Short Story Month, Day 2: "Before the Law"

During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from intern Jeremy Hart.

Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law” is a parable largely regarded as the centerpiece of Kafka’s unfinished novel The Trial. Born Jewish in Prague he experienced a sort of double minority status, placing him on the opposite end of the socioeconomic power spectrum as his fellow Marxist Friedrich Nietzsche. This parable is an allegory to Kafka’s personal experiences as a member of the powerless. It begins with a young man from the country approaching the gateway to ‘the Law’. Yet upon his arrival he meets a doorkeeper who refuses him entry. Undeterred, the man peers inside anyway, only to be admonished by the doorkeeper: “If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the doorkeepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him.” From the onset it is quite evident this man will never see the light of the Law.

At first puzzled by his plight, the man then promptly procures a stool and has a seat near the doorkeeper: “There he sits for days and years.” The man remains hopeful that one day he will gain access, and for years he sits by the door, pestering the keeper with question after question, fruitless bribe after pointless inquiry. Soon his passion for entry becomes so that he forgets all other aspects besides his constant companion, the first doorkeeper. He enamors his focus with that of the keeper, so much so that he begins to converse with the fleas that frolic in his beard. Even they in their fleeting wisdom cannot help him change the keeper’s mind.

As the man grows old his eyesight deteriorates. Not knowing if this darkness is the actual world or just his failing eyes, he becomes acutely aware of a “radiance that streams inextinguishably from the gateway of the Law.” This prompts him to one last-ditch effort, one more question for the doorkeeper. He summons all his past experiences and gathers them for the final question: “Everyone strives to reach the Law… so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admittance?” The doorkeeper is less than thrilled at the man’s insatiability but he recognizes his old age and decides to answer once more: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.” Story ends. We are left much like this old man, pondering why in the world a gate to the Law, in all its arbitrariness, would be made for just one person; and why he could have never feasibly gained entry. Should not the law be accessible to everyone? These are the questions I found myself asking, and I believe that is Kafka’s mission. A two-dollar definition of Marxism could net you the reason behind the parable. Kafka experienced inequality throughout his life and this was his version of social critique, and some under-the-table support for socialism, at least in the scope of the story.

Jeremy Hart is pursuing a double major in English and German.