Reading Kafka’s Before the Law

Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to come in later on. “It is possible,” says the gatekeeper, “but not now.”

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At the moment the gate to the law stands open, as always, and the gatekeeper walks to the side, so the man bends over in order to see through the gate into the inside. When the gatekeeper notices that, he laughs and says: “If it tempts you so much, try it in spite of my prohibition. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the most lowly gatekeeper. But from room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the other. I can’t endure even one glimpse of the third.”

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The man from the country has not expected such difficulties: the law should always be accessible for everyone, he thinks, but as he now looks more closely at the gatekeeper in his fur coat, at his large pointed nose and his long, thin, black Tartar’s beard, he decides that it would be better to wait until he gets permission to go inside. The gatekeeper gives him a stool and allows him to sit down at the side in front of the gate. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be let in, and he wears the gatekeeper out with his requests. The gatekeeper often interrogates him briefly, questioning him about his homeland and many other things, but they are indifferent questions, the kind great men put, and at the end he always tells him once more that he cannot let him inside yet. The man, who has equipped himself with many things for his journey, spends everything, no matter how valuable, to win over the gatekeeper. The latter takes it all but, as he does so, says, “I am taking this only so that you do not think you have failed to do anything.”

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During the many years the man observes the gatekeeper almost continuously. He forgets the other gatekeepers, and this one seems to him the only obstacle for entry into the law. He curses the unlucky circumstance, in the first years thoughtlessly and out loud, later, as he grows old, he still mumbles to himself. He becomes childish and, since in the long years studying the gatekeeper he has come to know the fleas in his fur collar, he even asks the fleas to help him persuade the gatekeeper.

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Finally his eyesight grows weak, and he does not know whether things are really darker around him or whether his eyes are merely deceiving him. But he recognizes now in the darkness an illumination which breaks inextinguishably out of the gateway to the law. Now he no longer has much time to live. Before his death he gathers in his head all his experiences of the entire time up into one question which he has not yet put to the gatekeeper. He waves to him, since he can no longer lift up his stiffening body. The gatekeeper has to bend way down to him, for the great difference has changed things to the disadvantage of the man.“What do you still want to know, then?” asks the gatekeeper. “You are insatiable.” “Everyone strives after the law,” says the man, “so how is that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” The gatekeeper sees that the man is already dying and, in order to reach his diminishing sense of hearing, he shouts at him, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it.”

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Written by Franz Kafka; Adapted and rendered by Lowell Isaac.


 

One need not analyse Kafka’s stories, for he strings our emotions to his words and suddenly we become his puppets to unravel the bits of the story. Just as we scurry our way through the labyrinth of words to unearth the conundrum, he snaps those strings from us and that’s when the fall hits you the hardest.

The closer you think you reach, the further you actually are.

It is at this end of the rainbow where you see a light of hope which is probably the end of the story. Though Kafka’s stories never end with happily ever after, his sense of timing is meticulous. The  slow build up and immediate demolition of the story is different from heightening the contradictions to end it abruptly. But this is the key to enjoy Kafka’s writings.

One needs to immerse themselves in the dark spaces of matters that stand as constant remainders of reality, for instance, Before the Law openly spoke about the legal system of rules but if you read in between the lines, you find subtle strains of greed, illusion of freedom, invisible limitations, innocence of the helpless, domination by consent, power, corruption.

The contradiction of the ‘ideals’ of the country man and
the ‘duties’ of guard keeper reach a saturation point and
it’s over before you know it;
the law is a paradoxical tool,
the question of its apt use or abuse
dawns you till you get over Kafka’s writing.

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