Before the Law by Kafka: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:01 Kafka's Style &…
  • 1:04 Parable Summary
  • 2:59 Parable Analysis
  • 4:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kimberly Myers

Kimberly has taught college writing and rhetoric and has a master's degree in Comparative Literature.

This is an overview and analysis of the plot, characters, and themes of Franz Kafka's parable 'Before the Law.' We will also discuss how 'Before the Law' features elements that are central to Kafka's body of work as a whole.

Kafka's Style and 'Before The Law'

Have you ever started playing a game and realized that you don't know all of the rules and no one seems willing to explain them? Or, have you ever dreamed of being stuck in a maze, unsure where to turn or of what even awaits you if you make it out? Both of these situations could be called Kafkaesque, after the author, Franz Kafka. Many of Kafka's works feature protagonists (main characters) trapped in bizarre situations that they cannot understand and are unable to escape.

'Before the Law' is a parable, first published in 1915. It was later featured in one of Kafka's most famous works, The Trial. Both the parable and the novel pose questions about the nature of the law and the confusion caused by the law's mysterious set of rules and processes. The Trial's main character is suddenly arrested for an unspecified crime and spends the rest of the story trying to find out what his crime was and how to defend himself. At one point, the character hears a parable and wonders over its meaning. That parable is 'Before the Law.'

Parable Summary

In 'Before the Law,' Kafka represents the law as a physical space. The entire story is about a man from the country who is trying to get through a gateway that will let him enter into the law. As this man approaches, he sees that though the gate is open, there is a gatekeeper in front of it. The gatekeeper tells the man that he cannot let him through. The man asks if he will be allowed in later. The gatekeeper says it's possible, but it is unclear why the man isn't allowed in and also unclear if, when, and why he might be let in in the future.

The gatekeeper warns that there are more gatekeepers ahead. As noted in the story, '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, he decides that it would be better to wait until he gets permission to go inside. Because the gatekeeper seems to have authority, the man decides not to barge through.

Days, weeks, and years go by as the man waits by the gate. The man even offers his belongings to the gatekeeper. The gatekeeper takes everything, but says, 'I am taking this only so that you do not think you have failed to do anything.' The man from the country thinks that he just needs to ask the right question or do the right thing to be allowed in, but nothing the man does seems to matter to the gatekeeper. The gatekeeper asks the man some questions, but he doesn't seem interested in the responses.

The man waits so long that he is old and nearly deaf. He is still entirely fixated on the gate. He sees light streaming out from the entryway and realizes that he has one question left. 'Everyone strives after the law...so how is that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?' The gatekeeper replies, 'Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I'm going now to close it.' The man from the country dies, and the gatekeeper closes the gate.

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