Short story: Franz Kafka, “Before The Law”

29 06 2008

Before the law sits a gatekeeper . . . (Image: Sony Pictures)

It has been a while since I’ve posted one of these. “Before The Law” comprises part of the penultimate chapter of The Trial, though an extant form was published during Kafka’s lifetime. It is said that Kafka used to laugh hysterically when reading The Trial to his friends, and this makes me wonder whether “Before The Law” inspired the great Seinfeld episode “The Chinese Restaurant.” In both cases, for example, the protagonists are being denied access to a place they are completely free not to attempt to enter; when they inquire as to whether it is possible to enter, Kafka’s gatekeeper replies “It is possible [. . .] but not now,” while Seinfeld‘s maître d’ repeatedly assures them they will be waiting “5, 10 minutes,” regardless of how much time has actually passed; and both protagonists try unsuccessfully to bribe the gatekeeper/maître d’, though their gifts are accepted. Read the story, watch “The Chinese Restaurant” (if you have it on DVD/VHS) and see what you think.

The following translation is courtesy of Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, British Columbia:

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.” 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.” 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.” 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. 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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8 responses

1 07 2008
THR

The short story is a brilliant allegory within a novel that is itself a brilliant allegory. I can’t recall the Seinfeld episode in question, but I remember thinking that Seinfeld recapitulated some classic absurdist themes (Beckett and Kafka come to mind) within the sitcom format.

Incidentally, do you have any reference for Kafka laughing during this story? I’d be interested to read the context.

1 07 2008
AV

Incidentally, do you have any reference for Kafka laughing during this story? I’d be interested to read the context.

I can’t recall exactly where I learned about this . . . quite a few years years back I read Deleuze and Guattari’s book on Kafka, and they may have mentioned it. This site refers to it also.

1 07 2008
Bruce

I’m thinking that Legal Aid must have taken great inspiration from it as well. ;-)

6 10 2008
J

In the introduction to the penguin collection of Kafka’s published short fiction “Metamorphosis and Other Stories” translated by Michael Hoffman, Hoffman writes “When some of these stories were read aloud, people-including Kafka, reading them- fell about laughing. He is not sombre, he is not grim, but often very funny.” I know it’s short but I hope that provides some reference. :)

6 10 2008
AV

Thanks, J. I knew I’d read about that somewhere.

4 02 2009
Bryan

Max Brod, Kafka’s literary executor, actually stated this. (This being Kafka’s taking humour in his own writing when read aloud.) Vintage Books Edition, February 1969. Brod was actually present for most if not all of these readings, which by his admittance was the majority of ‘The Trial’ among many others of Kafka’s “scribblings.” You’ll understand that last quotation if you find that edition or read more about Kafka.

6 09 2011
Gie

Can someone please help me understand what it means??? like the meanings and what the law actually means…. thankyou.

13 03 2012
jps

I truly believe that there are quite a few Kafka elements in Seinfeld’s comedy. The final episode (The Good Samaritan Law) is a perfect example of the portrayed relationship between man and Law. (The Trial)

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