The Judgment, Franz Kafka
“The Judgment” Franz Kafka
Austro-Czech short story writer, novelist, and diarist.
“The Judgment” is perceived as one of Kafka's more important and autobiographical works. Written in 1912, this short story was initially published in Max Brod's magazine, Arkadia, the following year. Many critics view the story as a depiction of the tension between the isolation and alienation of the modern artist and the demands of family and societal expectations.
Plot and Major Characters
“The Judgment” opens with the protagonist of the story, Georg Bendemann, sitting at an open window and writing a letter to an unnamed friend living in Russia. He debates whether he should apprise his friend about his engagement to a woman named Frieda. He decides to tell him, and also informs his friend that he has taken over his father's business. After composing the letter, Bendemann checks on his father, who lives in the room across the hall. He discusses the letter with his father. A formidable man even in his enfeebled state, his father accuses him of fabricating the existence of his friend. The old man then changes his tactics, indicating that he has been in touch with the friend and finds him to be a better man than Georg. Furthermore, he questions the honor of Georg's fiancée, and accuses his son of having premarital relations. Intimidated and yet irritated by his father's words, Georg utters a remark that his father interprets as a patricidal wish; the old man immediately accuses his son of duplicity and homicidal desires. He sentences his son to death, telling him to go drown himself. In a dreamlike state, Georg walks down to the river and jumps from a bridge, supposedly to his death.
“The Judgment” explores several recurring themes in Kafka's work: death, art, isolation, futility, personal failure, and the difficulty of father-son relationships. Like Georg Bendemann, Kafka was plagued by the discord between his vocation and his literary ambitions, as well as by his own ambivalence about marriage, which he believed offered the greatest happiness, but which he feared would stifle his creativity. Some biographers consider his relationship with Felice Bauer, to whom he was engaged twice but never married, the catalyst to a fertile period of literary production that began with “The Judgment.” These thematic concerns are central to the story and to Kafka's work in general. Several commentators have noted the Oedipal rivalry between protagonist George and his father and the illogical, dreamlike atmosphere of the story. Georg's friend in Russia, who has exiled himself in order to write, is seen to represent Kafka's artistic side, while Georg symbolizes the Kafka who desires domesticity. Many commentators perceive the story as a comment on Jews and assimilation in the early twentieth century.
Many critics cite “The Judgment” as Kafka's “breakthrough” story, the one that established his central thematic preoccupation: the conflict between father and son that produces guilt in the younger character and is ultimately reconciled through suffering and expiation. Scholars have discussed this theme at great length, and much critical commentary has focused on parallels between “The Judgment” and Kafka's life. Although the story has elicited various critical interpretations, Kafka characterized his fiction as symbolic manifestations of his “dreamlike inner life” in which he attempted to reconcile feelings of guilt and insecurity. For many critics, Kafka's greatness resides in his ability to transform his private torment into fables of universal appeal.
Betrachtung [Contemplations] (short stories) 1913
“Die Verwandlung” [“The Metamorphosis”] (short story) 1915
“Das Urteil” [“The Judgment”] (short story) 1916
“Ein Landarzt” [“A Country Doctor”] (short story) 1919
“In der Strafkolonie” [“In the Penal Colony”] (short story) 1919
“Ein Hungerkünstler” [“The Hunger-Artist”] (short story) 1924
Der Prozess [The Trial] (novel) 1925
Das Schloss [The Castle] (novel) 1926
Amerika [America] (novel) 1927
Beim bau der Chinesischen Mauer [The Great Wall of China, and Other Pieces] (short stories) 1933
Tagebücher, 1910-1923 [The Diaries of Franz Kafka] (diaries) 1951
Briefe an Milena [Letters to Milena] (letters) 1952
“Brief an den Vater” [“Letter to His Father”] (letter) 1953
Dearest Father: Stories and Other Writings (short stories) 1954
Sämtliche Erzählungen (short stories) 1970
Complete Stories (short stories) 1971
Briefe an Felice [Letters to Felice] (letters) 1973
Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors (letters) 1977...
