Franz Kafka’s Before the Law

Analysis of Before the Law by Franz Kafka written for my sophomore year English class:

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Many have tried to interpret “Before the Law” and many have failed. However, to their credit, it is not because they have not read closely enough into detail, but because Franz Kafka crafted his parable in such a way that a definite meaning cannot be derived from it. In “Before the Law,” Kafka purposely designs the parable to be ambiguous with the intent of inviting readers, who attempt to grasp the meaning, to an endless reading and rereading of the parable. He does this in order to draw us into the position of the man in the parable so that we can better experience the futility in our persistent human nature of trying to find meaning in parables and examine our way of thinking and approaching parables through making connections between the vehicle and the tenor.

“Before the Law” is most commonly interpreted as either a critique of an impenetrable legal system or of the man and his inability to be proactive and make his own decision to cross the gate. Both of these interpretations can account for many of the metaphors in the parable, but never the entire metaphorical system. There always seems to parts that just do not quite fit no matter how plausible the interpretation appears to be. We are constantly in search of connections between the vehicle and the tenor, asking ourselves, “What does the gate, but the lack of a physical barrier convey? If the doorkeeper is the vehicle, what is the tenor?”  Even when we settle on a potentially plausible interpretation of the parable, it is not evidently clear why one interpretation is the more likely than the other because Kafka simply chooses not to give us enough information to gain certain knowledge. “Before the Law” is constructed in such a way that it appears to have an underlying meaning and moral message, but one that always eludes the reader simply because there is actually no real meaning. What would have happened if the man had gone through the gate? Would the doorkeeper have stopped him, or would he simply go through? Kafka never tells us. In rereading this parable and reevaluating our interpretations we must question the textual evidence or the deliberate lack thereof. He purposely intends it to be that there is no one reading that can be pinned down and argued for over all other readings and does so because it is the most effective vehicle to encourage skepticism and communicate the idea that there does not necessarily have to be meaning in parables.

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This uncertainty of the meaning behind “Before the Law” also allows Kafka to play with our frustration and desire to discover the meaning of the parable, and to similarly put us in the same position as the man in the parable. The experience of the man in the parable, seeking access to something that is hidden or nonexistent, is meant to parallel the very real experience of the reader.  By interpreting “Before the Law” as a parable written to have no meaning, we suddenly seem to find the metaphorical system and the meaning behind it. The Law, covered in a veil of mystery, represents the meaning of parables themselves. It is not clear why the man travels to and seeks admittance to the law. Like many things in the parable, we are not told. He just does. The man from the country represents us as readers. Similarly, we naturally want to gain an understanding of the parable. However, understanding parables is not as simple as reading it and arriving at the meaning instantly. We have psychological obstacles in our way, whether this be our feeling of intimidation of the parable or fear of interpreting it incorrectly and waiting for someone to tell us how to approach it, Kafka specifically writes to emphasize the lack of a physical barrier, describing the doorkeeper as only standing to the side and not directly in front of the gate. Most importantly, in the last scene, Kafka discourages our persistent and unwavering motivation to find meaning in parables, where we see ourselves, represented as the man in the parable who ends up wasting his life trying to gain access to the law. Not only does he end up dying, but also dies without the knowledge of what lies beyond the gate. Thus, according to Kafka, we should give up trying to understand the parable lest we end up having, metaphorically, the same fate as the man in the parable.

However, the paradoxical nature of this interpretation is that if we had not tried to understand the parable in the first place, we would have never understood his argument. Furthermore, if we had not acknowledged that his parable had no meaning, we would not have found the most plausible interpretation of “Before the Law”, that it is a parable examining the way in which we try to interpret parables. It appears that we have been drawn into a never-ending cycle of circular logic because we cannot support the uninterpretable nature of the parable with an interpretation of the parable. The absurdity of the parable itself seems to even have the capability to disable our ability to prove that his parable is a parable on the absurdity of parables, and this is precisely the point. This reveals that even when we make potentially accurate statements about the nature of this parable we still cannot completely pin down the meaning. Kafka has constructed a world in “Before the Law” that is so incredibly absurd that we cannot know with certainty what the man should or should not have done. This then becomes the tenor, the experience of absurdity, of not knowing, and the entire parable itself becomes the vehicle for the tenor. Even now, we cannot escape this paradoxical interpretation that Kafka has brought us to. However, had he not placed us into the same position as the man in the parable to really and truly experience the futility of trying to find meaning in parables, we would not be capable of grasping the purpose of “Before the Law,” which is exactly to demonstrate the whole conundrum of endless rethinking and reevaluating that the reader can never exhaust because there exists no tangible meaning or metaphorical connection within the parable, and thus we should not expect to find it in the first place.

Kafka, Franz. “Before The Law”. Textbook. 3rd ed. Robert Scholes, Nancy R. Comley, Gregory L. Ulmer. Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002. 131-132. Print.

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