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I often have a lot of thoughts floating around in my head and sometimes I like to spew it out into words.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Literary Analysis: Kafka's "Before the Law"

     Before I start, I would like to mention that going into Franz Kafka The Complete Stories I had a certain expectation of what it was going to be like. I wrote an indepth analysis about the role of a kafkaesque journey in The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera for my English assignment, stacking my knowledge about Kafka through second hand testimonies and skims through his early short stories. Now that I am actually sitting down and reading through most of his writings, the first two I was introduced to were not merely stories but parables (example of parable), meaning that they were trying to convey a certain moral message through a story. I never really understood any parables without the meaning being glaringly obvious or having someone explain it to me so you can (hopefully) understand that I struggled a lot trying to understand Kafka's parables considering his unique, modernist views of life and I am still struggling now. Despite this, I felt a strong need to talk about "Before the Law", therefore what follows may be a bit messy. However, I assure you that I have abandoned the reckless way of writing I used for John Dies in the End (which is a reckless book), so I won't sound as lost and undisciplined.

     The beginning is quite simple. There is a man who came from the country standing in front of a doorkeeper trying to get to the Law. The doorkeeper tells him it is not possible "at the moment". As the man continues to show interest, he tell him that he could get through the door if he really wanted to but there would be several more doorkeepers in his way and that they become increasingly scarier to deal with as they go. The man decides to comply and wait for permission but not before thinking that the Law is supposed to be accessible to all. Years pass as he waits by the door and he grows old to the brink of death. To this point, the moral of the story seems pretty clear: it is inherently wrong for a society to lock people away from the law that is supposed to dictate their own lives and that listening to the bureaucracy and waiting around for things to change on their own will not take anyone closer to law. The doorkeepers seem to represent the trials and tribulations people must face to influence the law at all as well as the futility of trying to change the law at all. To truly obtain the Law, they have to challenge themselves to get past the doorkeepers no matter the fear. However, at the very end of the story, I was hit by a curveball.

     The story ends with the man, finally at the end of his life realizes one last thing: "Everyone strives to reach the Law..., so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but [himself] has ever begged for admittance?". To answer this questions, the doorkeepers tell him the last line of the story, which confounded me: "No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it" and the story ends. This ending raises so many more questions for me. For example, what is "the Law"? The ending implies that is it not the law that governments use to dictate the moral of a society. Why was gate specifically made for the man unable to be opened by him? If it's not the type of law that is used within a society than it is not the bureaucracy that is blocking the man from it. So what is the doorkeeper and why can't the man get past him? The last sentence gives a sense of finality to the message, but it also tells us that the gate had always been open, the man just didn't have permission to go through.

     A quick search online tells me that translators often capitalize "Law" (as my copy did) to differentiate from the bureaucratic definition of law. This shows that the moral of the story, although it may still mean to criticize bureaucracy, has more levels below just that message. Within the last paragraph of the forward of this compilation, John Updike mentions that Kafka "received from his father an impression of helpless singularity, of being 'a slave living under laws invented only for him." Further investigation revealed that the quote of being a slave was from Kafka's Letters to His Father, a giant letter written for his father that was never delivered to him. The letter gives much insight to Kafka's relationship with his father Hermann Kafka. Hermann was a narcissistic man, a trait that influenced his parenting method that put young Franz through emotional abuse. His acute narcissism cause him to constantly contradict his own words so that he was always right. This, combined with his cold and restricting attitude towards Franz's discipline, created what Kafka believed to be three different worlds: one where he lived under laws set specifically for only him that he was unable to follow (created by the confusion caused by his father's contradictory rules), one that lived within his father's mind where he obsessed over power even though no one ever obeyed him, and one where everyone else happily lived without the confines of the laws Kafka slaved under. Kafka felt that he was always a disgrace to his father as he could not follow his fathers teaching because according to Kafka himself, he did not have his father's "strength, appetite, or skill". This revelation brought a completely new meaning to the "parable", one that was more of a depiction of a personal struggle than a teaching.

     The doorkeeper is an intimidating man who is described to be constantly annoyed by the man's attempts to gain permission. At the beginning, the man briefly thinks about forcing his way inside but the doorkeeper's imposing figure scares him away from attempting to do so and to the end, even after all his attempts, he is unable to appease the doorkeeper and gain permission. So who could be the doorkeeper? I believe it is Hermann himself, the man Kafka learned to fear and found himself never able to please. He was a always dismissive of Kafka's literary aspirations and always blamed him for their estrangement despite his own contradictory and suffocating actions that established their relationship. The doorkeeper and the man are implied to have a cold relationship where the doorkeeper shows disinterest in the man yet denies the man of the one thing he wants: to reach the Law. In this interpretation, I believe that the Law is the laws Kafka feels his father had imposed onto him and by reaching the Law he wishes to gain control of his life. The only thing that is stopping him is his fear of the doorkeeper and the thought of the scarier doorkeepers waiting for him. The scarier doorkeepers could be Kafka's fear of his father's rejection of him, something that he never confirmed, but was convinced, would happen; an idea of which stops him from joining the world of everyone else who were untethered and happy. In the end, Kafka believes that, just like the man in the story, he will die waiting for approval.

     Hermann Kafka never once read any of his son's works that showcased the world Kafka had built for himself to escape his own mind. He never even read the letter directly meant for him as Kafka's own mother refused to pass it to him meaning that he never gave Kafka a chance to prove himself as a writer who could successfully live his own life. This complete rejection of Kafka's true passion shows that they could never patch up their relationship and Kafka's letter shows his final attempt to get through the gate, a gate that had been open the entire time that he just didn't have permission to go through. The gate being open shows that Kafka could have tried to brave his father's rejection but he couldn't get past being denied by the man who he looked up to as a young child and who domineered the rest of his life. The closing of the gate not only indicates the end of the man's life but also the inevitable end to Kafka's struggle for acceptance.

     Kafka thought his father was weak for thinking that he was in complete control of his life and thought he couldn't grasp of the struggle of life. He looked down upon him as he grew older, likening him to the bug in The Metamorphosis, yet he still struggled to patch up their relationship for his own sake. Therefore I believe that, to a certain extent, this story shows Kafka's own personal struggle with his father as another layer to this delicious Kafka cake.


Further reading:
Kafka's relationship with his father in more detail

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