“Kafka’s” Before the Law
The first sentence of Kafka’s parable reads, “Before the law stands a doorkeeper on guard”. This one simple sentence alone sets the tone for how the law will be perceived throughout the rest of the short narrative. It implies that there is a barrier of some sort, separating the law from whoever happens to be trying to access it. It also seems to make the assumption, that the law is somewhat compelling to individuals, and therefore, must be protected and kept within secretive confines. Human nature is defined by curiosity; had there not been curiosity, people potentially would have been completely ignorant to making a vast variety of advancements that have gone on to vitally aid mankind. The line which reads, “To this door there comes a man from the country and prays admittance to the law” presents exactly this idea, that the law is attractive and mysterious, and therefore alluring. The law, in reality, is in many ways similar to this parable. The law remains a semi vague entity to many, practically a different language at times and very complex in nature and statute.
The story continues, “But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment”; this line portrays the law as detached from average society. It implies that the average citizen would encounter some difficulty readily accessing the law, let alone successfully comprehending it. The gateway represents the disconnect between the law and society, and the doorkeeper represents the individuals who work in the justice system who are seemingly the only ‘beings’ permitted and privileged to control who is allowed to ‘see’ the law. The courts and those who work within them – Crown Counsel, defense lawyers, judges, etc. in reality, essentially control how the system is run and what is tolerable and what is not. Although a member of society may be involved in the proceedings as either an individual standing trial for committing a crime, a victim or a witness, they are merely placed on a trajectory more or less at the hands of those working the system. While they may still be ‘within’ the system by matter of technicality, they certainly do not control the situation. Navigating the law is no simple task for the regular individual, and therefore, while one may be involved in trial, they too, in effect, remain before the law, as the law is still something just as ambiguous and intimidating as it was prior.
This brings up another important point to note, the doorkeeper in the narrative goes on to mention the threat of the following doorkeepers and mentions “from hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last”, which signifies that although the man from the country cannot even be sure of how truthful the first doorkeeper’s word is, he believes him and abides. Similarly, the law is anonymous and faceless, while still maintaining utter power over the majority of society. Although technically, there is not “one” supreme force that all of society can readily agree upon being the reason for defining their law abiding actions, society on a whole generally follows the rules. Furthermore, this points to the notion that people will follow the law even when there is not necessarily the threat of being caught committing a crime or being stopped mid crime. Philosophically, it is hard to say whether this is a question of ethics and morals or truly a strict loyalty to the law. Do citizens abide the law because they know that it is the “right” thing to do” or do they think that abiding the law is the “right” thing to do simply because it is the law? Additionally, this suggests that society will also follow the law despite not having a complete comprehension or understanding of it.
The man from the country spends his life sitting before the law, waiting for admittance and answers to his questions – admittance and answers that he never gets. This is reminiscent of the feelings experienced by many individuals who are put through the legal gamut. Many feel like their lifetimes have been spent waiting on answers that were never delivered, or receiving answers that were not nearly close to satisfying. As stated previously, the average member of society being involved in the court process has minimal control and therefore, relies on people like the ‘doorkeeper’ to determine their ultimate fate. This can be extremely frustrating for those who feel robbed of their justice, and meanwhile, have ‘wasted’ their lives toiling over a decision that was never really theirs to make to begin with.
Although this parable takes up merely one printed page, it is a vast springboard for interpretations regarding how the law functions with society, and how society functions with the law. The material above is simply several small interpretations of the piece and in no way is meant to be an exhaustive explanation of Kafka’s “Before the Law”. In a truly remarkable fashion, Kafka manipulates such a short piece of literature to provide the catalysts for a limitless array of analyses regarding the law.
Franz Kafka, “Before the Law,” in Nahum N. Glatzer (ed.), Franz Kafka: The Complete Stores and Parables 3-4 (New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1971) (Willa & Edwin Muir trans.)