Before the Law: An Interpretation

Kafka’s “Before the law,” discusses the story of a man who went to seek the knowledge and access to the law. The man was not given access to the law, he states that the law is something that should be accessible to everyone and anyone (Kafka, 2013). The man was given a challenge to try and get past the gatekeeper in order to get to the law. Eventually the man becomes old and dies without ever gaining access to the law (Kafka, 2013). Before the man dies, the gatekeeper tells him that the entrance was made just for the man and since the man is now dying the entrance to the law will also be closed (Kafka, 2013).

Imagine being in a courtroom fighting for what is right. The gatekeeper can be seen as a professional, such as a mediator. If you are not able to demonstrate to the mediator why you should win the case, you will not have the verdict entered in your favor. As such, if the man was not able to get past the gatekeeper he would never gain access to the law. The same can be seen for those fighting to change how laws are in society. People can try several times to make changes; however, many are not able to get the changes they seek.

The man gave up possessions and items he had brought to try and win over the gatekeeper (Kafka, 2013). This is similar to people trying over and over again to make changes or to try and achieve a specific goal yet, only to wear themselves out. However, the gatekeeper took the items but told the man he was only taking them so that the man would not feel like a failure, as he had put everything he had into getting to the law (Kafka, 2013). It is similar when people try to achieve specific goals in life however fail. Even though the outcome of accomplishing the set goal was not met, but as long as they put in all their effort, they will not feel like failures because they put in all the effort that was possible. For example someone may have dreams of becoming a judge. They may exhaust all their resources to become one, such as spending time and money to become a lawyer first. Afterwards, they may go onto practice for many years as a lawyer hoping that one day they will become a judge. That individual may do everything in their power that is needed, but not get onto the bench. However, all the effort did not go to waste. They were still able to accomplish the first step, which was becoming a lawyer.

On the other hand, giving items to the gatekeeper can also be seen as bribery. In life sometimes we as humans want to try and make problems go away quickly, in this case the problem was getting past the gatekeeper. The best way was seen as giving stuff to the gatekeeper, which can also be seen as bribery. The man thought that if he gave items to the gatekeeper, it may cause the gatekeeper to slip up and let the man go past the gate (Kafka, 2013). Although it can be seen as though Kafka is telling readers to try anything and everything to get to their goals so they do not have to feel like failures. It can also be seen as saying to try bribery. This type of corruption can be found in the government system, which creates laws in today’s society. Officials and authority figures may be corrupt, and they may take bribes from individuals who are trying to get ahead in life without having to wait or go around obstacles.

This man went on a journey to try and understand the law, and to try and get a sense of guidance and purpose. When he failed to do so, due to him getting old and dying, the gatekeeper closed the entrance that was made specifically for him (Kafka, 2013). This shows how everyone has their own journey in life, they make their own paths and they try and find their own sense of guidance. Some people turn to the law, they look at the rules and regulations, which have been set in place and try to understand what is going on and why things are the way they are. There are many people who try and understand the law and who at the same time try and make changes to it. People may try for years and years to make changes that may not be possible to make.

There are implications to this parable. It is inaccessible; individuals are subject to the law even if they do not know the foundations of it (Comack, 2006). The man however, has the option of disobeying the gatekeeper and just going in. However, he chose not to, this shows the relationship between authority and law. We can also see how the man does not enter even though the gatekeeper is not stopping him. This shows the method of legal positivism, which focuses on facts and not the values (Comack, 2006). There is also a social contract which can be seen. The man has given all his trust to the authority figure (the gatekeeper) and abides what he says as he believes the gatekeeper is trustworthy. As bad as the man wants to go in, he believes that the gatekeeper will eventually let him in (Kafka, 2013). At the same time this parable shows a relationship, which is lifelong and constant.

Many people struggle to understand the law. There is plenty of confusion and doubt around it as it is not always easy to grasp and understand (Wais, 2010). While at the same time there are people in place who get to decide how the law should be and not everyone is given the chance to give their opinions and ideas. As we get older we come to seek purpose and some sort of order in our lives, especially when things are in chaos (Wais, 2010). As humans we want health when we grow older and our health declines, we want youth as we age and get older, there is no set principle to guide us (Wais, 2010). We always want some sort of reason, anything that will help us understand life, and this is where searching for purpose in life and the law comes in focus.

