What Can We Learn from Kafka’s “Before the Law”?

Alt text: A photo of author Franz Kafka.

Within Franz Kafka’s The Trial — a story about a person prosecuted by obscure elites for an unclear crime — there is a short parable called “Before the Law.” In this short story, a man wishes to gain entry “to the law,” which is in a gated community. A guard, or gatekeeper, tells the man he cannot go in at the moment, and that although he could try to get in despite the gatekeeper’s refusal, there are gatekeepers inside more powerful than himself. The man spends the rest of his life there, occasionally bribing the gatekeeper, but he is never let in. At the end of his life, he asks the gatekeeper why nobody else has gone in; after all, the law is supposed to be accessible to all. The gatekeeper replies that the entrance is only for the man and nobody else. “[T]his entrance” the gatekeeper says “was assigned only to you.” He continues: “I’m now going to close it.” 

There are no shortages of interpretation. Some say Kafka is categorically absurdist and that life itself is absurd and irreducible to telos and “Before the Law” is just another instance of this. Some say it’s a parable for the “inaccessibility” of law and its elitist nature. Some say it’s a criticism of the man, whom the guard blatantly invites to go in, as he is surrendering his personal agency, giving into fear or inertia. More interesting interpretations posit that we are both “inside” and “outside” of structures of power and that our paralysis comes from overdetermining our place either inside or outside. 

In trying to determine what Kafka’s purpose was (if that”s even possible), it’s important to consider his theoretical influences. Kafka was influenced by Marxist theory, an influence more apparent in some works than others and frequently in concert with other perspectives. Although postmodern critics find him easy to invoke with respect to a general state of absurdity and collapsed or indeterminate meaning, it may be more interesting to consider his acknowledgment of both the objectivity and subjectivity of oppressive structures; in The Metamorphosis, Gregor really does have a boss. The police and eventually the vigilantes in The Trial really do have the power to detain and kill people. People really do walk over “The Bridge” and it hangs between two actual solid foundations. All the characters are aware of this structural reality, and their own; they just can’t seem to traverse any of it sensibly, predictably, or fairly. 

There are clear similarities between oppression under the law and exploitation under capitalism. In fact, the law — in addition to being an ideological cover for class oppression — can itself be recognised as a platform for the material disciplining of the dispossessed classes. Capitalism, too, is characterized by the law’s mythical traits presented in the parable: (a) idealized as accessible to all; (b) concrete inaccessibility (or inaccessible material hierarchies); and (c) individuation of attempts at empowerment. 

The law is idealized as accessible to all, and this drives the man’s desire and stubborn determination. But the law is ultimately inaccessible to the man materially, and the threat (which may not be real) is of successively more powerful guards.The entrance, that particular one, was “reserved” for the man alone, and then it is shut. In many ways, this same scenario plays out under capitalism, and during attempts at empowerment within it. 

Criticism of law under material hierarchy is, importantly, not a dismissal of the possibility of community justice. The idea of a better world may have been incidental to Kafka (or perhaps the contemplation of betterment distracts from the reader’s necessarily subjective confusion and exasperation, vital elements for authentically experiencing Kafka’s universe). But postmodernism’s paradoxically categorial dismissal of any kind of ordered deliberation is too broad a brush with which to paint Kafka’s parables of real material oppression. Instead, we should consider likening the absurdities of the Kafkaesque legal system, penal colony, worker-boss relationship, or other structures and relations to fascist use of nonsensical and self-contradictory “humor” in their clownish public discourse, always attempting to cover up their real brutalities with the mind-clouding confusion of absurd denials or epistemic problematizations. 

Structures can be very real, extremely violent, unquestionably oppressive, and also manifest themselves as absurd and confusing to the core. “Before the Law” isn’t even the most absurdist of Kafka’s parables, and its metaphorical standing-in for the liberal myth of equality under the law is, by his standards, a pretty easy call. 

This post was sponsored by my client, Accurate Append, which provides effective and efficient services to assist organizations, campaigns and businesses in reaching their supporters and customers.

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