece of advice that could make all the difference [in his case]." K. cannot free himself from his erroneous ideas about the court system. Because the chaplain is part of this system, K. can see him only transactionally as someone who might advise or intercede for him—someone he can use. K. feels that he "can trust" the chaplain. But the priest disabuses him of this false notion. The prison chaplain then relates the parable.

"Before the Law" is an ambiguous parable about hope, futility, and justice. As the subsequent discussion between K. and the priest shows, it can be understood and interpreted in a wide variety of ways. The contradictions within the parable make it impossible to comprehend and to be used as a guide in navigating the law. In this way, though the story is linear, it is not rational. The text explains some of the ways the parable may be interpreted. If the door to the law was meant only for the man, should he have run past the doorkeeper to claim the justice that was rightfully his? After all, the doorkeeper was kind to the man and never threatened him.

Yet, did the man assume that entering the door to the law would bring him peace or absolution? He knew, after all, that many other doors existed beyond this first door. At his death, the man sees "an inextinguishable light" shining out through the open door. Does that light signify God's grace and satisfying justice? Or is it another type of light that might signify a more dire judgment? Should the parable be interpreted as expressing the irrationality and ambiguity of the court? Or is it a parable about God's incomprehensible judgment? After all, the doorkeeper says that his is only one of an infinite number of doors to the law. What obstacles await in front of the other doors?

The parable is rife with ambiguity and contradictions. One legal commentary on this parable states, "A correct understanding of a matter and a misunderstanding of the same matter are not mutually exclusive." So one may think one understands and yet totally misunderstand simultaneously—and both views are, in a way, acceptable. The chaplain says that the "various opinions [about the parable] are often no more than an expression of despair over it."

Finally, there's the question of where the court system fits into this parable. After all, the parable is the opening section of the written law, or legal code, of the court system. Does the doorkeeper represent the court in his refusal to allow entry to the law? Or is the court system the, perhaps infinite, progression of doors that lay beyond this first door? It's all open to interpretation.

When he's about to leave, K. is taken aback by the chaplain's chilly attitude and dismissive behavior. K. is still confused and wonders aloud, "[But] you were so friendly to me earlier on." To this, the chaplain coldly instructs K.: "I belong to the court. So why would I want anything from you? The court doesn't want anything from you. It accepts you when you come and it lets you go when you leave." This statement of the court's utter indifference to the individual ends this chapter.

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