The Trial: chapter 1

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Chapter 1

The morning of his thirtieth birthday Joseph K., The Trial’s protagonist, wakes up in a state of bewilderment.  Why, he wonders has the cook, Anna, not brought his usual 8:00 a.m. breakfast? When he rings for her, a stranger enters his bedroom. Another man waits in the adjoining room, his landlady Mrs. Grubach’s living room.  They tell K. that he has been arrested.  But K. cannot, for the life of him, think of a reason why. Someone, he thinks, “must have been telling lies” about him (1). 

K. ponders that perhaps this whole thing is a joke played upon him by his colleagues at the bank where he is Chief Clerk.  After all, today is his thirtieth birthday.  He looks with scorn at the foolish policemen, named Franz and Willem, and returns to his room while one of them eats his breakfast. Earlier he had noticed an old woman looking in his window from across the street. Now, he notices there is also an old man looking in at him.  The policemen enter and order him to change into a black suit and come before the Inspector who is waiting in yet another adjoining room, the one that belongs to another tenant, a Miss Burstner whom K. hardly knows because she works long hours.

In Miss Burstner’s room, K. finds the Inspector and three young men who are examining Miss Burstner’s photographs. The Inspector is just as befuddled as Franz and Willem, can’t give him any more information, and leaves quickly after informing K. that he can go to work.  Before K. leaves he recognizes the three young men as minor workers from his office named Rabensteiner, Kullich and Kaminer.

K. spends a normal work day at the bank and afterwards decides to return to his room instead of visiting Elsa a waitress, perhaps prostitute, to whom he makes weekly visits. He wants to smooth things over with his landlady, Mrs. Grubach, whom he finds darning socks. She dismisses his concern over the police visit and when he inquires about Miss Burstner she confides her distress over having to talk to the young woman about the late hours she keeps when she goes to the theatre: “it is, after all something that everyone who lets rooms has to do if she's to keep the house decent” (11).  K. adamantly defends Miss Burstner and waits for her to return home.

K. explains the strange happenings of the morning to Miss Burstner and apologizes that her rooms was left less than perfect.  She invites him into her room and he acts out the morning’s events in an animated manner. She laughs and suddenly they hear a loud pounding. Mrs. Grubach's nephew, a captain in the army, is sleeping in the living room.  Miss Burstner becomes frightened and after K. comforts her, he kisses her passionately.  Afterwards, he returns to his room in a much happier mood but worried that the captain will complain to Mrs. Grubach.


“Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested” (1). This compelling opening sentence of the novel sets the tone of Franz Kafka’s mysterious and labyrinthine novel The Trial. Like Joseph K., from the beginning readers wonder what on earth he could have done to warrant arrest. Like him, they cannot help but imagine the horror of waking up from the sanctuary of sleep to find two policemen invading their bedrooms. 

Joseph K. is a creature of habit.  He gets up at the same time every morning to go to his successful banking job which fills up most of his day. He is identified by his job.  He is serious, follows the rules and never questions the Law.   Besides events associated with his job, his only social outlet is a visit, at the same time every week, to Elsa, the cocktail waitress for company but also, we can assume although it remains unsaid, for sexual pleasure.  Calculating and conceited, Joseph K. thinks highly of himself and looks down upon those beneath him on the social scale.  Indeed, he fails to recognize the three men in Miss Burstner’s room as colleagues from the bank. His arrogance assures him that he is his landlady’s favorite tenant. Also, he views himself as somewhat of a hero, taking on the role of defender of Miss Burstner’s honor against his landlady and her nephew, the mysterious captain.

From the beginning, setting plays an important role in the novel and it is worth paying close attention to this literary element throughout.  Consider K.’s bedroom, which has two doors, one adjoining Mrs. Grubach’s living room and the other, Miss Burstner’s bedroom.  In addition, there is a window facing the street which allows anyone to peer in at him. There is no mention of curtains.  In other words, K. has no privacy.  He is surrounded.  Enclosed.

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