Franz Kafka The Judgment Essay - Critical Essays

The Judgment, Franz Kafka

Introduction

“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.

Major Themes

“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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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

Criticism

Karl H. Ruhleder (essay date 1963)

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.]

1.

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 meaning in the context of an action which takes place in the business world of this century contains a meaning which leads into a completely different sphere of human life. And we must, therefore, recognize that the word Verkehr possesses the basic quality of a symbol, namely two different meanings which are of equal importance to the reader. We know about its real and literal meaning: it pictures a concrete problem of modern cities. But what is the universal meaning this word stands for? Ejaculation. Kafka says no more, and it is up to us to discover the universal meaning of the symbol and of the Novelle by connecting the meaning of other words which conceal their symbolic power.3

The universal meaning cannot be inferred from the last sentence alone. But the word stands in a sentence which follows the carrying out of a sentence of death, so that the simultaneousness of the ejaculation and the fall to death call to mind Hanns Heinz Ewers' novel Alraune,4 where the condemned person suffers an ejaculation in the moment immediately preceding his death. The semen then procreates Alraune in the womb of the prostitute. Both representations have in common the motif of ejaculation immediately before the condemned one meets his death. But did Kafka intend to indicate in our Novelle that the water is about to be impregnated, the water which Bendemann touches split seconds later? The literary prototype of this scene provides more information: Hesiod reports that the semen of Uranus, who had been emasculated, engendered Venus, the Goddess of Love, with the water. Hesiod, too, reports a sentence of death, for the reign of Uranus was thereby ended at the hands of his son Cronus.5

What these three representations have in common is the element of involuntary procreation in a moment when punishment is being carried out. Ewers creates by means of artificial insemination a female who personifies love. The scars on the inside of the upper parts of her thighs point to a kind of pre-existence as a mermaid. In Hesiod's and Kafka's passages, the sperm is conceived by the water, and this fact lends the word Verkehr (intercourse/traffic) a more definite meaning in its connection with the simultaneousness of the infliction of punishment through the fall into the water: the universal meaning of the symbol seems to be the imminent procreation with the water, the imminent procreation of a love about whose qualities we cannot say anything at this moment.

Our definition of the symbolic meaning of the word Verkehr rests predominantly on Hesiod's report of the birth of Aphrodite, for this report is indeed the prototype of the central problem of our Novelle: the rebellion of the son (Cronus) against the father (Uranus). The central scene of the Novelle, the conversation between father and son, gives a description of the father in which the prototype Uranus is easily recognized, for it is modeled after Hesiod's report as well as representations in the pictorial arts. Kafka writes: “‘Nein!’ rief der Vater, … warf die Decke zurück mit einer Kraft, daβ sie einen Augenblick im Fluge sich ganz entfaltete, und stand aufrecht im Bett. Nur eine Hand hielt er leicht an den Plafond.” (S. 62) Although there are only a few traces of Uranus in the pictorial arts, some of the representations show him holding his garment in an arc over his head, the way the father holds the blanket in our Novelle, completely expanded and floating in the air.6 But Hesiod's report of the emasculation, too, is mentioned in the Novelle when the father says: “‘… weil sie die Röcke so gehoben hat, die widerliche Gans,’ und er hob, um das darzustellen, sein Hemd so hoch, daβ man auf seinem Oberschenkel die Narbe aus seinen Kriegsjahren sah” (S. 63). Although the passage does not describe the act of emasculation, the scar unequivocally alludes to it. The wound itself was obviously inflicted before this time; now it is cicatrized. But the remark about the Kriegsjahre alludes to the old war of the generations, the struggle between Uranus and Cronus.

The image of Uranus in the center of our Novelle makes us recognize that the symbol at its end—Verkehr-Ejakulation—is closely connected with its center and Hesiod's report as well. Its meaning is indeed the impregnation of the water, and we must assume that a new love is to be created, a new love possessing the quality of Aphrodite.

2.

Consequently the central theme of our Novelle is that of the revolt of the son (Cronus) against the father (Uranus). In our interpretation of the central scene, we can therefore agree neither with Claude-Edmonde Magny nor Kate Flores. Mme. Magny's analysis proceeds from the assumption that the father is insane and that his verdict fully confirms this assumption.7 Mme. Flores, on the other hand, bases her interpretation predominantly on the “Letter to My Father,” and she writes: “Kafka deified his father, his supreme authority and goal.”8 The first of these interpretations asserts the progressive senilization, the second the deification of father Kafka. The power of Kafka's symbolism remained concealed from both interpreters.—But what happens in the central scene?

