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Enter the Law Under Your Own Volition

Represent Yourself in Court

Franz Kafka:  Biographical Sketch  (1883-1924)

1883  –  Franz Kafka was born in Prague, capital of Bohemia, now the Czech Republic. He was eldest of 6 children. His family were German-speaking Jews in a Slavic country.

1906  –  Kafka graduated with a Doctor of Law degree from Prague University. He then spent an obligatory year as an unpaid law clerk for the civil and criminal courts.

1908  –  He segued into insurance, landing at the Workers  Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia. This congenial berth allowed Kafka free time for writing.

1914  –  Insurance work being vital to industry, Kafka was deferred from military service during World War I.

1917  –  Laryngeal tuberculosis forced sick leave on Kafka.

1922  –  Fully retired, he began work on A Hunger Artist.

1924  –  Kafka died at Kierling Sanatorium in Austria during treatment for tuberculosis. His throat had closed; parenteral feeding was yet unknown; Kafka starved.

At work Kafka was sociable and witty. But his personal life was fraught with complications and isolation. Plagued with self-doubt, Kafka asked his friend and literary executor Max Brod to burn any unpublished manuscripts after his death.

Defying his friend's wishes, Brod became steward and editor of the work. In 1925 The Trial was published posthumously. In 1988 Kafka's handwritten manuscript of The Trial sold at auction for $1.98 million.

BEFORE THE LAW

From The Trial by Franz Kafka

Before the Law stands a doorkeeper on guard. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country who prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment.

The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later. It is possible, says the doorkeeper, but not at the moment.

Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior.

Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: 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.

These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected: the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone. But as he now takes a closer look at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, with his big sharp nose and long, thin, black Tartar beard, he decides that it is better to wait until he gets permission to enter.

The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at one side of the door. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be admitted, and wearies the doorkeeper by his importunity.

The doorkeeper frequently has little interviews with him, asking him questions about his homeland and many other things, but the questions are put indifferently, as great lords put them, and always finish with the statement that he cannot be let inside yet.

The man, who has furnished himself with many things for his journey, sacrifices all he has, however valuable, to bribe and win over 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.

During these many years the man fixes his attention almost continuously on the doorkeeper. He forgets the other doorkeepers, and this first one seems to him the sole obstacle preventing access to the Law.

He curses his unlucky circumstances, in his early years boldly and loudly; later, as he grows old, he only grumbles to himself. He becomes childish, and since in his yearlong contemplation of the doorkeeper he has come to know even the fleas in his fur collar, he begs the fleas as well to help him and to change the doorkeeper’s mind.

At length his eyesight begins to fail, and he does not know whether the world is really darker or whether his eyes are only deceiving him. Yet in his darkness he is now aware of a radiance that streams inextinguishably from the gateway of the Law.

Now he has not very long to live. Before he dies, all his experiences in these long years gather themselves in his head to one point, a question he has not yet asked the doorkeeper.

He waves him nearer, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend low toward him, for the difference in height between them has altered much to the man's disadvantage.

What do you want to know now? asks the doorkeeper. You are insatiable.

Everyone strives to reach the Law, says the man, so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admittance?

The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and, to let his failing senses catch the words, roars in his ear: No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.

FURTHER READING

Franz Kafka Selected Literary Works

Film Adaptations of The Trial

Georgena S. Sil
Saskatoon, Canada
Physicist & Technical Writer
Alumnus: University of British Columbia

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Ottawa: Canadian Parliament, Library Entrance

Entrance:  Library of Parliament
Canadian Parliament, Ottawa

A door that seems to stand open must be of a man’s size, or it is not the door that providence means for him.

Henry Ward Beecher

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Legacy of Franz Kafka  (1883-1924)

Before the Law was published during Franz Kafka's lifetime. Despite its chill, it is an authentic view of the justice system, a meditation on the Law.

This well-crafted set-piece appeared twice as a short story, then became the driving force of the author's most studied novel.

  • The parable Before the Law is the central tenet of Kafka's novel The Trial. Written in 1914, the full novel was not published until 1925, posthumously.
  • In 1915 Before the Law was published as a short story in Selbstwehr, an independent Jewish weekly.
  • In 1919 Kafka included the parable in his short story collection A Country Doctor.

The version at left was translated by Willa and Edwin Muir (German to English).

The parable is thought-provoking. It is not meant to deter you from filing a legal case. It is a reminder that this very inaccessibility of the law needs to change.

Copyright © 2008-2019 Georgena Sil. All Rights Reserved.