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SOURCE: “Franz Kafka's ‘Das Urteil’: An Interpretation,” in Monatshefte, Vol. LV, No. 1, January, 1963, pp. 13–22.
[In the following essay, Ruhleder discusses the major thematic concerns of Kafka's story.]
If Max Brod had not published Franz Kafka's statement explaining the true meaning of the last sentence of his Novelle “Das Urteil,” everybody would indeed reject such an interpretation as far-fetched. For Kafka said to Brod: “Do you know what the last sentence means? When I wrote it, I had in mind a violent ejaculation.”1 With these words Kafka explained the true meaning hidden under the reality of the image in the last sentence: “In diesem Augenblick ging über die Brücke ein geradezu unendlicher Verkehr.”2 The bridge is already mentioned in the sentences preceding the last, but the word “bridge” cannot contain the meaning “ejaculation,” either alone or in the context of the sentence; the first half of the sentence merely points to the simultaneousness of another event, the fall from the bridge; thus the remaining elements, the words unendlicher Verkehr must contain the meaning “violent ejaculation.”
The meaning “ejaculation” per se is obviously represented in the German word Verkehr, denoting both vehicular traffic and sexual intercourse. The essential point is that the literal...
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SOURCE: “The Literature of Truth: Kafka's “Judgment,” in Kafka and the Literature of Truth, 1965, pp. 4–22.
[In the following essay, Greenberg provides a psychoanalytic reading of “The Judgment” and deems the novella as “the true starting point of his work.”]
Reality's dark dream! Coleridge
Kafka's imagination is a “psychoanalytic” one. Not because he studied Freud but because he grasped intuitively the split in the self and the struggle of the unacknowledged part against the public part. The single images unfolded in his dream narratives reveal the primitively literal at the heart of the abstract. Of all his stories “The Judgment” furnishes perhaps the clearest demonstration of his psychoanalytic vision—clearest because least complicated by other considerations. The true starting point of his work, it is primarily a psychological story; although even here, at the start, his utterly simple images seem to suggest an unlimited depth of significance and not only psychological depth.
The image that “The Judgment” unfolds is one of paternal condemnation and execution; it is the story of a father's sentencing his son to death. The essential metaphor of the story is contained in the title, “Das Urteil.” “Urteil” (like the English “judgement”) has both the literal (“primitive”)...
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SOURCE: “Coherence in Kafka's ‘The Judgment’: Georg's Perceptions of the World,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. IX, No. 1, Winter, 1972, pp. 59–79.
[In the following essay, Pondrom asserts that “The Judgment” possesses “an astounding integration through which virtually every detail is coherently significant, and the various levels of the story (mythic, psychological, metaphysical, literal) interact without contradiction.”]
One of the fundamentals of Kafka criticism is that there are many ways to interpret the same literary construction: it is part of Kafka's genius—and the eternal frustration of the critic—that all these different interpretations often seem to work equally well. In the case of “The Judgment,” however, we can support one interpretation, besides the literal, in particular detail. In fact, one may proceed with an analysis as minute as the explication de texte of a symbolic lyric poem. Such an analysis shows that far from being a “failure” in which image, aphorism, and plot do not cohere,1 “The Judgment” possesses an astounding integration through which virtually every detail is coherently significant, and the various levels of the story (mythic, psychological, metaphysical, literal) interact without contradiction. This interpretation does not demand that we leave the text for biography. Although the details of Kafka's own life give...
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SOURCE: “‘The Judgment’,” in Franz Kafka: A Collection of Criticism, edited by Leo Hamalian, McGraw-Hill, 1974, pp. 45–9.
[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1972, Thorlby links the protagonist of “The Judgment,” Georg Bendemann, to Kafka himself.]
[Kafka's first] and apparently harmless meeting [with Felice Bauer] took place on 13 August 1912; but a few days later Kafka recorded the occasion in his diary, concluding his sharp, unflattering description of her appearance with the words: “As I was sitting down I looked at her for the first time more carefully, and when I was seated I had already an unshakeable judgment” [“hatte ich schon ein unerschütterliches Urteil”].