The first scene in the central section reports Georg's attempt to persuade the father to change rooms with him. In the beginning we learn that relations between the father and Georg were for months limited almost exclusively to matters concerning the joint management of the business. In the office, however, nothing whatsoever hinted at the senile condition of the father as it is reported in the course of the meeting. Georg talks to him in a business-like tone and casually says: “Ich wollte dir eigentlich nur sagen, daβ ich nun doch nach Petersburg meine Verlobung angezeigt habe” (S. 58). In the beginning of the scene, the father still is the giant of a man he always was (S. 58); he is standing in the darkness and coolness of the room; then he solidly sits with his arms crossed, assuming an attitude of superiority (S. 58). The father's decrepitude is not seen and reported by Georg until the father asks: “Hast du wirklich diesen Freund in Petersburg?” (S. 59) This question is obviously unpleasant for Georg. To be sure, no doubt is thrown on the existence of the friend in Petersburg, for later in the story we learn that the father also corresponds with the friend, but doubt is thrown on the existence of the bond of friendship, and Georg is made to realize that he is different. The question itself triggers in Georg a flood of observations which seem to express his concern for the father. But if the reader carefully weighs the meaning of the following sentences: “Die Zimmer werden wir wechseln, du wirst ins Vorderzimmer ziehen, ich hierher. Es wird keine Veränderung für dich sein, alles wird mit übertragen werden” (S. 60), then he must concede that the extent of the change would indeed be enormous. For the intended coolness and the natural twilight9 in the father's room, which lend it an almost sacral atmosphere, could not be duplicated in Georg's room. The father would not only be deprived of the atmosphere of his room but of his implicit superiority as well. For the participle übertragen refers to some intangible entity, the soul of this room, and not to the transport of objects. A change of rooms would therefore result in Georg's taking over the position of his father.

The father ends the scene by saying only one word: “‘Georg,’ sagte der Vater leise, ohne Bewegung” (S. 60). This word seems to express neither support nor reproach; nevertheless Georg considers it a reproach, for it incites him to new deeds. He begins to undress his father, who is growing weaker and weaker and finally rests on Georg's breast, playing with his watch chain. “Ein schreckliches Gefühl hatte er [Georg], als er während der paar Schritte zum Bett hin merkte, daβ an seiner Brust der Vater mit seiner Uhrkette spielte. Er konnte ihn nicht gleich ins Bett legen, so fest hielt er sich an dieser Uhrkette.” (S. 61) Although the literal meaning of the passage seems to emphasize the senility of the father, the word Uhrkette is the key to the real meaning of the passage. For Kafka wants to point out that the watch is in Georg's pocket. This fact in turn makes us realize that Georg is playing the role of Cronus10 versus Uranus in this scene, that the old war of the generations is being enacted here when the father is placed in a position—he is lying in bed—in which the emasculation took place in the past. The scene is followed immediately by the representation of the father with the blanket hovering in the air (Uranus in the pictorial arts) and the allusion to the emasculation through the word Narbe. Both protagonist and antagonist are fully aware of the fact that they are playing an old role, for Georg as well as the father concede that they have been playing a comedy: “‘Komödiant!’ konnte sich Georg zu rufen nicht enthalten, erkannte sofort den Schaden und biβ, nur zu spät—die Augen erstarrt—in seine Zunge, daβ er vor Schmerz einknickte. ‘Ja, freilich habe ich Komödie gespielt!’” (S. 63)

The central scene, to be sure, does not portray a senile but an old father; the scene does of course not portray father Kafka but a God-Father. A long time ago he had been the victim of a rebellion of his son, and now he is suppressing a new rebellion which takes place in our century. And after this scene the meaning of the last image and its symbol—Verkehr-Ejakulation—becomes intelligible to everyone. For Georg-Cronus suffers in the sense of Dante's contrapasso,11 the modern form of the punishment (ejaculation) which had been executed on Uranus (emasculation). At that time as well as now, water is the conceiving element. And in consequent continuation of the analogy, we must arrive at the following definition of our symbol (Verkehr-Ejakulation in the moment of the fall from the bridge into the water); it means the creation of a new love whose qualities approximate those of Aphrodite.

3.

The logical dénouement of the scene of the rebellion against the God-Father is his verdict. It reads: “‘Und darum wisse: Ich verurteile dich jetzt zum Tode des Ertrinkens!’” (S. 65). “Und darum wisse” precedes the verdict as an anouncement. Its wording connects the verdict proper with the preceding sentence, which explains why the God-Father handed down his ruling: “‘Ein unschuldiges Kind warst du ja eigentlich, aber noch eigentlicher warst du ein teuflischer Mensch!’” (S. 65) The reason for the verdict is, then, the fact that Georg Bendemann is a human being who combines in himself the innocence of a child and something devilish. The use of the words unschuldig and teuflisch indicates that the action is being continued in a distinctly Christian sphere, and by using these words the...

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Martin Greenberg (essay date 1965)

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...

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Cyrena N. Pondrom (essay date 1972)

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...

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Anthony Thorlby (essay date 1972)

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”...

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Kate Flores (essay date 1977)

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...

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Irmgard Hobson (essay date 1977)

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...

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Robert T. Levine (essay date 1977)

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...

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Walter H. Sokel (essay date 1977)

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...

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J. P. Stern (essay date 1977)

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.]

1.

“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...

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Kurt Fickert (essay date 1979)

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...

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Martin Swales (essay date 1981)

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...

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Gerhard Neumann (essay date 1989)

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...

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Elizabeth W. Trahan (essay date 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 4951 words.)