Franz Kafka Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Franz Kafka’s stories are not about love or success. They do not leave the reader feeling comfortable. Writing was, for him, a necessity. On August 6, 1914, Kafka wrote in his diary: “My talent for portraying my dreamlike inner life has thrust all other matters into the background; my life has dwindled dreadfully, nor will it cease to dwindle. Nothing else will ever satisfy me.” The meaning of the images from his dreamlike inner life was not always clear to him at the time of writing. Sometimes he realized only several years later what he may have subconsciously meant. Toward the end of his life, he decided that psychoanalysis was a waste of time and abandoned that approach in retrospective reading. Critics may not be of the same opinion.

“The Judgment”

Kafka wrote “Das Urteil” (“The Judgment”) in one sitting through the night of September 22-23, 1912. It was an eminently satisfying experience, the only one of his works that he said came out of him like a birth. When he sat down to write, he had intended to depict a war scene. Then, the story took its own direction, and when he finished, early in the morning, he was not sure what it meant. He knew only that it was good.

In the course of “The Judgment,” the main character, Georg Bendemann, experiences a complete reversal in his plans. At the outset, he announces his engagement to Frieda Brandenfeld. At the end, he commits suicide. The transition from good news to bad and the descent from normalcy into apparent madness are subtly accomplished. With hindsight, one can see that warning signs are held up all the way. Yet none of these signs is in itself shocking enough to alienate the reader. Only their cumulative effect is overwhelming. Kafka’s stories wield their powerful influence over the reader’s mood by always remaining plausible. While never losing the semblance of logical reportage, Kafka creates scenes of horror, which both spring from and give rise to psychological suffering. Anything resembling such scenes has come to be called “Kafkaesque.”

Kafka writes metaphorically, letting characters, actions, and objects represent emotional and psychological states. Thus, the works are understood best not as narrative advancing a plot but in terms of the protagonist’s attempts to transcend absurdity, depersonalization, and alienation. There is a strong autobiographical element in all the stories.

Most critics equate Georg Bendemann with Kafka, and Georg’s father with Kafka’s father. The issue to be dealt with, then, is why the father would violently oppose the son’s engagement to a woman from a well-to-do family. To accept that, one has to subscribe to an inverse standard. Kate Flores interprets this aspect of “The Judgment” in an anthropological way, explaining that for precivilized man it was an act of insubordination to supplant the dominant male. Certainly, “The Judgment” does contain elements of a primal struggle. Also consistent with this reading is the father’s tenacious hold on Georg’s watch chain, as if to halt the inexorable advance of time and the aging process. There is also the fact that Kafka’s father did indeed deride one of his engagements, although at a much later date than when “The Judgment” was written.

Kafka’s stories support many interpretations. It is important, when reading “The Judgment,” that one not concentrate on the apparent polarity of father and son to the exclusion of the curious figure of the friend in Russia, to whom the first third of the story is devoted. In fact, preposterous though it may seem, the most comprehensive reading results from considering all three male figures—the friend in Russia, Georg Bendemann, and his father—to be different aspects of the same person, namely Kafka. It is significant that only one name is provided.

The friend in Russia immediately becomes associated with writing, because Georg has been writing to him for years. This association is reinforced when the father, surprisingly, also claims to have been writing to the friend. After Georg has brought up the matter of an engagement on three separate occasions, the friend in Russia responds by showing some interest, but as with his emotionless reaction to the death of Georg’s mother, the friend’s interest in human affairs seems perfunctory. He has few social contacts, has let his business slide, and seems to be in a general state of ill health and decline. His life has dwindled dreadfully. This identifies him with Kafka the writer.

Georg Bendemann’s business seems to have been operating in inverse proportions to that of his friend in Russia. It is thriving, and he has recently become engaged. The thriving business and the engagement go hand in hand in “The Judgment.” Both are traditionally recognized outward signs of success. Kafka, at the time of writing “The Judgment,” was already a successful lawyer, well established in his firm and becoming interested in Felice Bauer, who seems to be represented in the story by her close namesake, Frieda Brandenfeld. Frieda makes a remark to Georg that, on the surface, is very puzzling. She tells him that since he has friends such as the one in Russia, he should never have gotten engaged. This is the warning sign that either Frieda or the friend in Russia will have to go. The application to Kafka’s life seems clear: Either Felice or the writing will have to go.

The most interesting and complex of the three male figures is the father. While appearing to oppose Georg, the older man can, in this case, actually be relied on to say what Georg wants to hear. Faced with the irreconcilable conflict between loyalty to his longtime friend in Russia and loyalty to his new fiancé, Georg finds himself inexplicably going to his father’s room, where he has not been for some time. The sunlight is blocked by a wall, the father is surrounded by ancient newspapers, and the window is shut. It is a trip into the dark and the past, which is sealed off from the outside world. The father represents the subconscious. He is also the progenitor, and he is still, despite some deceptive signs of senility, the figure of authority.

The father’s first remark, which points beyond the frame of the surface story, is his question of whether Georg really has a friend in St. Petersburg. What the father really seems to be asking is whether the friend can continue to be called a friend when he has been so neglected. Georg at this point is still inclined to decide in favor of Frieda and an outwardly successful life, so he endeavors to quell the troubling reference to his friend by carrying his father from the dark out into the light and then covering him up, thereby forcibly suppressing the question of the friend.

Contrary to Georg’s intent, this results in the father’s exploding into action. In an extraordinarily dramatic scene, he hurls off the blankets, leaps to his feet, and, standing upright on the bed and kicking, denounces Georg’s plans for marriage and accuses him of playing the false friend all these years. Georg realizes that he should be on his guard against attack but then forgets again and stands defenseless before his father.

The father’s second remark that seems rather incredible in terms of the surface story is that the friend in Russia has not been betrayed after all, because he, the father, has also been writing to him all along and representing him. Suppressed talents are only strengthened in the subconscious. The father now unquestionably has the upper hand and pronounces his judgment over Georg: He was an innocent child, but he has been a devilish human being. Presumably, it was during childhood that Georg cultivated the friend now in Russia. As an adult, getting ever more into business and thoughts of marriage, Georg has been devilish by denying his true self, the writer. The father finishes by sentencing Georg to death by drowning. To drown is to be plunged into the creative element.

Georg confirms the validity of his father’s verdict by carrying out the sentence. It is important for the reader to remember that as the father crashes on the bed exhausted, the subconscious having asserted itself, and as Georg lets himself fall from the bridge, effectively ending the business career and the engagement, it is the formerly faded and foreign true self, the writer, who remains. Thus, what seems on first reading to be a horror story of insanity and suicide is actually not a disaster at all but an exercise in self-preservation. No sooner had Kafka become romantically involved with Felice than he had worked out subconsciously how detrimental such a relationship would be to his career as a writer. With such personal material, it is no wonder the writer in Kafka felt inspired to finish “The Judgment” in one sitting. Ironically, his conscious mind was at that point still so far behind the insights of the subconscious that he dedicated...

(The entire section is 3655 words.)