The trial

by Franz Kafka

Other authorsWilla and Edwin Muir (Translator), Max Brod (Afterword), Georg Salter (Illustrator)
Hardcover, 1948





New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1948


The story of the mysterious indictment, trial, and reckoning forced upon Joseph K. in Franz Kafka' s "The Trial" is one of the twentieth century' s master parables, reflecting the central spiritual crises of modern life. Kafka' s method- one that has influenced, in some way, almost every writer of substance who followed him- was to render the absurd and the terrifying convincing by a scrupulous, hyperreal matter-of-factness of tone and treatment. He thereby imparted to his work a level of seriousness normally associated with civilization' s most cherished poems and religious texts. Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir

Media reviews

Una mañana cualquiera, Josef K., joven empleado de un banco, se despierta en la pensión donde reside con la extraña visita de unos hombres que le comunican que está detenido -aunque por el momento seguirá libre-. Le informan de que se ha iniciado un proceso contra él, y le aseguran que conocerá los cargos a su debido tiempo. Así comienza una de las más memorables y enigmáticas pesadillas jamás escritas. Para el protagonista, Josef K., el proceso laberíntico en el que inesperadamente se ve inmerso supone una toma de conciencia de sí mismo, un despertar que le obliga a reflexionar sobre su propia existencia, sobre la pérdida de la inocencia y la aparición de la muerte. La lectura de El proceso produce cierto «horror vacui» pues nos sumerge en una existencia absurda, en el filo de la navaja entre la vida y la nada.

User reviews

LibraryThing member poplin
I began reading The Trial mostly because it is the sort of book that you feel you should read, and that impression was mostly unchanged upon finishing it.

The plot of The Trial is probably well-known even to those who have never read it. On the morning of his thirtieth birthday, Josef K. is arrested. The charges are never revealed to him, and Josef K. must attempt to defend himself against unknown charges in the face of an obscured and foreboding legal system.

Ultimately, The Trial is a book about which I have little to say. It was certainly a worthwhile read if only to gain a greater understanding of what it means to be “Kafkaesque.” Perhaps my biggest complaint is that Kafka’s purpose seemed to be to make a point rather than to make a point through telling a story. Of course, the fact that The Trial remained unfinished on Kafka’s death more than likely contributes to this feeling.

In short: when I read the last page of The Trial, I was glad to have read it, but I was even more glad to have finished it. And that probably says everything that needs to be said.
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LibraryThing member WilfGehlen
This review is based on Breon Mitchell's translation, published by Schocken Books, 1998. Having the right translation of a foreign language book always matters and Mitchell lucidly explains how the translation of nuances of Kafka's diction (i.e., word choice and expressive style) can strongly influence the reader's interpretation.

Josef K. is arrested for an unspecified crime he may or may not have committed and faces an extra-legal process, not involving the usual court system, with unwritten rules and procedures. K. at first does not take the process seriously, but becomes totally consumed over the course of several months. He attends initial inquiries, his uncle introduces him to a lawyer, his bank client introduces him to a friend of the court and his bank president artfully arranges for him to meet the prison chaplain. K. realizes that the trial is indeed serious business, but that none of these advisers can directly influence the outcome of the process. Even the functionaries of the quasi-court who handle his case do not make the final decision--that is made at a higher level, so high that no one can even say who is involved or how they make the decision.

K.'s life unravels as the process unfolds, especially after he fires his lawyer and takes control of the case himself. He is confident of his ability to manage the process, perhaps buoyed by the advice given by the friend of the court that, if he is truly innocent, he needs no help from anyone and acquittal is assured. As the trial takes over his life, his one area of success, his banking career, sinks under the weight of his despair. He feels "the trial is positively closing in on me in secret." A year after his arrest, on the eve of his 31st birthday, he discovers the final verdict.

The bare facts of the plot make for a nightmarish scene of a man's lonely fight against an unseen bureaucracy. But the nuances of the story contain a deeper layer that suggests that K. has more control of his destiny than seems apparent. He himself has the largest influence on how the process plays out. It was his choice to pursue acquittal, but a better strategy may have been to pursue protraction, an indefinite deferral of judgment suggested as an option by the friend of the court.

