Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Karel apek’s brief, simple tale is surprising in its reversal of conventional wisdom that it is for God alone, not humans, to judge. Presumably, the judicial system of apek’s Heaven is ultimately of God’s design. His apparent refusal to take more than a secondary role in judging souls presents a God who values impartiality as highly as mercy. It seems as though God’s assumed capacity for mercy would only lead him to violate his own code of sin and retribution. One might ask who better to judge than he who knows all? However, God’s all-knowing view seems to dictate that the strain of mercy would only contaminate the fair rationing of justice. He explains to Kugler that if the judges knew everything, they too would not be able to judge fairly: “They would understand everything, and their hearts would ache.”

Kugler’s crimes fall into two distinct categories, felonies and misdemeanors. The crimes of his youth hardly strike one as extraordinary or heinous. It is in maturity that he commits his numerous felonies. In fact, several of Kugler’s earlier crimes take their motives from basic human impulses or frailties, for which the average reader may feel sympathy. Although it is God’s place to tell the complete story, it is the judges’ to view the crimes and not the criminal. apek implies a kind of original-sin theory, suggesting that everyone is capable of the kind of misdemeanors that Kugler has committed, and that everyone is vulnerable to judgment. The number of Kugler’s felonies merely intensifies the question.

The judges’ disinterest in Kugler’s few good points presents them as less than impartial. Their desire is to keep their court running smoothly, to hear only about the defendants’ crimes, only those matters that have “a legal bearing on the case.” In his testimony, God discusses the good and evil sides of Kugler’s character, as though both aspects do indeed have a bearing on the case, but even he defers to the judges’ instructions. He finally explains, not without irony, that humans “deserve each other,” a sad note on human failure to make better use of the free will that he has given them.