“Before the Law stands a doorkeeper”: Kafkaesque distractions to the primary aim of law


By Shubham Chauhan and Saurabh 

When the American music composer Arnold Rosner used the evergreen four-point motif for his opus 97, “The Parable of the law”, it was not the first time that this cornerstone of the western music was used to convey an idea of defiance or resistance. Though additionally here, these notes helped convey an English translated version of a parable which in its absurd, unrealistic or as such ideas would be called in the 20th century Kafkaesque narrates the vertigo fate of an ignorant but persistent man meeting with the law and its “doorkeepers.” “Before the Law”, written by Franz Kafka, the Bohemian author, is more than a simplistic moral analogy. Its subjective placement in the main novel “The Trial” relays the futuristic objective critique of law, blockades in its accessibility, ignorance of people seeking justice through it, cluelessness of the people executing it and, above all, mysteriousness of law. Its importance in contemporary times cannot be less emphasized when nothing, let alone the law and its institutions, remain separated from politics, ideologies and their radicalisation.

This article is an attempt to understand the underlying messages in this parable, explore if they still hold relevance and introspect where we stand and are headed to.

The Artist

As Khuswant Singh once wrote, it is safe to begin with beginnings. The main protagonist Josef K. (also accused in a case whose counts are not even known to Josef himself) meets the Priest of the Cathedral when he is waiting for somebody else there. The Priest, who introduces himself as the prison chaplain, starts to discuss with Josef about his case and how it is moving towards a bad direction. A while into the conversation, the Priest starts narrating to Josef a story, “In front of the law there is a doorkeeper.”

This doorkeeper calling himself the lowest in hierarchy (with power increasing as one goes up) stops a man from entering the room for access to law. Such blockage was unexpected for the man as “the law was supposed to be accessible for anyone at any time.” The man sits beside the doorman to wait for entry and observes that there are a series of doors inside with a new doorman on each door.

This waiting continues for years and this poor man tries everything which he could do including to offer a bribe to the doorkeeper who takes the bribe while telling him that he is doing so to satisfy the man with the satisfaction that he tried everything. The wait turns into cursing his own destiny to regret and finally the man’s death. Just before he is about to die, he asks the doorkeeper to come close for putting in a question. This story by the Priest ends with a two-line dialogue:

The man: Everyone wants access to the law. How come, over all these years, no one but me has asked to be let in?

The Doorkeeper: Nobody else could have got in this way, as this entrance was meant only for you. Now I’ll go and close it.

The Art

If one were to read the original text, every reader will probably have ideas of their own and apply to it in their own perspectives of the politico-legal system or may even be left completely clueless if it even has some meaning. But one thing has to be kept in the background which the Priest said in the discussion, “You don’t need to accept everything as true, you only have to accept it as necessary.”

In the story, there are two important things that the doorkeeper explains about access to the law: at one place he says, he can’t allow him in now, and, at the other he says, this entrance was intended for him alone. If one were to perceive these two lines as contradictions, it will mean that the doorkeeper is cheating. But is that the case? There is no contradiction! On the contrary, the first statement even hints at the second. Throughout the story, the doorkeeper’s duty seems to have been merely to turn the man away. If one were to think with a bird’s eye view, isn’t it the case with the shape that the modern-day state legal institutions have adopted? They are itself acting as the role of harbinger but then the source of a storm too. One full complete circle. That contradicts their essential role. One of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s visions for the Constitution-making was to have institutions that strive and sustain a better ‘social order’. In the popular Netflix series, Fargo, one character, Mike Miligan, very aptly puts it:

Now, ironically, in astronomy, the word “revolution” means “a celestial object that comes full circle…Which, if you think about it, is pretty funny, considering here on earth it means change.

Legal institutions are not merely there as a concrete building to highlight the presence of law but rather as the symbol of an established, operationalised and caretakers of rule of law. Thus, when a citizen requires protection from tyranny of unjustified measures, they actively come for zero protection. Now as we talk of symbols, the institutions certainly have the leverage over such ways which may make them appear fully functional when they may have broken deep down. In this parable, Kafka has shown how the doorkeeper puts up with the man’s requests through all those years: the little questioning sessions, accepting the gifts, his politeness when he puts up with the man cursing his fate even though it was the doorkeeper who caused that fate. These things seem to arouse our sympathy. The grandeur of words, isolated hopes of a glimmering citizenry-oriented work, the institution’s own larger than life physical presence, etc. act as a way to maintain its dignity, which eventually intentionally or unintentionally becomes the deviation from their purpose and aim.