It is on Day 1 of the trial, his thirtieth birthday, that two minions arrest K., gently confining him to his bedroom with "Wouldn't you rather stay here?" and, after he ventures into the living room, "You should have stayed in your room!" K. considers leaving the premises to force the issue of his arrest, but instead returns to his room, "without a further word," else "they might indeed grab him, and once subdued he would lose any degree of superiority he might still hold over them."

Meanwhile, a third minion, the inspector, has set himself up in Frau Burstner's room, and calls for K. to be brought in. The inspector tangentially brings up the matter of K.'s arrest, gives him friendly advice to "think less about us and what's going to happen to you, and instead think more about yourself." Later he says, "that's not at all to say you should despair. Why should you? You're under arrest, that's all." K. is free to go his job as chief financial officer of his bank, the arrest is "not meant to keep you from carrying on your profession. Nor are you to be hindered in the course of your ordinary life."

This is a strange sort of arrest, hardly more than a wake-up call, an injunction to "think more about yourself," arresting his attention so as to encourage an examination of his life in the Socratic sense.

On Day 365 of the trial two other minions, "old supporting actors," have come to take K. away. Throughout this engagement, the two guards are tentative in their roles, not well-rehearsed in the script of the process. On their journey, the three perform a delicate dance, the guards locking arms with K. using a straight-arm entwining that makes them a single, comical unit. It is K. who takes the lead in this dance. At one point K. stops and says, "I'm not going any farther." The guards are ineffectual in getting K. to move, and it is only with the sudden appearance of Frau Burstner that K. gives up his resistance. It is K. who then chooses to follow her, who abandons the quest when she turns down a side street, who later rushes the three-in-one unit past a policeman who might have intervened if K. had given a sign of distress.

Their journey ends at a quarry outside the city where the guards continue to be tentative in their actions. It takes them some time to find a suitable location and position for K. One guard unsheaths a butcher's knife, but they seem uncertain how to proceed as they pass it back and forth between themselves. "K. knew clearly now that it was his duty to seize the knife as it floated from hand to hand above him and plunge it into himself. But he didn't do so [...]." So one guard held him "while the other thrust the knife into his heart and turned it there twice. With failing sight K. saw how the men drew near his face, leaning cheek-to-cheek to observe the verdict. 'Like a dog!' he said; it seemed as though the shame was to outlive him."

"Like a dog." K.'s assessment, not the plunge of the knife, is the verdict. A self-verdict on his (now) examined life, not an indictment of the manner of his death. The knife was his final wake-up call and the guards attend closely to hear the verdict that K. quickly reaches under the ultimate stress of approaching death.

His conduct of the trial is like a dog begging at the dinner table: when no morsel appears from a diner--when no tidbit of advantage accrues from the landlady (Frau Grubach), the washerwoman, the merchant (Block), the lawyer--K. abandons them, dismisses them, and moves on to the next diner. K. does not use his human capacity for reasoning, but, like an animal living unaware and only in the moment, "He'd always tended to take things lightly, to believe the worst only when it arrived, making no provision for the future, even when things looked bad." He had no social competence, evidenced by his first encounter with Fraulein Burstner: "K. [...] rushed out, seized her, kissed her on the mouth, then all over her face, like a thirsty animal lapping greedily at a spring it has found at last."

K. had rapid success in his career, but none at all in his life. His professional colleagues had sailboat, car, villa, and a social life, while he lived in a boardinghouse, had no friends among his contemporaries, had shut out his relatives, had no prospects of finding a life partner. K.'s lilfe was controlled by fear of exposing any weakness, of losing any perception of advantage he had over others. The washerwoman's husband, the court usher, provides K. with a hint to a solution as they discuss the wife's abduction by the law student, Bertold. "'Someone needs to give the student, who's a coward, a thorough flogging the next time he tries to touch my wife [...]. Only a man like you could do it.' 'Why me?' asked K. in astonishment. 'You are a defendant, after all,' said the court usher. 'Yes,' said K., 'but I should fear his influence all the more [...]. Then he gazed at K. with a look of trust he hadn't shown before, in spite of all his friendliness, and added: 'People are always rebelling.'"

