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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 568

“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.

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Principal Works