In The Trial by Franz Kafka, Josef K. is put "on trial" for an unnamed offense. Prior to this, conflicts and inconvenient desires are ignored, festering under the bland surface of his rigid, routine existence, where even his visits to his mistress take place on the same day each week. The trial brings those conflicts out into the open.
K's plight worsens the more he shies away from taking responsibility for himself. He represses a strong feeling of guilt which emerges abruptly at decisive moments, while in court, he denies all guilt until the very end. To Miss Burstner he says: "Your room was thrown into disorder a bit this morning, through my fault to a certain extent--it was done by strangers, against my will, and yet, as I said, through my own fault." The "strangers" in question are the warders, who are whipped by the authorities following K's accusation, and he cries out, "I do not consider them to be guilty at all; it is the organization that is guilty, it is the high officials that are guilty." What is more, "it would have been almost simpler if K. had taken off his clothes and offered himself in place of the warders." And on the following day, he closes the door to the lumber room where they are being whipped, "hammering against it with his fists as if it would be shut tighter that way." His ultimate reaction to anything that doesn't fit his heretofore tidy, cloistered way of life is to deny and "shut the door" on it. He wants the lumber room cleaned out: "I tell you, we're being drowned in filth!" Conflicts, irrational incidents are experienced as overwhelming filth that must be thrown out, rather than faced and worked through.
Josef K. is very attracted to Miss Burstner, but is passive in relation to her. She has little "experience in legal matters", but she "would like to know everything, and legal matters, particularly, interest me very much. A court of justice has a particular attraction, don't you think?" She is "inordinately disappointed" that K. himself does not know what his prosecution is all about. The "court of justice" here represents the law of Josef K's inner being, or soul-self. Since he fears and in fact flees from that self, he is unable to have an truly intimate relationship with another person.
K.is in a rage at his arrest, but at the same time, he succumbs: "He harbored the intention...of offering himself up to them for arrest." He sees the situation as a "comedy", and at the same time, it gives rise to thoughts of suicide that recur throughout the novel.
His first impulse is to deny any wrongdoing, proclaiming that he has been falsely accused. He can only think of struggling against the forces threatening him. In the face of such external blows, he has not developed the kind of unassailable inner freedom and security that Kafka spoke of in Reflections on Sin, Suffering, Hope, and the True Way: "The fact that only one world of the spirit exists, takes hope from us and leaves us certainty."
K's conversation with the priest in the cathedral illustrates this concept of spiritual independence. They agree that his case is "going badly", and the priest asks him what he proposes to do about it. K's answer is: "I'm going to get more help...There are several possibilities I haven't explored yet." "You cast about too much for outside help," said the priest disapprovingly. "Don't you see it is the wrong kind of help?" K. then makes a derogatory remark about the character of the men in court, calling them "petticoat-hunters", and the priest loses patience: 'Can't you see even one pace in front of you?'...It was an angry cry, but at the same time sounded like the unwary shriek of one who sees another fall and is startled out of his senses." The priest then relates the parable "Before The Law." In this parable, there is the possibility that the man from the country can enter the door to the Law (which again, is his God-self, the Law of his Inner Being) after his death; what is more, he could have entered it during his lifetime, had he asked earlier for whom the entrance was actually intended, instead of waiting until he was at the point of death. Then he would have received the "redeeming message": the door was meant for him all along.
K., in plotting how to get "help", puts himself in the position of the man from the country pleading with the doorkeeper to let him in. As the man from the country is fixated on what he thinks of as the ultimate power of the doorkeeper, so K is fixated on the idea of getting help from others who he imagines to be "in the know", somehow more able than he to solve his problems. He has hopes that the priest will be able to help him: "...it was not impossible that K. could obtain decisive and acceptable counsel from him which might, for instance, point the way..." But at the end of their meeting the priest also identifies himself as a member of the Court, and once again K. is thrown back on himself.
K. comes to feel it is his "duty" to execute justice upon himself, but as he is never clear about the details of this, he is executed in a "play" put on by puppet-like "tenors" and "supernumerary actors." In the end, he is assailed with questions:
Like a sudden blaze of light, the casements of a window flashed open there; a human being, faint and tenuous in the distance and at that elevation, suddenly leaned far forward and stretched his arms even farther out. Who was it? A friend? A good person? Someone who was concerned? Someone who wanted to help? Was it a single individual? Was it everybody?
Josef K. does not know the answer to these or the other questions raised by his trial; he has not attained certainty within himself. But, even as the man from the country in the parable "Before The Law" may be able to enter the door to the Law after his death--for the "portal of the Law is always open...always, that is, irrespective of the duration of life for the man for whom it is ordained, the doorkeeper will not be able to close it"--so too, perhaps, Josef K. may attain certainty after his death. He has made progress; he has been forced to look into himself, has learned that there are important questions, and he yearns to know the answers.