Before The Law
Before the Law stands a gatekeeper. A man from the countryside approaches the gatekeeper and begs for entry into the Law; the gatekeeper says he could not grant him admission at the moment. The man considers this, then enquires whether he would be permitted entry at a later time. ‘It is possible,’ says the gatekeeper, ‘but not now’. Since the gate to the Law remains open as usual and the gatekeeper has stepped to one side, the man bends forward to peer inside. Detecting this, the gatekeeper says laughing: ‘If it so entices you, then just try to enter, despite my refusal.
Beware however: I am powerful, and I am only the nethermost gatekeeper. There are other gatekeepers, in each hall, one more powerful than the next. Even I could not endure the sight of the third one!’ The man from the countryside had not anticipated such troubles; he believes the Law should indeed be accessible to everyone, and at all times. However, as he watches the gatekeeper clad in his fur coat more closely, with his large pointed nose, the long, sparse, black, tartaric beard, he decides holding off until he could get permission to accede.
The gatekeeper gives him a stool and lets him take a seat to one side of the gate. There he sits for days… leading to years. He attempts many times to gain entry, and wearies the gatekeeper by his entreaties. Occasionally the doorkeeper questions him in order to sound him out, quizzing him about his homeland and many other things; these enquiries are however indifferent and apathetic, like those asked by great lords, and at the end he always tells him, that he cannot let him enter yet. The man had arrived fully equipped for his journey, but foregoes all he possesses and anything that may be of value, in order to entice the gatekeeper. The latter accepts all he is offered, but adds at the same time: ‘I only accept so that you do not think you have neglected something.’
Over the years, the man almost uninterruptedly observes the gatekeeper. He forgets the other gatekeepers, for this first one appears to him as the sole impediment to his entry into the Law. He curses his misfortune, in the first years heedless and loudly but later, as he gets older ...he only mumbles to himself. He becomes childish, and since during years of observing the gatekeeper he has come to know even the fleas in his fur collar, he pleads with the insects to intervene on his behalf and bring the gatekeeper round.
In the end his eyesight fails and he wonders whether the world around is a darker place or his eyes are deluding him. Yet he discerns a sparkle in the dark, shining inextinguishably through the doors of the Law. Now he does not have long to live. At the threshold of death, all he has ever experienced gathers into a single question in his mind, a question he had not put to the gatekeeper until now. He beckons him over as he cannot set his stiffened body upright anymore. The gatekeeper has to stoop quite low for their difference in height has altered much, and to the man's great disadvantage. ‘What is it that you still wish to know?’ asks the gatekeeper. ‘You are insatiable’. ‘Indeed everyone aspires to explore the Law,’ says the man, ‘why is it then that in all these years, no one else called for admittance?’
The gatekeeper recognises that the man has indeed reached the end of his days, and in order to catch his now failing hearing, roars in his ear: ‘No one else could have obtained admittance here, for this gateway was intended solely for you. I will now finally close it’.
Michael Majors' Interpretation
Kafka now extends an invitation to his readers to take their place …Before The Law: Though not in the defence of one’s innocence, instead… to preside in judgement over one’s inaction! One of the author’s more notable works, Before The Law may ingeniously illustrate how giving way to Fear can dramatically alter the course of our lives, with devastating consequences!
Fear is one of the most powerful and all-consuming emotions, possessing an unquenchable appetite for control, as it feeds on our worries and doubts: Ironically, this in-built mechanism of protection – our instinctive cautiousness – is all too frequently assigned to many of our day-to-day affairs, making our lives miserable. If the three main subjects in Kafka’s story are metaphors for Ourselves, something of great interest to us, and the fear related to that interest…then a fascinating meaning unfolds: The man from the countryside is a representation of Ourselves, striving to explore a new possibility; the Law is symbolic of something of great interest, new and significant …drawing us in; the gatekeeper is an illustration of our fear, the menacing beast that stands at the threshold of a new experience, halting progress.
‘Before the law stands a gatekeeper’ illustrates that before our ambitions, desires, interests, hopes and longings …stands our Fear! The man from the countryside arrives before the gatekeeper, seeking permission to enter the Law, but is refused entry at this time; though the gatekeeper informs the man that he may be granted admission at an unspecified future time, he gives no reason for his refusal. Here we see how Fear, acting out of instinct, stands at the threshold of each new possibility, intervening to shield us from potential harm, but instead, acts like a menacing bully trying to frighten and control us; going so far as to tease us with the possibility of having what we want at some future time, only to once again stand in the way when that time arrives!