The verdict exposes his shame and it is, of course, too late for any recourse. Too late for K. to thrash Bertold or to take any of the other forks in his path which led away from the quarry.
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LibraryThing member Cecrow
By the most shallow interpretation this is a pessimist's simple metaphor for life: we are born/arrested without consent, then subjected to unfairness beyond our control unto death. The introduction would have me look more deeply for Judaic-Talmudic references (wouldn't know one if it slapped me), messages about sexuality (I do tend to see those), or a prophetic rendering of the fate of Jewish citizens in Eastern Europe during World War II. It would also not be difficult to read several of the characters as self-doubt personified, reflecting the way each of us is prone to criticize or overthink our own actions in an adverse environment.

The plot wasn't so dull as I feared it might be, since Joseph K. has freedom of movement and makes the most of it. He tries every emotional response to his straits but to no avail. Whether he rails against the irrationality of his captors or attempts to reason with them, it's all for naught. He comes on too strongly with women and is too self-centered, sometimes aggressive with those he judges inferior, but there's never any clue dropped to suggest what he's charged with. He never aggressively seeks his right to know, but that's of a piece with the metaphor: once it is determined that life is unfair, there's little point in asking why.
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LibraryThing member bkinetic
At least as I understood it, The Trial is a black comedy that contrasts the disconnectedness of individuals from larger societal agencies. As governments and corporations have become larger and more powerful, the world has become increasingly Kafkaesque, surreal and full of bewildering mini-trials to accompany their big-brother trials. Humans evolved under social conditions where tribal elders were accessible, but mass culture leaves people isolated without power, and unable to form relationships of reciprocal influence. Kafka portrays all this in a way that reveals the absurdity of the modern individual's plight.… (more)
LibraryThing member Davidgnp
This is more difficult to review than Kafka's 'The Metamorphosis' as it is fragmented and incomplete, though, strangely, Kafka gave it an ending. In fact, everything is strange about the book, which is Kafka's intention - it's clear that he wants the reader to feel as disoriented as the 'hero' Josef K, a successful senior bank official who wakes up one morning to find his lodgings invaded by secretive policeman, come to inform him he is being arraigned for trial for some nameless crime.

We never get to a trial as such, only a sort of preliminary hearing. The court and all its officials are housed in a tenement block in a poor part of town, where living quarters and offices of court are merged into one another or linked by mysterious corridors, some of which seem to open up unexpectedly, like a darker version of Lewis Carroll's Wonderland. At K's office, too, bizarre scenes and exchanges take place at the opening of a door. It all contributes to a sense that nothing is quite what it seems, and everything is menace. We can't even be sure of K; all we know about him is by his own reckoning, and although he is, in the early stages of the book, very pleased with himself there are hints of character traits which are very unpleasant, not least his lecherous and vaguely misogynistic attitude to women.

The power of the novel comes from K's growing obsession and sense of foreboding about the trial. We see him gradually disintegrate before us. The more he seeks to know the less he knows. The characters around him seem at once to know everything and nothing. The threat is claustrophobic and, like his supposed crime, nameless. The ending that Kafka gives us is ritualised and solemn - perhaps in the way that executions are universally, whether they be labelled 'legitimate' or 'illegitimate'. The symbolism is political, but the shiver is deeply and unforgettably personal.

Reviewer David Wiliams writes a regular blog Writer in the North.
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LibraryThing member kambrogi
If you are reading this book for a seminar class or for the pleasure of parsing a book-length allegory, you will find plenty to amuse you in this classic 1925 Austrian/German work. If, on the other hand, you are looking to lose yourself in a compelling fiction and hope to meet a realistic protagonist with whom you can identify, never mind.… (more)
LibraryThing member gbill
The idea of being unexpectedly arrested for unspecified crimes and hauled away to stand trial is one we’re used to from reading about totalitarian regimes in history, particularly over the past 100 years, and from the arts. “The Trial” was published in 1925, a year after Franz Kafka’s death, and presages that.

