Existentialism in Kafka

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Existentialism is the thought that reality has no meaning or purpose, and that this is something man must come to terms with through his life until he faces death. The pursuit of meaning is a prevalent theme in the work of Franz Kafka, especially so in his parable “Before the Law,” in which a man refuses to face, or perhaps simply does not or will never realize, the fact that reality is meaningless. The central claim of existentialism is Jean-Paul Sartre’s proposition that “existence precedes essence”- that what defines someone is the their existence, their consciousness, and not their nature- the theory that life is not ruled by some omniscient metaphysical being or force, but rather, by the individual. Man defines himself, thus, man is responsible for himself in all things.

In Kafka’s “Before the Law” the character K is told a story by a priest, the story of a man who arrives at a doorway to “the Law” seeking entrance, yet is denied by the guard there. “The man, on reflection, asks if he will be allowed, then to enter later,” and the guard replies, “’It is possible’… ‘But not at this moment’” (Kafka 175). The man is puzzled, but determined in his quest. The doorkeeper supplies him with a stool and the man settles in to wait. However, he is continually denied entrance by the guard year after year, despite giving up all of his worldly possessions; he ends up spending the entirety of his life waiting. The gatekeeper waits as well, permitting the man to continue waiting indefinitely. As the man lies dying, he wonders why it is that he was the only person seeking “the Law”. The gatekeeper tells the man that the gate he guards was only meant for him and since he is dying, he, the gatekeeper is going to close it. K is “strongly attracted to the story” and proceeds to engage the priest in an analytical argument about the significance of the tale (Kafka176). “Before the Law” is, at its heart, an allegory of every man’s search for a means through which to comprehend...
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