Since the gate to the Law stands open, and the man’s curiosity is strong, he endeavours to see inside the Law; the gatekeeper sees this and tells the man he is welcome to ignore his refusal… but what he will face once inside will be far worse. The man heeds this warning, surprised by the predicament he now faces, and after studying the gatekeeper’s appearance, believes it is best to take his word. Despite our fear standing in the way, our curiosity does not diminish, nor does it prevent us from wanting to pry, if only a little. However, when fear recognises that we are not deterred by its initial warning, it will try to convince us that to ignore it and proceed… will lead to even greater dangers ahead; fear itself is nothing more than an illusion created within our mind, a result of our overactive imagination. The man sees the gatekeeper, as we may see our fear, as something far stronger and more dangerous than it really is… so we relent and try to appease it.
The gatekeeper offers the man a seat beside the doorway to the Law, and regularly questions his unsuspecting guest, though these enquiries are somewhat condescending, and without specific interest or concern for the answers. This suggests that Fear now amuses itself at our expense, allowing us to sit so close to our desires, questioning us with the dispassionate disinterest of a great lord …for now it has become our master, and all the while reminding us that we may not proceed.
The man sacrifices everything he possesses to the gatekeeper, believing he can use this as leverage to win his admittance into the Law; the gatekeeper takes all he is offered without reluctance or gratitude, and always claims he is doing this with the man’s best interests in mind. How easily we would sacrifice all we own, in the vain hope that our fear will relent, only to find that this fear will take it all, stripping us bare of everything valuable, including our dignity, and always with the pretence that this is done for our benefit! The many years of patiently sitting by the Law has resulted in the man’s attention becoming transfixed on the gatekeeper, causing him to completely forget about the other gatekeepers who allegedly exist; the close scrutiny of the gatekeeper has made him aware of even the fleas on this guardian’s collar, with whom he often pleads to intervene so as to change their host’s mind.
Whilst seated at his station, the man regularly denounces his foul fortune, with great vigour in his earlier years, but more soberly when he grows older. One can so easily become transfixed on fear, consumed by only this fear, as all else is forgotten. The smallest features of our fear take great significance, as we define even the tiniest detail around it; if only the man from the countryside had brushed this gatekeeper aside and entered the Law… he would not hold such power over the man; similarly, if only we brush our fear aside… it would not hold such power over us. If we allow our progress to be halted by fear, all that will remain for us will be to curse our misfortune.
The man’s eyesight has become tainted, for the many years of obediently waiting have taken their toll; despite this, he still believes he sees the light from the doors to the Law shining evermore brightly, though he is uncertain whether this is his imagination or the eternal brilliance radiating from this great attraction. The man, now close to his end, has only one question to ask; he thus summons over the gatekeeper who throws scorn on his insatiable persistence; unlike the gatekeeper, the man has deteriorated much over the years… forcing the gatekeeper to bend down to meet his level. Though the years may take their toll on our body, draining our physical strength and dulling our senses, the brilliance that radiates from our desires continues to hold its allure: Even if we surrender to fear, our ambitions and dreams continue to shine in our hearts ‘inextinguishably’.
The man poses his question, aware that everybody aspires to reach the Law… but no one but himself has ever asked for entry to this doorway. The gatekeeper now recognises that the man is no longer capable of entering the Law, so he reveals the devastating truth, that this doorway, leading to the Law, was exclusively for the use of the man from the countryside, and now it will be closed and he will go. This startling revelation illustrates that fear stands at the entry to one person’s opportunity; an opportunity that exists uniquely for the exploration and progress of only that person; and when that person’s life comes to an end, so does that opportunity …along with its associated fear!
If only the man had the courage to walk past the gatekeeper, to enter the doorway to the Law, and explore that… which attracted him so strongly in the first place, how different his life would have been. Instead, he sought permission from the gatekeeper, he believed what this guardian told him, he squandered his life remaining outside that which he longed to explore, he sacrificed all he possessed without success, he became preoccupied with this gatekeeper and his pet fleas, and allowed his life to pass idly by…only to see the gatekeeper take all he had and close the doors to the Law in his face!
Do we need permission from our fear to explore what we desire, will we allow fear to dictate how we proceed, shall we sacrifice all …only to have fear take everything and leave us without even our dignity, are we prepared to squander our opportunities …only to see life passing by? Will we allow fear to roar its final insult into our ear… as we see the gateway to our opportunity close forever and watch our illusory fear disappear? Well …will you?