There is a dark undercurrent knowing Kafka was a Jew in Prague shortly before Hitler would put the entire race on trial; Kafka didn’t live to see the Holocaust but his family did, and many of his relatives perished in concentration camps. This amplified the message and meaning of the book for me.

The frustration of battling an unseen legal bureaucracy is a much darker take on “Bleak House” by Charles Dickens; here “K” is battling for his life. As Steiner puts it in the introduction to this edition, “To live is to be sentenced for living.” However, despite all that great existential darkness, as with “The Metamorphosis”, it’s a book I didn’t particularly enjoy or would recommend. It’s a bit like required reading, only less creative than “The Metamorphosis”, published posthumously and unfinished, and painfully longer … so if you want a book of Kafka’s to read, I would recommend it instead of “The Trial.”
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LibraryThing member wcarter
Densely dark, and difficult to read because of extraordinarily long paragraphs, but it gets you in, and makes you read to the end. Morbidly funereal plot, and should not be read by anyone who thinks "they are out to get me".
LibraryThing member fuzzy_patters
I'm not sure what to say about The Trial that hasn't already been said. It's elusive, infuriating, and beautifully dark. Parts of it reminded me of my wife. I'm not sure what that means.
LibraryThing member Melissarochell
The Trial reveals how we are the ultimate creators of our realities. Both consciously and unconsciously, our deemed realities are based off of delusions and phantasy. "Reality" is that which we choose to perceive. There's a tendency to blame tangible, external occurrences for our condition when, in truth, the crimes and punishments reside within ourselves. We are the prosecutors, the judges, the jury, the criminals, the victims, etc.

