‘Before the Law’ is a short story or parable by the German-language Bohemian (now Czech) author Franz Kafka (1883-1924). It was published in 1915 and later included in Kafka’s (posthumously published) novel The Trial, where its meaning is discussed by the protagonist Josef K. and a priest he meets in a cathedral. ‘Before the Law’ has inspired numerous critical interpretations and prompted many a debate, in its turn, about what it means.
So, what is the meaning of this short fable? You can read ‘Before the Law’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
‘Before the Law’: summary
Before the law there stands a doorkeeper (or gatekeeper in some translations). A man from the country turns up and asks to be admitted to the law. But the doorkeeper tells him that he cannot grant him access to the law now. The man asks if he can be admitted later, and the doorkeeper replies that it’s possible. But not now.
The door to the law is open, and the man tries to peer through it. The doorkeeper challenges him to try to look through to the law, but warns him that if the man tries to get past him, he is powerful and will stop him. And there are other, more powerful doorkeepers beyond him, too.
The man considers this, taking in the powerful appearance of the doorkeeper, who is dressed in a fur coat and has a hooked nose and black beard. The man decides it would be better to wait until he has permission to enter.
The man ends up sitting there for years, continually pleading with the doorkeeper to let him have admittance to the law. But the doorkeeper’s answer is always the same. The man even tries to bribe the doorkeeper, but although the doorkeeper accepts the bribes, he still doesn’t let the man through the door, telling him that he’s only taken the bribes ‘so you don’t think you have neglected anything.’
As the years go by, the man forgets that there are other doorkeepers beyond this one, and thinks this first doorkeeper is the only thing between him and the law. He grows old, and has become fully acquainted with the doorkeeper, even down to the fleas in the man’s collar. His eyes start to fail. As he lies dying, he asks the doorkeeper one last question. Everyone wants admittance to the law, so how come nobody else except him has tried to gain entry to it?
The doorkeeper tells him, as the man dies, that nobody else could be admitted to this particular door. ‘This door was meant only for you,’ he tells him. ‘Now I am going to close it.’
‘Before the Law’: analysis
One of the ways to ‘get’ Kafka and understand what his work means is to view it as one vast metaphor for the struggle of life itself. So The Trial, the novel in which ‘Before the Law’ appears, is not about one man’s specific trial for some specific crime, but is instead about the ‘trials’ of living, the ‘process’ (to use the original German word for the novel’s title) of dealing with a nagging sense of guilt for some vague and unspecified sin or wrongdoing, just as it is about the ‘process’ or ‘trial’ of negotiating innumerable bureaucratic obstacles that dominate our adult life.
One critic, Mark Spilka, produced a study in the 1960s, Dickens and Kafka: A mutal interpretation, which argued that Kafka, like Dickens, was essentially childlike in his understanding of the world. And children both fail to understand the need for tortuous administrative and legal process (where necessary) and immediately see through such processes when they are clearly unneeded, or even actively harmful. Viewed this way, Kafka is essentially the authorial version, writ large, of the little boy at the end of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ who calls out the delusion that all the adults are blindly (or, in many cases, willingly) following.
In one sense, then, ‘Before the Law’ – which was written around the time that Kafka wrote The Trial – might be analysed as a microcosm of that longer work, a distilling of the central meaning of that 200-page novel into just two pages. Much as Josef K. in The Trial tries to penetrate the obscurities and complexities of the law in order to clear his name of whatever crime he has been accused of (famously, he never learns what this crime is supposed to be), so the ‘man from the country’ in ‘Before the Law’ comes to ‘the law’, represented as some physical space that lies beyond the doorway being guarded, in the hope of being admitted to it and, we presume, understanding it. But like Josef K. he discovers nothing before his death.
Well, he does discover something: namely that this door was meant for him and him alone. What does the ‘law’ and this special exclusive ‘door’ represent? As so often with Kafka’s writing, a religious interpretation seems likely. After all, in The Trial, it is a priest who tells the parable to Josef K. Those wishing to understand God, represented here as a ‘law’, are ready to devote their lives to him and want to get to know God in some deeper sense. But they are always kept out from God, and are not meant to understand him fully in this life. As the Bible famously says, in 1 Corinthians 13:12:
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
In other words, Christians (though we might also include Jews and the Rabbinic tradition in this, stretching back to before St Paul) are not meant to ‘know’ God directly in this life. Like the man from the country, a sort of everyman representing us all, we are always kept outside the door and can never gain admittance.
But if ‘Before the Law’ should be analysed as an allegory for religious faith, especially in the Judeo-Christian tradition, what is the significance of the door being closed at the end of the story? Surely when the man dies he should be granted access to the door, and ‘the law’, and see ‘God’ or the law ‘face to face’?