How fateful that look was, and how ambiguous that clear judgment! Was it a judgment on her or on himself? Earlier in the diary entry he remarks against himself how alienated he felt “from everything good in its entirety”; and the first masterpiece Kafka wrote, having the title “The Judgment,” deals with the fatal consequences—to himself—of a young man's announcement of his engagement in a letter. Two days before Kafka composed this story during a single night of unprecedented inspiration, he had written for the first time to Felice Bauer.
Of this composition, which was to remain Kafka's favorite, partly because of the compelling power with...
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SOURCE: “The Pathos of Fatherhood,” in The Problem of “The Judgment”: Eleven Approaches to Kafka's Story, edited by Angel Flores, Gordian Press, 1977, pp. 168-92.
[In the following essay, Flores analyzes the theme of isolation in “The Judgment” and the relationship of father and son in the novella.]
Kafka's story “The Judgment” has been analyzed so often and in such scrupulous detail it would seem not a word has been left unexamined. There is, however, one word that so far as I know has been neglected, as if it held no significance; and lest it be overlooked I should like to accord it the consideration given most other words in this story. That word is “alone”.
“Alone—” Georg Bendemann says to his bride-to-be of his bachelor friend in Russia, “do you know what that means?”
Georg Bendemann is evidently a man sensitive to what it means to be alone. He hesitates to invite his friend to his wedding out of fear that his loneliness in his exile might be intensified by attending this event celebrating the end of his own aloneness amidst his old friends in his native surroundings. He worries about the loneliness of his friend in the vastness of that foreign country where he has no contact with either the natives or the colony of his compatriots there. He seems to miss him, noting the lameness of his excuses for returning home so rarely; yet...
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SOURCE: “The Kafka Problem Compounded: Trial and “Judgment” in Modern Fiction Studies, 1977, pp. 511–29.
[In the following essay, Hobson reviews incorrect translations of “The Judgment” and speculates on its effect on Kafka criticism.]
Franz Kafka is no stranger to college-educated Americans. If they miss him in World Literature classes, they meet him in a psychology, philosophy, or religion course. Recently, literature-in-translation courses offered by foreign language departments have opened new avenues for Kafka into the curriculum and new markets for Kafka-in-translation texts. Witness a complete line of new and provocatively styled Kafka volumes produced by Schocken Books, which appeared on the shelves of paperback bookstores in 1974. It was the use of these editions in a Kafka-in-translation course which sparked the present undertaking. Since German is my native language, I prepared assignments in the original and then in the English text used by the class. When I first noticed discrepancies in the bilingual edition of the “Letter to his Father,” I was genuinely surprised. As bilingual reading progressed, mistranslations began to accumulate. Inevitably, the incorrect English version skewed the students' interpretations, and they had to be corrected. Soon they suspected particularly enigmatic passages as possibly resulting from mistranslation. Learning to distrust the printed...
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SOURCE: “The Familiar Friend: A Freudian Approach to Kafka's ‘The Judgment’,” in Literature and Psychology, Vol. 27, No. 4, 1977, pp. 164–73.
[In the following essay, Levine applies the Freudian principles of dream-analysis to Kafka's “The Judgment.”]
I propose to treat “The Judgment” as a dream, applying to it Freudian principles of dream-analysis. Accordingly, I shall insist that such dream mechanisms as disguise, displacement, reversal, and secondary revision are at work in the story. This approach is valuable, I believe, because it illuminates an important cluster of meaning—Georg's sexual predicament—and because it offers coherent explanations for a number of puzzling moments that previous criticism has either ignored or, in my opinion, explained unsatisfactorily.1
Before beginning the dream-analysis, I feel it necessary to justify this Freudian approach. Kafka, in one diary entry, refers to “my talent for portraying my dreamlike inner life.”2 Indeed, he had the energy and the courage to hold on to thoughts from the unconscious so that he might memorably depict what we others allow to recede into the comfortable darkness of oblivion. His comments about writing “The Judgment” imply that it contains much dreamlike inner life: he records that the story emerged from him “like a real birth, covered with filth and slime,”3...