This is a vivid portrayal of the agonizing sufferings one experiences when all they strive for is to get away from the terror that surrounds them, only to realize that this terror 'is' them. Protagonist and antagonist become one in a battle of self-conflictions.
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LibraryThing member SanctiSpiritus
Behind Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, this is perhaps the greatest book in which the author immerses his reader into the protagonist's soul. The damnable truth of the matter is there is little absurd in Kafka's "absurd" prose. This book grips you in the protagonist's fear, despair, despondency, boldness, and indecisiveness. He can trust no one, and everyone turns out to be his enemy. Just imagine how great the story would be if the author lived to complete it. Alas, maybe it would not be as good at all. Anyway, enjoy this classic tale, and learn how little stands between Kafka's written word, and current day.… (more)
LibraryThing member Peppuzzo
Great fear is waking up as K did, and finding yourself wrapped in a absurd trial. Pure horror novel, K searches truth, freedom and justice, only to find procrastination, condemn or apparent absolution. Even not women nor love could save him, as there was only corruption and seduction.
LibraryThing member heidilove
ugh. but good anyway.
LibraryThing member DavidMilnes
He didn't live to finish and edit this, but nonetheless you can see just from The Trial that Kafka's was the seminal imagination of the last century, not Beckett or Joyce. In fact Beckett is very indebted to him.
LibraryThing member Mary_Overton
The Doorkeeper Parable:
In front of the law there is a doorkeeper. A man from the countryside comes up to the door and asks for entry. But the doorkeeper says he can't let him in to the law right now. The man thinks about this, and then he asks if he'll be able to go in later on. 'That's possible,' says the doorkeeper, 'but now now.' The gateway to the law is open as it always is, and the doorkeeper has stepped to one side, so the man bends over to try and see in. When the doorkeeper notices this he laughs and says, 'If you're tempted give it a try, try and go in even though I say you can't. Careful though: I'm powerful. And I'm only the lowliest of all the doormen. But there's a doorkeeper for each of the rooms and each of them is more powerful than the last. It's more than I can stand just to look at the third one.' The man from the country had not expected difficulties like this, the law was supposed to be accessible for anyone at any time, he thinks, but now he looks more closely at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, sees his big hooked nose, his long thin tartar-beard, and he decides it's better to wait until he has permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down to one side of the gate. He sits there for days and years.... Over many years, the man watches the doorkeeper almost without a break. He forgets about the other doormen, and begins to think this one is the only thing stopping him from gaining access to the law. Over the first few years he curses his unhappy condition out loud, but later, as he become old, he just grumbles to himself. He becomes senile, and as he has come to know even the fleas in the doorkeeper's fur collar over the years that he has been studying him he even asks them to help him and change the doorkeeper's mind. Finally his eyes grow dim .... He doesn't have long to live now. Just before he dies, he brings together all his experience from all this time into one question which he has still never put to the doorkeeper. He beckons to him, as he's no longer able to raise his stiff body. The doorkeeper has to bend over deeply as the difference in their sizes has changed very much to the disadvantage of the man. 'What is it you want to know now?' asks the doorkeeper, 'You're insatiable.' 'Everyone wants access to the law,' says the man, 'how come, over all these years, no-one but me has asked to be let in?' The doorkeeper can see the man's come to his end, his hearing has faded, and so, so that he can be heard, he shouts to him: 'Nobody else could have got in this way as this entrance was meant only for you. Now I'll go and close it.' location 3949… (more)
LibraryThing member kidornery
This book hits me in places no other book touches. Reading it generally means locking myself up in my house alone for a few days. It is terrifying and effective and funny and paralyzing.
LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
"Like a dog!" Never has a final line been so memorable, or so quotable. I was blown away when I first read "The Trial," arguable Kafka's greatest novel (though I personally have a soft spot for "The Castle"). Bureaucracy has never been quite so frightening!
LibraryThing member kawgirl
Kafka writes in such simple German, yet he uses the language in subtle ways. For those who can, you should definitely read the German version.
LibraryThing member abirdman
Prescient dystopic novel with that special Kafka brand of fatalism. Classic. Dry. Baleful as a yowling cat. It's possible some of my feelings about Kafka are colored by the translators. This is not an easy read.
LibraryThing member NicoleHC
It's a mind-warp. The ending feels so profound. And, yet, the hopelessness of it all...
LibraryThing member raggedprince
I was forced to read this book because I was in a long queue, which kind of fits in with its content! It's since become one of my favourites and I must recommend the new translation by the American chappie. The chapter later on with the lawyer in bed is one of the high points of literature. Thank goodness for long queues!
LibraryThing member iayork
A Bewildering Process Wrapped in a Masterpiece: Kafka's The Trial is a testament to those like Joseph K. who are ensnared in endless legal proceedings. Part dream, part comedy, part tragedy, part satire, Kafka works a masterpiece out of the tribulations of a common man. Joseph K. is on trial but is never informed of the charges. He is represented by an attorney, but the lawyer seems useless. He attends proceedings that go on endlessly with no apparent purpose. A host of unforgettable characters throughout the book add to his paranoia. Joseph K. finally meets his end in an execution appalling in its polite savagery. Through works like The Trial, Kafka's name became synonymous for those drifting though bizarre persecutions. A fascinating book.… (more)
LibraryThing member Arctic-Stranger
K is up the creek and he does not know why. Like most of Kafka's novels, the premise is much better than the execution. I think Pinter did a better job of this theme with The Birthday Party, but that is me.
LibraryThing member BrianDewey
Kafka, Franz. The Trial. Schocken Books, New York, 1998. Originally published in 1925. Kafka's work certainly stands out for its clear point of view. In The Trial, Josef K. is charged with an unknown crime by a secret bureaucracy. While I can certainly respect what Kafka is trying to say, and the imaginative way that he says it, I didn't find this a compelling novel. It was hard to relate to the characters. In fact, at times, I wondered if we were dealing with an "unreliable narrator" type of novel, where K. is paranoid and we're experiencing his delusions. Two scenes were gripping -- the story in the Cathedral, and the last chapter (K.'s execution).… (more)
LibraryThing member gazzy
The classic depiction of modern bureaucratic hell. A trial in which the accused does not know who or for what he is accused and cannot get the answer until it is too late.


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