The words of the institutions consist of such English terms that they remind a layman of the Victorian Age and can leave even Daedalian perplexed. This creates a language barrier between them and the masses. In such a situation, can they act as the means of social change which they proudly claim to be?  Most of the population is left with daily newspapers as a source of legal information where there is absence of any legal reasoning, thus creating a further gap.

This is one side of the coin. Did not we, the people, have lost our way too? The crimes by Brutus had their legitimation by the Romans only. Kafka highlights that the free man is superior to the man who has to serve another. The man in this story was free to go wherever he wanted to. The only thing forbidden to him is entry into the law and, what is more, there is only one man forbidding him to do so, the doorkeeper. If he takes the stool and sits down beside the door and stays there all his life, he does this of his own free will. There’s nothing in the story to say he was forced to do it. If the Constitution was written in the name of people, if the laws are to be made by representatives elected by people and the protection is meant for people, what prevents them in some instances from pushing through the glass ceiling of illegitimate and unreasonable encroachment of their rights. Kafka shows this relationship between authority and law. Have the people ever wondered that they are subject to the law even if they do not know the foundations of it? Justice H.R. Khanna in his dissent in ADM, Jabalpur v. Shivakant Shukla (1976) 2 SCC 521 {page 749} wrote:

529. To use the words of Justice Brandeis [Olmstead v. United States, (1928) 277 US 438] with some modification, experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded persons. Greatest danger to liberty lies in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but lacking in due deference for the rule of law.

Though the majority opinion of this case has been overruled, the spirit of that still lingers deep inside our social conditioning. There still lies the positivism, which focuses only on technicalities and not on the values; idolization of form detriment to spirit. The parable sums up the seeming impenetrability of the world’s laws and the man who will not admit to their incorrect interpretation.

Lastly, there seems to be no end to the random sampling that injustice and exploitation disguised as the so-called “fate” does. Its victims are common masses who curse their fate trying to overcome insurmountable struggle and unknowingly accept it as their own mistake. They never really know their accusers and never properly understand the law they are in possession of. As they run from betel nut-stained walls of court to that rude official who in his own exasperation has more “important” things to complete, they slowly crumble and poisonously accede to this “fate”. In their innocence and simplicity, they accept the unknown: there is nothing they can do.

Last few ramble

Though a parable is supposed to answer confusions and questions of socio-legal-political existence, Kafka in his not one absolute determination probably defines the fate of every order-based society: complication and utter frustration. It makes one wonder if pompous and grand claims of social or legal orders eventually boil down to incoherency of individual behaviour and morality or might of few. When the institutions meant to support the weakest in the chain adopt ulterior motives, the absurdity of the system cracks open, shining better than the photon ring while the black hole of power lusts on freedom and sometimes on instruments of social or legal order. The ever-cherished aims of freedom of expression, faith, free-fair trial, right to information, life of dignity, equality of status, accessibility to basic resources, equal distribution of wealth, objectivity of government and institutions, constitutionalism and primacy of the Constitution get overshadowed by such ulterior aims.

As and when human shortcomings meet an instrument of so-called “order”, there will be probably complication and utter frustration. Obviously, there are some schools of thought like Contractualism, Positivists or users of Felicific calculus that think from the other end and believe in eliminating injustice through such state institutions and their instruments. But having traversed the path of natural law from an earlier time and having lived through ages with almost every politico-legal theory, there seems to be no complete success with them as well. Perhaps they never claimed to be the harbinger of such complete success. But do political systems on ground reflect the scope of such vibrancy or leave the scope for new changes in the legal spectrum to reach a workable model? The apparent bipolarity of the political thoughts and system nowadays and its cosmetic juxtaposition over other branches of state such as executive and judiciary do more harm. This is because the scope of discussion firstly, becomes reductionist and secondly, deviates from the main aim of establishment of such institutions, i.e., constitutionalism (at least broadly).

The bipolarity or inherent conflict along ideologies or their interpretations of legal instruments helps camouflage the incoherence and absurdity of the system meant to protect life & liberty. So next whenever we petition the power for justice, we should take a step back and reconsider if we are being put on the path of a maze which only distracts and echoes. Then we must recalibrate keeping in the mind only the original aim of the complete process under the legal system: equality, liberty, justice and fraternity to which we pledged under our great Constitution.

Shubham Chauhan is a law student interested in critical legal studies. Saurabh is a lawyer based in New Delhi.


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