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SOURCE: “Perspectives and Truth in ‘The Judgment,’”1 in The Problem of “The Judgment”: Eleven Approaches to Kafka's Story, edited by Angel Flores, Gordian Press, 1977, pp. 193-237.
[In the following essay, Sokel views the protagonist of the novella, Georg, and his unnamed friend living in Russia as representations of Kafka's personal struggles.]
“The Judgment,” the work of Kafka's “breakthrough” of September 1912, is thematically, i.e., in terms of mythos or plot content, a continuation of his earliest extant work, “Description of a Struggle” (1904-05). In the frame story of that work, an engaged young man comes to grief under the influence of a bachelor. In the inner story, the Fat Man is separated from the girl he dates by the appearance of a weird, solitary figure, the Praying Man. He comes under the latter's spell and is subsequently drowned—a striking anticipation of Georg Bendemann's fate. Six years after “Description of a Struggle,” in a diary entry of July 1910, Kafka describes an encounter between a party-going, socially “engaged” young man, who is the narrator, and a hideously pathetic bachelor in whom the narrator anticipates a perilous eventuality for his own development. The threat of drowning appears here as an analogy to the bachelor's dangerous clutch on the narrator. “The Judgment” carries this theme farther. Here the engaged protagonist,...
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SOURCE: “Guilt and the Feeling of Guilt,” in The Problem of “The Judgment”: Eleven Approaches to Kafka's Story, edited by Angel Flores, Gordian Press, 1977, pp. 114-32.
[In the following essay, Stern explores the role of guilt in Kafka's “The Judgment” and discusses autobiographical aspects of the story.]
“The Judgment” is one of the few stories Kafka was proud of having written and continued to find satisfactory; with it begins the work of his maturity. It was composed in the night from September 22 to 23, 1912, and published later that year. It is dedicated to “F”, Felice Bauer, whom Kafka had met for the first time that summer; the peculiar irony of the dedication is patent to any reader.
I have chosen it for interpretation for three closely connected reasons. First, as an outstanding and outstandingly clear example of the way Kafka draws autobiographical material into his fictions.1 An interpretation of the story should therefore illuminate one side of his literary undertaking, the other side of which is the fictionalizing of his autobiographical and private writings. Secondly, the story is characteristic of a preoccupation central to the overwhelming majority of his writings and patent in their titles—his preoccupation with guilt, punishment, and the law according to which these are connected and assessed. It is, clearly,...
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SOURCE: “A Fairy-Tale Motif in Kafka's ‘The Judgment’,” in The International Fiction Review, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1979, pp. 118–20.
[In the following essay, Fickert discusses the theme of the two brothers—the good brother and bad brother—in “The Judgment,” maintaining that the motif is borrowed from the fairy-tale genre.]
Franz Kafka claimed that he wanted to write fairy tales, but couldn't.1 Nevertheless, the element of magic, the occurrence of the inexplicable, which prevails in fairy tales, has a prominent place in Kafka's fiction, and occasionally motifs are directly borrowed from the Märchen. The appearance of a brother and sister (she is Grete) in “Metamorphosis,” for instance, points unequivocally to one of the most famous stories in the Grimms' Kinder- und Hausmärchen. Less ambiguously employed and more pertinent to the development of the plot is the fairy-tale topos of the two brothers which figures in “The Judgment.”
This motif may be the oldest one of all in the genre.2 It quickly became ubiquitous in fairy tales and gained prominence on at least two occasions: as the frame story in the Sinbad cycle and as one of the Grimm brothers' fund, prototypically called “The Two Brothers.” This version has two pairs of brothers; one pair, serving to introduce the principal events of the story, establishes the dichotomy which...
