Kafka’s Parable Analysis

“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.)



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4 responses to “Kafka’s Parable Analysis

  1. You raise an interesting point about the mysterious or alluring nature of the law. We often think of legal systems and processes as being bureaucratic and dry – necessary components of social life, but not particularly attractive. What do you think makes the law alluring or worthy of curiosity? Is it the complexity and unusualness of legal systems? Is it the link between law and other concepts (justice, power, authority, morality) that makes it alluring? Or, is the fact that in a society that claims to operate according to the rule of law, gaining access to the law (and therefore being able to claim that one’s actions are supported by the law) is an important source of legitimacy?

    You mention that the law is anonymous and faceless. This is an interesting observation. Is it not the case that there are many persons who claim to act on behalf of the law? Judges certainly claim to speak for the law. Police officers sometimes claim to act for the law. Do these officials not give the law a face? Or, would you argue that while these agents may claim to represent the law, they are ultimately gatekeepers in the service of a power that always remains hidden from view?

    This is an interesting and thorough unpacking of ‘Before the Law’, and a welcome addition to the blog.

  2. pgardiner

    I would definitely agree that law is seen by many as ‘dry’ or even boring, however, I feel that this is due to people’s lack of knowledge and understanding regarding it. I think that law is attractive to people for a very similar reason- it is difficult to understand and complex. As I suggested above, many people are naturally inclined to become interested in things that they do not completely understand; the ‘mystery’ of law and the power it garners becomes alluring for those with a curious disposition. More specifically, those within fields of criminology, psychology and sociology (and anything else related) may be especially drawn to law as it provides many avenues for engaging in critical thinking and debate that strongly connects to their work. Better comprehension of law could potentially spur entirely new perspectives regarding crime prevention, desistance, deterrence, intervention and policy change which would serve to benefit society in a greater way. Additionally, another point of interest for society is the presence of the many gatekeepers who operate within the Criminal Justice System and almost seem to serve to preserve the disconnect between law and the average individual. This detachment, in my opinion, would definitely prompt many to become interested in why there were such severed connected between the CJS and society.

    Regarding the anonymity and facelessness of law, I suggest that while yes, there are judges and lawyers and many other enforcement officers who could be perceived to be the “face” of law, in reality they function in a way similar to a corporation – they are faces who represent law but they themselves are still anonymous. While individuals may recognize court officials and police officers as representative of the law, I feel that it is a situation of not being able to put a name to a face. These representatives of the law are more symbolic as a whole, than individuals who embody a less anonymous, more personal ‘face’ of the law.

    • Thanks for the excellent supplementary analysis and commentary. If you are interested in reading about ‘law’s facelessness’ and legal bureaucracy, I recommend checking out Christie’s classic article on “Conflicts as Property” and Ericson and Baranek’s work on “The Reordering of Justice”.

  3. pgardiner

    Thanks for the recommendations I’ll definitely take a look at them sometime in the near future!