Before the Law
|"Before the Law"|
Ein Landarzt, first edition
|Original title||"Vor dem Gesetz"|
|Published in||Selbstwehr, 1919 in Ein Landarzt, 1925 in Der Process|
|Publisher||1919 Kurt Wolff|
"Before the Law" (German: "Vor dem Gesetz") is a parable contained in the novel The Trial (German: Der Prozess), by Franz Kafka. "Before the Law" was published in Kafka's lifetime, first in the New Year's edition 1915 of the independent Jewish weekly Selbstwehr, then in 1919 as part of the collection Ein Landarzt (A Country Doctor). The Trial, however, was not published until 1925, after Kafka's death.
"Before the Law"
A man from the country seeks the law and wishes to gain entry to the law through an open doorway, but the doorkeeper tells the man that he cannot go through at the present time. The man asks if he can ever go through, and the doorkeeper says that it is possible. The man waits by the door for years, bribing the doorkeeper with everything he has. The doorkeeper accepts the bribes, but tells the man that he accepts them "so that you do not think you have failed to do anything." The man does not attempt to murder or hurt the doorkeeper to gain the law, but waits at the door until he is about to die. Right before his death, he asks the doorkeeper why even though everyone seeks the law, no one else has come in all the years. The doorkeeper answers "No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it."
In some English translations of the original German text, the word "Law" is capitalized. It is important to keep in mind, however, that this is the prerogative of the translator who might wish to focus attention on the myriad connotations of the word beyond its simple juridical meaning; for example, in religious (law as moral or divine law) or psychoanalytic (Freud's "Law of the Father") contexts. In the original German, the capitalization of the word Gesetz ("Law") reflects a standard adherence to the rules of German orthography, which require that all nouns be capitalized, and does not necessarily have wider significance.
In The Trial
Josef K has to show an important client from Italy around a cathedral. The client does not show up, but just as K is leaving the cathedral, the priest calls out K's name, although K has never met the priest. The priest reveals that he is a court employee, and he tells K the story (Before the Law), prefacing it by saying it is from "the opening paragraphs [introductory] to the Law." The priest and K then discuss interpretations of the story before K leaves the cathedral.
The section clearly demonstrates the concept of existentialism, as the man from the country can only enter the gate using his own, individual path.
The fable is referenced and reworked in the penultimate chapter of J.M. Coetzee's novel Elizabeth Costello. Jacques Derrida's essay of the same name examines the meta-fictional aspects within the structure and content of Kafka's fable (for instance the situation of the title before the body of the text and also within the first line of the text itself). Derrida's essay incorporates Immanuel Kant's notion of the categorical imperative as well as Freudian psychoanalysis in its reading of Kafka's fable.
The fable is partially referenced in the Long Distance Calling (band) song "Fire in the Mountain", as a spoken section.
In the film After Hours the conversation between Paul and the bouncer at Club Berlin is partially lifted from "Before the Law".
The web site of the Coalition Against Judicial Fraud sees the story as a thinly-veiled allegory of the modus operandi of American federal justice system, the individual gate being a case filed in the federal court, and gatekeeper being the judge assigned to that case. 
- Kafka on the US Justice System http://cajfr.org/kafka-us-justice.php
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