What is the theme to Franz Kafka's "Before the Law"? Quotes to support the theme?

Franz Kafka's famous parable "Before the Law" serves as an allegory for the corruption of bureaucracy and the ways in which authority wields symbolic power over its citizens. More broadly, the story can also be read as a critique of the idea of justice and the law itself, which Kafka portrays as an unobtainable ideal.

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Franz Kafka’s famous parable “Before the Law,” which is embedded in his unfinished novel The Trial, serves as an illustration of the corruption and negligence inherent to bureaucracy as well as a larger indictment of the idea of justice itself.

The reader is told that a man travels...

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Franz Kafka’s famous parable “Before the Law,” which is embedded in his unfinished novel The Trial, serves as an illustration of the corruption and negligence inherent to bureaucracy as well as a larger indictment of the idea of justice itself.

The reader is told that a man travels “from the country” in order to seek access to the law. However, he is met by a gatekeeper who informs him that he must wait. Interestingly, we are told that the gate stands open. This causes the man to wonder why he is prohibited from entering, since he believes “the law should always be accessible to everyone” and that, furthermore, “everyone strives after the law.” The man is portrayed as highly naive, as he subsequently acquiesces to the gatekeeper. The gatekeeper warns the man that he is a “powerful” guardian and that, moreover, there are only more gatekeepers after him, each one more fearsome than the last.

Overall, the story thus constitutes an allegory for the functioning of the supposedly democratic and impartial legal system. The man, who embodies a commoner and a lowly citizen, is barred from achieving clarity and insight that would otherwise empower him to understand the law. It is important to note that the man, in actuality, has no reason to trust the gatekeeper. The gatekeeper’s claims are never substantiated by the text, except that the man is rebuffed by the authoritative stance and official regalia of the gatekeeper, who wears a “fur coat” and has “a large pointed nose” and a “long, thin, black Tartar’s beard.” The parable thus points to the inherently symbolic nature of governance from which authority flows—and its subsequent power to dissuade citizens’ resistance without exerting any effort. In fact, the story indicates that the man would have simply been able to enter if he had only tried. As the gatekeeper explains to the now dying man,

This entrance was assigned only to you. Now I am going to shut it.

However, the literary genre of the “parable” also invites a second-order analysis which demonstrates a broader lesson. As the man lays dying—as he has, at this point, waited his whole life to pass through the gate—he “recognizes in the darkness an illumination which breaks inextinguishably out of the gateway to the law.” The mythic (and perhaps non-existent) aura can be understood as a further, naive idealization of the law itself and the notion of justice the law is theoretically intended to "guard." In this sense, Kafka ought to be read as questioning more fundamentally the nature of justice and the law’s realization in the first place. Impartial and unmitigated access to jurisprudence may only be visible as a dying dream.

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What an intriguing allegory!  A man from the country comes to find the law.  He is stopped by a doorkeeper.  The man wants to know if he will be allowed in later; the doorkeeper says possibly.  The doorkeeper describes the other more terrible doorkeepers that he would have to go through in order to achieve his goal.

The man sits there for years and never gets in.  He is often indifferently asked questions by the doorkeeper. Bribery by the man toward the doorkeeper sacrifices everything that the man owns. 

…sacrifices all he has to bribe the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts everything, but always with the remark: ‘I am only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted anything.’ The man curses his bad luck, in his early years boldly and loudly. 

When he is dying, the doorkeeper tells him that no one else could go through this particular door because it was made for him.

Questions arise as the reader tries to understand what the parable means.  What does the law represent? In some third world countries and even in Europe, there are governments who do not allow the common man to be a part of the law unless he breaks the rules or laws. The legal system is not available to the normal citizen. 

The doorkeepers represent the various levels of government.  From the local authority to the highest level, the doorkeepers become less personal and more rigid in observation of the rules or laws established by the authorities. 


The theme of the parable is that man cannot wait for the law to come to him. He cannot sit down and hope that one day he will be able to be a part of the law.  Every man has a right to justice.  The common man must be willing to fight or stand up for his civil rights and do what is necessary to have the legal system work for him.

The man sits for years waiting to be able to be a part of the law. There are men who are unwilling to challenge the system for fear of the ramifications both to himself and his family.  Without the will to enter the gate under his own volition, the man wastes his life waiting for something to happen.

When a government is not democratic, it usually takes care of those who are influential or strong in their power. The little man has no representation unless he unites with others or his peers.  This is the cause of civil wars. 

However, justice or the legal system should be available to everyone regardless of their financial or class status.  A parallel with this story is the Berlin Wall placed by a government that was not thinking of what was best for the citizens.  The people snuck from West to East Berlin and back again.  Only individuals tried to challenge the authorities.  It took many years of isolation before the government allowed the wall to be torn down. 

Men, like this man from the country, are completely incapable of facing up to the system. They just wait for justice to come to them; they wait for permission to seek it, instead of just getting up and taking action and freeing  themselves.

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