Kafka and Existentialism


            Existentialism is a discipline of philosophy that places great importance on individual existence, and the authenticity therein. This school of thought takes on the idea that human existence cannot all be explained as one, but rather must be perceived as individual experienced that each singularly have their own meaning, or perhaps no meaning at all. There are many aspects of existentialism, however, in Franz Kafka’s Before the Law and In the Penal Colony, themes of death and absurdity are employed most prevalently. In these two works, Kafka explores very different ways of dying, however both present an aspect of futility. He also explores absurdity; the vain attempt at applying meaning in a meaningless world.

            Awareness of death is significant for any existentialist, as this is part of the human condition. However, this lays much more importance on life, as it is the one thing all humans have in common; we all live, and we will all die. This ties the fear of death and the fear of life together strongly. One who fears death will most likely also fear life. Kafka presents the idea of this life and death dichotomy first in his parable, Before the Law. A man travels from his home, seeking admittance to the law. The man, very ambiguously described as “a man from the country”, is stopped by the doorkeeper, who says the man cannot enter now, but may be able to later, “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 is importunity” (3). This is the first hint we have at the fear of life, thus fear of death, of the man from the country. The Law, though it has no clear definition, can be interpreted as a sort of meaning. The man has traveled to learn the meaning, most likely that of his life and existence. The man is so committed to having another person or entity, the Law, answer his questions, that he overlooks his own life. Thus, by waiting for the Law to answer his questions about life, the man renders his life meaningless.

            This pursuit for a meaning of life is thus futile. The man traveled to the Law presumably to learn the Law, or in my interpretation, the meaning of life. However, the man does nothing but sit and wait. The Law represents the futile quest for the meaning of life, as even if the man from the country were to get past the first doorkeeper, “there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last” (3).  Not only is sitting “Before the Law” futile in itself, but if the man were to get past this first obstacle, there would only be more to come. These obstacles serve to represent fear instilled in the man, and his acceptance of the fact that he will never see these obstacles or the law itself. His fear of not overcoming the said obstacles, none of which he is even sure exist, and therefore not reaching the Law, or the meaning of life, prove to be too much of a risk to jeopardize the man’s own peace of mind.

            When the man from the country is dying, after spending so much time waiting, he finally asks, “How does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admittance?” (4). To which the doorkeeper replies, “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am no going to shut it” (4). Perhaps in this instance, right before his death, the man realizes he should have chanced running through the gate, as it meant for him only. The Law, and the obstacles before it, represent the struggle to find one’s own meaning to life. The man feared risking his well being too much to realize his life’s meaning.

            The idea of death is reflected on in a different way in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony. The killing apparatus in this story takes its victims quickly and without warning, somewhat differently than the man from the country in Before the Law, as he was aware when he was dying. The killing apparatus however, allows no warning for one’s impending death until the condemned is attached to it and experiencing it. This deeply relates to the idea of absurdity, and no one person is exempt from like fate of any other person.

            Absurdity is another key theme to understanding existentialism. Essentially, absurdity is the utter meaningless of anything and everything is in the world, unless we, individuals, assign meanings of our own. In a way, absurdity is just the opposite of karma; absurdity does not treat people fairly, but completely at random. In Before the Law, Kafka employs absurdity in many ways. It is almost directly referred to when the man “curses his bad luck,” as luck itself does not exist. By doing so, it is obvious that this man has not realized what the Law truly is. It is not by luck that he is not getting in, but it is his own fault for not trying harder. 

            Kafka’s short story, In the Penal Colony also presents the existentially absurd idea of luck also. The entire novella revolves around the description of a killing apparatus, and how the characters view it. The really absurd aspect of the machine is how the condemned are sentenced. The officer explains that the condemned do not know they are being sentenced, and are often sentenced for very menial crimes. The explorer questions this, “He muse have had some chance of defending himself” (145), as any ordinary human would. It seems that since almost any minor or terrible crime could be “just” cause to sentence anyone to this killing apparatus, that the system to this terrible end is completely random. The condemned did almost nothing to deserve such a fate, and yet he could receive the same “just punishment” as a murderer.

            The sub-theme of justice is thus brought to light in this absurd justice system. The apparatus may be considered to be the justice system itself in the colony, as there is no other procedure to follow other than condemning any criminal to death.  The officer himself says, “My guiding principle is this: Guilt is never to be doubted,” (145). This is completely absurd, as it yields any sort of justice meaningless. The fact that justice in this colony is the death sentence is by no means justice. There is no time for repentance or atonement, for once the criminal is attached to the apparatus, their fate is decided.

            The officer even reflects on the “justice” being served, “How we all absorbed the look of transfiguration on the face of that sufferer, how we bathed our cheeks in the radiance of that justice, achieved at last, and fading so quickly!” (154). The officer acts as though justice is a point in time, rather than a lasting feeling. The officer makes the justice here fleeting, thus making it absurd in itself.

The concept of time in this parable is very ambiguous and absurd. There is almost no recollection of how much time has passed in this story, other than a mention of “days and years” passing. There is no saying how long his man from the country has been waiting to be granted access to the Law, but we do know that once he came Before the Law, he never left. This in itself is absurd, and renders the man’s life meaningless.

            Another aspect of absurdity in Before the Law is the charade of human relation. The doorkeeper and the man do not have a meaningful relationship, but rather interact in polite and socially-expected manner, “The doorkeeper frequently has little interviews with him, asking him questions about his home 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 in yet,” (3). This demonstrates the idea that meaning can only be assigned; it is not intrinsic or necessary. In the more basic meaning of the word, these frequent conversations were absurd. This is because they served no purpose and did not further the cause of either the doorkeeper or the man.

            The absurdity of traditions and customs is existentially questioned In the Penal Colony. The idea of tradition, or something being set merely by precedence, is a rather trivial matter. However, so much of human life is filled with tradition, celebrating birthdays, Christmas, Halloween, etc. The tradition in this novella is that of the “Old Commandant” and the tradition of his killing apparatus. If we truly think about and analyze any sort of tradition, what meaning does it have? Does it have a meaning behind it that we assigned to it, or did others assign that meaning? This is precisely what existential absurdity refers to in questioning anything. Everything is essentially meaningless, unless one assigns a personal meaning to it, to put it simply. The officer can be seen as a martyr in his state, as he sacrifices himself to the apparatus in the end. The officer believed the meaning of his life was this killing machine, and thus was willing to die for it. However, not everyone was dedicated to this meaning, just as no singular person can have the same perceived meaning to his or her own life.

            Whether it is the country man standing Before the Law, or the explorer witnessing the terrible operations of a killing apparatus In the Penal Colony, Kafka gives a firm idea of existential ideas and perspectives on ideas such as death and absurdity. The awareness of death, and the fact that existence precedes essence, is largely what Kafka portrayed. The absurdity of fruitless ideas, traditions, and actions is a second existential theme Kafka depicts in both of these works of literature. Though Kafka may not be considered a strictly existentialist writer, he certainly brings many ideas of it into his work. His work may seem ambiguous at times, but it is meant to make the reader truly contemplate his or her own existence.


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