References

Comack, E. (2006). Locating Law (2nd Edition ed.). Halifax, Canada: Fernwood Publishing.

Kafka, F. (2013). Before the Law. Retrieved September 6, 2013, from Franz Kafka Online: http://www.kafka-online.info/before-the-law.html

Wais, K. (2010). Franz Kafka’s Short Story, Before the Law. Retrieved September 5, 2013, from Philosophies, Science, Formalisms, Music and More : http://abyssinia-iffat.com/BeforeLaw1.htm

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Before the Law: An Interpretation

  1. Wais’ commentary is a good example of an attempt to interpret the meaning of Kafka’s parable in a broader context, without assuming that ‘the Law’ should be understood to mean ‘laws and the legal system’.

    You note that “The man was given a challenge to try and get past the gatekeeper in order to get to the law”. I wonder about this interpretation. Was he given a challenge to circumvent the gatekeeper, or did he decide to seek the law only to find that his way was barred? From what the story reveals, the man from the country never actually attempts to pass the gatekeeper – he seems to believe that the presence of the gatekeeper has rendered the law inaccessible.

    In your interpretation, access to the Law seems to mean access to the ability to favorably influence the outcome of legal processes (to win a case or change a legal regime). This is an interesting interpretation, as it clearly equates access to law with power.

    Regarding bribery, do you think that the gatekeeper is corrupt? He accepts all of the bribes given to him, but does not provide a service in return. He takes the bribes but does not step aside. Is Kafka suggesting that corruption is a viable avenue for seeking access to the law, or is he suggesting that it is ultimately fruitless?

    You suggest that there is a link between the parable and the positivist approach to socio-legal studies. I look forward to hearing more about this in a few weeks when we study positivism.

    This is a good post.

    • duck19

      Thank you for your comments.

      I agree with you regarding Wais, I felt it was an excellent attempt to interpret the meaning of Kafka’s parable.

      In terms, in that the man was given a challenge I believe that the man was attempting to get to the law. I think that he did not try to go further or question being allowed to continue because he just took what the gatekeeper said and decided those were the rules. This is also how it is in society people take rules as they are and do not always question them.

      I do not see the gatekeeper as corrupt as the bribes did not influence his stance or bot allowing the man to access the law. However, I think that Kafka is suggesting that corruption is a viable avenue to access the law. It may not always work but it is an option that is available.

      In terms of the relation I discussed to with positivist approach and the link between the parable I believe that the parable suggests a sense that the world operates to absolute laws, and so does society. Thus, it is fair to say that the access to the law was there for the man, but because he does not wish to break authority and law he does not go in even though the gatekeeper is not stopping him.

  2. Fryderyk

    I just read this story/parable and then looked for an interpretation, this is the first I came across and agree with some/most of the points made as potential factors and aspects of the story. I also while reading thought it could be in a sort of metaphorical or metaphysical description of the law being ‘the law of ones life’, or morals, or ones own path through life. Because it turned out in the story, the gate was to enter ‘the law’ specifically for the man, so this shows that by not entering the ‘symbolic gate of law’ that the man ‘wasted his life’, doing nothing. Being confused, throwing material possessions at, what I interpret to be a symbol of the universe. Either man seeking what he should do with his life, from the universe, or written law, or authority, and thinking he can come to an understanding of great truths about himself, life, and the way he should live his life, via ‘short cuts’, maybe, like idly asking questions, and patiently waiting.

    It could also represent, as I think may have been touched upon in this interpretation, the fact that maybe life itself is above the law, that sometimes laws can and should be broken, that he wasted his whole life being subservient to a law (the law) he didnt even understand or know anything about, instead of potentially doing what is truly right, at least from our perspective, which would be being more assertive to achieve the knowledge he wants. Or I dont know, it is a great piece of writing that contains so much, I need to read it again and think more about it.