Study Guide

The Trial Justice and Judgment

By Franz Kafka

Justice and Judgment

After all, our department, as far as I know, and I know only the lowest level, doesn't seek out guilt among the general population, but, as the Law states, is attracted by guilt and has to send us guards out. That's the Law. What mistake could there be? (1.1)

In the guards' explanation, we get a description of the Law that emphasizes its unknowability and infallibility at the same time. We can't know why the Law is "attracted" to certain parties, but at the same time, the Law is always right and always assigns guilt to the right party, even if we don't know why.

[Y]ou've misunderstood me; you're under arrest, certainly, but that's not meant to keep you from carrying on your profession. Nor are you to be hindered in the course of your ordinary life. (1.8)

The inspector states another paradox of the courts. Its power is so complete that it doesn't have to incarcerate Josef K. That is, because its power extends over all of human existence, all human existence is, in effect, a prison. Thus Josef K. experiences the feelings of imprisonment without actually being in a prison. Scary, no?

[I]t's in the nature of this judicial system that one is condemned not only in innocence but also in ignorance. (4.1)

K.'s insight into the workings of the court here doesn't really help him in the end. Even though he knows that he's already condemned and that he will never know why at this early point in the novel, he continues to struggle to defend his case.

"[Y]ou can't defend yourself against this court, all you can do is confess. Confess the first chance you get. That's the only chance you have to escape, the only one. However, even that is impossible without help from others, but you needn't worry about that, I'll help you myself." (6.3)

It could be because of the Law's general disregard for the individual case that any progress, such as it is, that is made in an individual case depends on group or collective action. Thus K. relies on the help of his female friends, his lawyer, Huld, the painter, Titorelli, and even the random prison chaplain to make his case. If anything, the trial turns K., an independent bank executive free of any ties, into someone who is actually dependent on other people.

Here the disadvantage of a court system that was grounded from its very beginnings in secrecy came to the fore […] because [the officials are] constantly constricted by the Law both night and day, they have no proper understanding of human relationships, and in such cases they feel that lack keenly. Then they come to the lawyer for advice. (7.2)

This passage is part of Huld's justification for why K. needs his services even though, as a lawyer, Huld can't really do anything. The gist of the passage above seems to suggest that any influence Huld has is outside the courts, through the friendships he develops with lonely, asocial judges.

Progress had always been made, but the nature of this progress could never be specified. (7.2)

Here is the crux of K.'s dissatisfaction with Huld, and with his trial in general. But as K. discovers, particularly in his conversations with Titorelli the painter in Chapter 7, real progress toward an actual acquittal is impossible in a court system where everyone is always guilty (see Quote #8 below).

"The final verdicts of the court are not published, and not even the judges have access to them; thus only legends remain about ancient court cases […] Nevertheless they shouldn't be entirely ignored; they surely contain a certain degree of truth, and they are very beautiful; I myself have painted a few pictures based on such legends." (7.28)

This quote, like Quote #5, emphasizes how divorced the courts are from actual existence. The only information available about court cases come from such a very distant past that they've dissolved into "ancient" myths.

"Both methods have this in common: they prevent the accused from being convicted." "But they also prevent an actual acquittal," said K. softly, as if ashamed of the realization. (7.28)

As K. gradually accepts in the course of the novel, acquittal is impossible: you are always guilty before the Law. All you can do is submit yourself to the Law and postpone your eventual sentence for as long as possible. Unlike Block the merchant, who was able to postpone his sentence for years on end, K. only lasts out the year.

"But if you think you're privileged because you're allowed to sit here quietly and listen while I, as you put it, crawl around on all fours, then let me remind you of the old legal maxim: a suspect is better off moving than at rest, for one at rest may be on the scales without knowing it, being weighed with all his sins." (8.10)

Block states the basic truth about the courts that Titorelli offered up in Quote #8 above. Acquittal's impossible; indefinite postponement is the game. Block's entire life is taken up by his own defense. K.'s life, on the other hand, isn't. When his executioners arrive in Chapter 10, he is indeed at rest, expecting different guests and ready for his birthday party. K.'s refusal to have the court take over his entire life results in his own demise.

Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. A man from the country comes to the doorkeeper and requests admittance to the law. (9.16)

These are the opening lines of the parable that the prison chaplain tells K. in order to teach him about the Law. It's the story of a man who spends his entire life trying to get past the doorkeeper and gain access to the law, a story that eerily matches up with K.'s own struggles.

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