K. gets back from a two-day business trip with a nasty cold and finds that he's been picked by his bank to show an Italian client around the sights of the city. Normally, he would regard this as a privilege, but, lately, he's been nervous about leaving the bank for too long because he's worried about losing his high status at the bank. But K.'s been singled out for the Italian because K. is reputed to have some knowledge of art history and Italian.
After studying Italian all night, K. arrives at the office early the next morning. The president calls him, and introduces him to the Italian client. K. discovers that the Italian client speaks an Italian dialect that's tough to understand, and he can't even read the Italian's lips for clues because of his deliciously perfumed mustache. The president summarizes what the Italian says for K., and they agree that K. will meet the Italian at the cathedral at 10.
K. arrives at the cathedral at 11. (There is some confusion with the time here, as we know that previously the novel stated that the appointment was for 10. Later, we find that K. has been waiting at the cathedral for a while, and notices that the time is now…11. So the fact that he arrives at the cathedral at 11 may be a mistake on Kafka's part or just him screwing with our heads. See "In a Nutshell" for more on some of the unique issues of this incomplete novel.)
K. waits inside the cathedral for the Italian. He notices an old woman worshipping before an image of the Virgin Mary.
K. then notices that it's awfully dark and hard to see any of the paintings in the cathedral. He goes up to one of the paintings and peers at it with his flashlight. It's an image of a guard, standing sentry at the entombment of Christ.
K. goes back to waiting, but then notices an old sexton gesturing at him vaguely. As K. approaches the sexton, the sexton moves away, still gesturing vaguely. K. keeps following the sexton, but then decides to stop this little game before he frightens the sexton too much.
K. then notices that, in addition to the large, elaborate main pulpit, there's a smaller pulpit off to the side, which seems so small that it's probably torture for the priest who has to lecture there. In fact, there's a lamp lit above the pulpit, and K. wonders if someone is about to give a sermon.
Now he notes that it's 11 o'clock (see above for discrepancies with the time). He can't believe there's going to be a sermon because only he, the sexton, and the old woman are in the cathedral, but sure enough, a priest climbs up the stairs to the small pulpit.
K. tries to sneak out of the cathedral, but, just as he reaches the outer door, the priest calls out to him by name.
Surprised, K. turns. The priest explains that he's the prison chaplain, and wants to talk to K. about the case. The whole Italian tourist business is explained away as "irrelevancies" (9.12)!!!
The priest warns K. that his case is going very badly. K. says that he thinks he's got a good plan using women (like the usher's wife and Leni) to further his case. Meanwhile, the sexton is going around the cathedral extinguishing all the candles. The priest yells at K. for his obliviousness.
After a long period of silence, K. invites the priest to come down, and the priest, who seems somewhat friendlier, agrees. As they walk together, the priest tells K. that K. is deceiving himself about the court. By way of explanation, the priest tells K. a parable about the Law.
The parable, as the priest tells it, is from the "introductory texts to the Law." As the story goes, a "man from the country" approaches the doorkeeper of the Law and asks to enter. The doorkeeper says the man can, but not at the present time. Even though the gate is open, the doorkeeper explains that 1) he's a pretty tough dude, and 2) inside the gate there are more gates, guarded by tougher dudes.
So the man from the country decides to wait it out – for years on end. He has quite a few conversations with the doorkeeper, who remains polite but indifferent to the very end.
Finally, the man from the country is approaching his own death. It seems like everything's getting dark, so dark. But the man thinks he sees a bright light emerging from the gate.
The man finally asks the doorkeeper why, in all the years he's been waiting at the gate, that nobody else has tried to gain admittance to the Law. Because the man is growing deaf, the doorkeeper has to yell his reply, which is that no one else has come by because the gate was meant for the man alone.
And that's the end of the parable.
K. at first believes that the parable confirms his basic suspicion that the court and everyone in it is corrupt and the best thing for him to do is to ignore the trial. The priest disagrees, and offers K. multiple interpretations of the story:
The doorkeeper doesn't seem like a bad guy or a corrupt one. In fact, the story seems to indicate he's got a friendly side that goes beyond mere dutifulness.
The doorkeeper could just be doing a really, really good job – he's just simple-minded. Perhaps he doesn't understand exactly what guarding the gate entails. Maybe he's supposed to let the man in and he just, uh, didn't get the memo, so to speak.
The doorkeeper is actually dependent on the man from the country. He's inferior and subordinate to the man because as long as the man is there, the doorkeeper is stuck at the gate defending it.
Don't judge the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper is a representative of the Law, and you can't criticize the Law.
K. doesn't really feel better after hearing all these different interpretations – they just leave him puzzled. So he takes his leave of the chaplain, but the chaplain's behavior also puzzles him. The chaplain seemed so concerned about K.'s fate before, but now the chaplain doesn't seem to really care. The chaplain attributes his indifference to the fact that he's first and foremost a court functionary.