Before the Law
Before the Law is a parable built into the penultimate chapter of Kafka’s The Trial, but originally published separately as a stand-alone text in 1915. It tells the story of a man from the country who arrives at a door seeking admittance to the Law. The door-keeper tells him that admittance to the Law is possible, but just not at that moment. The door-keeper also tells him that he is just the first door-keeper of many, and that the other door-keepers are progressively more powerful. Hearing this, the man waits on a stool by the door, perpetually asking whether he can be let in yet, and perpetually being told that he can’t. Eventually, when the man has been waiting for years and is nearing death he asks the door-keeper why no one else has attempted to gain access to the Law in all those years, to which the door-keeper responds that the door was intended only for him, but that it will now be shut.
Interpretation of the parable begins within The Trial itself, with the protagonist Joseph K. discussing various aspects of it with the priest who has recounted it to him, and inevitably this discussion has taken on a life of its own outside the novel. I say inevitably because The Trial is a novel about seeking access to justice, but it is also a novel about seeking meaning, given that K., being wholly removed from the system that is charging him with culpability of some sort, understands nothing of it whatsoever. As such, when K. is presented with this story by the priest he frames it within the context of his own struggle, and immediately concludes that the man from the country is deluded by the door-keeper in a similar way that he feels deluded in relation to his treatment at the hands of the court. Also, the parable appears at the very end of the novel, at a stage where the reader, like K., is becoming increasingly desperate to find answers of some kind.
One interpretation that seems to be popular sees the parable as cautioning against the dangers of a sedentary, fearful life. This reading has it that the country man is put off his quest by the first obstacle he encounters, as well as the suggestion that there will more arduous obstacles to come. Daunted by this, he chooses to wait passively by the first door in the hope that one day he will be ushered past the obstacles to his goal. Of course, he is never ushered through and instead ends his days where he started, having suffered the added insult of being told by the door-keeper that the door was intended only for him. I have to say I find this “no one gives it to you, you have to take it” interpretation very appealing. After all, most of us will be familiar with that feeling of helplessness when we first decide to undertake something and realise that achieving it will be a lot harder, and take a lot longer, than we had anticipated. I remember when I first started playing the guitar (Door 1), I was almost put off it entirely by the realisation that I would never be half as good as Jimi Hendrix (Door 100). Whatever the case may be, I think there is certainly some element of existentialism in the parable: the idea that every individual must struggle to find his own meaning in life.
However, if this is an existentialist parable then it is wholly at odds with the rest of The Trial. Indeed, K. does nothing but struggle throughout the novel, and his efforts are shown as utterly futile. If K. is supposed to see himself as the country man then there appear to be few lessons for him to learn. Perhaps K. has accepted what he sees as the rules of the justice game a little too readily. Or perhaps K.’s mistake is merely to believe that justice will be done, and by analogy that meaning can be attained in life. The fact that a priest is chosen as the narrator of the parable brings to mind Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which I think can be seen as yet another interpretation of Kafka’s parable. There is an assumption on the part of the characters in both texts that beyond the bare reality of the here and now there is something else, whether that is God, the Law, or an answer to the meaning of life. We are all doomed to wait and we will all choose to wait in different ways, making it tempting to believe that both Kafka and Beckett are advising a sort of ‘ignorance is bliss’ approach to life. But they are not, of course, because they are aware that the spectre of the “other” is too powerful once it has been stumbled upon, and in any case, as lawyers will tell you, ignorantia lex non excusat.