K. awakes one morning to discover that he's been arrested.
K.'s arrest is unexpected and unusual, defying every expectation as to what an arrest should be like. He isn't taken into prison, the guards who arrest him wear no uniform nor do they deign to offer any identification, and his interrogation, such as it is, takes place in some random young woman's bedroom. K.'s almost laughable arrest masks the very serious consequences the trial will have on his life and career.
At his initial court inquiry, K. makes a few defiant speeches that definitely hurt his case, although he still doesn't know what his offense is or how he's supposed to defend himself.
K. charges into his first courtroom appearance full of indignation, and why not? No one's told him why he's been arrested or on what evidence. The court itself is hard to take seriously because it's stuck in an attic in a rundown apartment complex. While his speech seems to entertain the audience, the examining magistrate informs him that he's irreparably damaged his case.
K. returns to the court, and while he learns a little more about its general structure, he is still no closer to discovering the nature of his crime or clearing his name.
When K. arrives back at the court, he grabs at a chance to take a tour of the court offices. While its dilapidated facilities fail to impress him, the humble condition of the defendants who await there, many of whom were once prosperous men like himself, provide an ominous glimpse of what's to come – a lifetime of humiliation and harassment by the court.
K., or rather K.'s uncle, hires Huld, a defense lawyer, to help K. with his case, but little progress seems to be made.
The climax of the novel is really more of an anti-climax. Normally, we would expect some kind of peak in the action – say, some definite movement in K.'s trial. And Kafka seems to give us our climax when K hires Huld, who seems to be a very well-connected lawyer. But as K. discovers to his dismay, Huld really can't get anything done. He's full of empty promises and excuses.
On the advice of a client, K. visits Titorelli, a court painter, who gives him more information about the court, but little practical guidance.
The suspense stage of The Trial is, ironically, all about staying in suspense, rather than getting out of it. Titorelli, a painter of all things, tells K. that since acquittal is virtually unheard of, all K. can really hope for is a temporary acquittal – where he's held innocent for now, but could be arrested again at any time – or a protraction, where the trial is infinitely delayed through various legal strategies.
On a visit to the cathedral, K meets a prison chaplain, who tells him an illuminating – and disheartening – parable about the Law.
In keeping with the novel's general trend of leaving everything unresolved, the prison chaplain tells K. a parable about the Law that really mystifies more than clarifies K.'s situation. Like Huld and Titorelli, the prison chaplain seems to know a lot about the court and its workings, but can offer little practical help to K.
Two gentlemen carry out K.'s execution at a quarry outside of town.
Given the way the novel emphasizes the endlessness of K.'s trial, the conclusion is rather sudden and seems to come out of nowhere. It defies our expectation of what a verdict usually entails – a courtroom, with a judge handing down his decision and prescribing some form of punishment, usually meted out in a prison. Instead, a couple of well-dressed men take K. out to a quarry and stab him.