Well, Kafka’s fiction doesn’t necessarily endorse religion or promote a belief in the existence of God. What is known is the secular world of the here-and-now, where men ferociously guard ‘the law’ and determine what is the ‘right’ way to get to God and heaven, much as St Paul was doing in his ‘through a glass darkly’ quotation. So if ‘Before the Law’ is a parable for religious faith, it is one which ends, not with revelation and epiphany, but simply with death. The man who devoted his life to attempting to gain admittance to God has died and still not gained admittance.
Perhaps there is nothing beyond the door after all. He has only the doorkeeper’s word that there is something beyond there. (And think of ‘doorkeeper’ here as a description of this man’s role. It’s akin to the term ‘gatekeeper’, which we use for those people who fiercely guard something and try to keep others out.) This interpretation also helps to make sense of the bribes that the man gives to the doorkeeper, echoing the ways in which wealthy people have often bought indulgences and other special favours from the Church in the hope that they can buy their way into heaven.
But if ‘Before the Law’ is a parable, designed to convey a message to those who read or hear it – i.e., much like the parables that Jesus tells his followers in the New Testament – then it is also like Jesus’ parables in another, more troubling sense. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells his disciples (in Mark 4:11-12) that not everyone is meant to ‘perceive’ the meaning of his preachments, and that he actually doesn’t want everyone to be converted and have their sins forgiven. Jesus doesn’t want everyone to follow him because that would mean they would all be forgiven for their sins; and he uses parables as a way of concealing the truth from people (or, at best, only partially revealing it), rather than using parables to help them understand.
There is a sense, then, in which ‘Before the Law’ is like a riddle without a solution, and it is meant to be as impenetrable as the process that it describes. It is playful and frustrating on purpose. Like ‘the law’ itself, ‘Before the Law’ remains impenetrable.
About Franz Kafka
The German-speaking Bohemian (now Czech) author Franz Kafka (1883-1924) has been called everything from a modernist to an existentialist, a fantasy writer to a realist. His work almost stands alone as its own subgenre, and the adjective ‘Kafkaesque’ – whose meaning, like the meaning of Kafka’s work, is hard to pin down – has become well-known even to people who have never read a word of Kafka’s writing. Perhaps inevitably, he is often misinterpreted as being a gloomy and humourless writer about nightmarish scenarios, when this at best conveys only part of what he is about.
The critic J. P. Stern attempted to define ‘Kafkaesque’, the adjective derived from Kafka’s works, by using synonyms ranging from ‘weird’ and ‘mysterious’ to ‘tortuously bureaucratic’ and even ‘nightmarish’ and ‘horrible’. Undoubtedly all of these terms are applicable. Perhaps only ‘Orwellian’ can stand ahead of ‘Kafkaesque’ as a twentieth-century literary term which so sharply describes, and even shapes, our own thinking about our twenty-first-century world. As Stern observes, though, alongside ‘nightmarish’ we must also place ‘humdrum’: the ‘everyday quality’ of Kafka’s people and situations is indistinguishable from its horror.
Much of Kafka’s work remained unpublished until after his death. As he lay dying of tuberculosis in 1924, he commanded his friend Max Brod to burn all of his unpublished material (and even his published work). Brod refused to honour Kafka’s dying wish, seeing his friend’s slim body of work as an original contribution to literature and too important not to publish.
I love this story, as I do The Trial as a whole (and the scene in the TV movie version where Anthony Hopkins plays the priest is superb!). I’ll add my own thoughts here.
I’ve always described Kafka as being ‘Lewis Carroll but for adults’ in that where LC writes like a child’s dream, Kafka writes like an adult’s nightmare – one of bureaucracy and the unfeeling nature of ‘the system’. This story I’ve always thought of as the inevitable nature of the mechanics of society to grind you down to death. Despite a fairly upbeat view on life, I still find that this isn’t far from the truth. There’s little that’s more soul-sucking than trying to deal with government rules and procedures or even just trying to get anything done in your place of work where it involves ‘the management’…
I myself interpreted this as how the Law obscures itself.
It is a story of that man’s failure to pass through the gateway that was assigned to him. The ending seems to mean he should have pushed through, put the gatekeeper’s assertion of his power and more power behind to test.
Was there truly that many gatekeepers? Shortly before his death, he perceives an illumination that passes inexhaustibly through. Perhaps he hadn’t even needed to open the Gate, perhaps all what he needed was to realize the Law’s light was shining on him all along instead of fixating on the gatekeeper’s pomp and wasting away in waiting.