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SOURCE: “Why Read Kafka?” in Modern Language Review, Vol. 76, No. 2, 1981, pp. 357–66.
[In the following essay, Swales rejects biographical, philosophical, and theological interpretations of “The Judgment,” maintaining that Kafka's story should be examined within a strict framework.]
In The Observer of Sunday, 23 July 1978, the television critic Clive James produced a splendidly trenchant onslaught on Ken Russell's two-part film about Wordsworth and Coleridge. In the process, he makes the following observation:
Apart from outright hysteria, the highest common factor uniting Ken Russell's films about great art is the way you never get any idea of the great artist sitting down to work. One of the things that make great artists great is their capacity to escape the confines of their personal lives and speak for us all. But in Ken's view a great artist's art is always just his personality intensified. Brave, committed and adventurous though he be, Ken is essentially a scandalmonger.1
The point Clive James makes is a deeply serious one: that great art has the ability so to objectify and to make public property the particular concerns and idiosyncrasies of the artist that private vision becomes public statement. This is a general principle, of course. But nowhere is it more vigorously at issue than in the case of...
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SOURCE: “‘The Judgment,’ ‘Letter to His Father,’ and the Bourgeois Family,” in Reading Kafka: Prague, Politics, and the Fin de Siècle, edited by Mark Anderson, Schocken Books, 1989, pp. 215–28.
[In the following essay, Neumann investigates Kafka's upbringing and defining themes as found in his “Letter to His Father” and “The Judgment.”]
Kafka's experience of his own identity in writing “The Judgment” exemplifies a contradiction that, as the French philosopher Jacques Derrida has shown, has formed an explicit part of European culture and its essential discursivity at least since Rousseau—the contradiction between writing as a liberating act that expresses the individual's particular identity (Eigentümlichkeit) and writing as a form of enslavement to the disciplinary norms of a society in which even a schoolboy learns to measure his identity in terms of the ability to write correctly. Traces of Kafka's traumatic experiences with the bourgeois educational system can be found throughout his work, perhaps most poignantly in his autobiographical sketch “Every human being is peculiar …” (Dearest Father 201-6 [hereafter abbreviated as DF]) and in the later “Letter to His Father.” One symptom of a reversal of the writing ritual from emancipatory act into forced confession is the letter of November 16, 1912, that Kafka's mother wrote to Felice Bauer. In...
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SOURCE: “Georg Bendemann's Path to Judgment,” in Approaches to Teaching Kafka's Short Fiction, edited by Richard T. Gray, The Modern Language Association of America, 1995, pp. 94–104.
[In the following essay, Trahan offers a stylistic and thematic analysis of “The Judgment.”]
“The Judgment” and “The Metamorphosis” are the two short works teachers most frequently select to introduce students to Kafka's world. The stories complement each other. “The Metamorphosis” immediately confronts the reader with the intrusion of a fantastic element on everyday reality, then shows how the various characters come to terms with the consequences and return to normalcy. “The Judgment,” after a conventional beginning, accelerates toward a grotesque and highly irrational climax. Because the story begins so “normally,” its strange ending tends to leave the reader puzzled and discomfited. The following approach has proved very successful with students who read “The Judgment” as an introduction to Kafka.
When asked for first impressions, my students tended to compare the story to a nightmare that follows its own dreamlike logic and therefore cannot be analyzed. Pressed further, they agreed that the story's main theme is a father-son relationship, but some saw it as the tragedy of a dutiful son who is destroyed by a tyrannical and half-crazed father, while others read it as...
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Josipovici, Gabriel. “The Dream Fulfilled: Kafka's Search for His True Voice.” TLS (8 October 1993): 18-20.
Describes the circumstances under which “The Judgment” was written.
Additional coverage of Kafka's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 31; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 126; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors Module, Novelists Module; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 81; Major 20th-Century Writers, Editions 1–2; Novels for Students, Vol. 7; St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 5, 29, 35; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 3, 7; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 6, 13, 29, 47, 53; and World Literature Criticism.
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