The novel opens with the sudden arrest of Joseph K. in his room on the morning of his birthday. Two guards inform him without explaining the charges against him. Despite his arrest, K. is free to go to work at the bank.
In the absence of news from the judicial institutions, K. goes to court, defends his case by denouncing the conditions of his arrest and the corruption of the officials. But the judge points out to him that his audience is composed only of civil servants.
K. returned to the court the following week, which he found empty because no session was held that day. He meets other defendants, whose physical condition reveals the exhaustion created by their trial. His uncle urges him to hire a lawyer, Huld. This lawyer will prove to be ineffective. Meanwhile, K. manages to seduce Lina, his neighbor.
Some time later, K. is asked by his bank to take an Italian client on a tour of the local cathedral. When K. arrives at the cathedral, the Italian client fails to show up. After looking at some of the art in the cathedral, K. is about to leave when a priest calls his name. The priest turns out to be the prison chaplain, and chastises K. for his indifference to his case. The chaplain then tells a parable about K. a local man who seeks access to the law, but is prevented from doing so by a doorman. After discussing the many possible interpretations of this parable, K. asks the chaplain for help with his case, but the chaplain refuses.
Finally, it is K.’s birthday again. He is dressed to go out that evening, but he is surprised by two formally dressed men. The two men guide him to a quarry outside the city, where one of them holds him at his neck and the other pierces him twice in the heart.
At first glance, The Trial is a critique of the judicial system, that anonymous machine that crushes individuals. The entire system, from the judge to the lawyer to the police, is seen as corrupt and bureaucratic. But a closer analysis reveals other recurring themes in Kafka: the absurdity and inhumanity of the modern world, totalitarianism, alienated subjectivity, what Marcuse calls the one-dimensional man.
From the very beginning, the story is illogical. And this illogic is redoubled by the events that happen to Joseph K. The absurd is thus total in the Trial. The absurd in Kafka seems to designate a rational void in the world, insofar as everything has been swallowed up by hyper-rationalization (example of the judicial system). The Frankfurt School, notably Adorno, will describe this process of over-rationalization as the advent of the totalitarian world.
This world has thus become inhuman, hostile to subjectivity, which has no choice but to melt into the crowd. K. has no name, he is in fact nobody. If K. is an elusive and enigmatic character, it is because the man in general is opaque for himself: I is another.
This theme will be deepened by Heidegger in Being and Time, who described the public world as a dictatorship of “one”, as a form of inauthenticity. In Kafka’s work, the other is the executioner, as he will be in Sartre’s Huis Clos.
For there is no mistaking it: K. is an anti-hero, he lives in inauthenticity, he is indeed guilty. Accused, wrongly no doubt, he ends up abdicating, he convinces himself that he is guilty. While he could escape, flee the court, K., like modern man, prefers to let himself be killed, he has abandoned all will to live. He is killed “like a dog” because he lets himself be dominated by this society that has fixed him, objectified him, riveted in his guilt. One recognizes here theses developed by Nietzsche on the last man or those of Sartre on bad faith.