Summary

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 367

In this short story, a man named Ferdinand Kugler has died, and now it is time for him to face his final judgment, which will either allow him into heaven or condemn him to hell. He has killed nine people in his life, and he was actually killed by his ninth victim, a police officer, who died from injuries that Kugler inflicted.

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His judges are "old and worthy councilors with austere, bored faces": human men not unlike judges Kugler has encountered on earth. Kugler enters a "not guilty" plea, and God, who is omniscient, is called to the stand as a witness. God reveals all the murderous deeds that Kugler committed during his life, but the judges stop God from "mention[ing] [Kugler's] good deeds . . ." God briefly reveals that Kugler could be generous, and he often helped others. He was typically kind to women and animals, and he was true to his word.

When the judges leave the room to deliberate and decide his fate, God explains that the judges are people, like Kugler, and they were judges on earth. Kugler expresses his surprise that God himself is not the judge, especially since God knows everything. God explains that it is because he knows everything that he "can't possible judge." He says that "man belongs to man," and that God is only the witness to everything that humans do. Further, God says, humans are not worthy of divine judgment and only deserve to be judged by other human beings.

When Kugler mentions a man he thinks he killed, a man that God forgot to count in God's tally, God explains that the man lived and that he's a very good man, despite his evident faults. God cautions Kugler, saying that Kugler should not think of anyone as "completely worthless." It is perhaps for this reason that God himself is only the witness and not the judge: because he sees the good and the bad in everyone, he might be inclined to be merciful—more merciful than other humans, who tend to see the bad alone (like the judges who do not want to hear about Kugler's good deeds). In the end, the judges condemn Kugler to hell.

Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 565

Ferdinand Kugler dies in a gunfight with a police officer. Numerous warrants for his arrest are outstanding, and at the time of his death, he is a fugitive from an army of police officers and detectives. In Heaven, an overworked network of courts faces the chaotic task of delineating which souls will be allowed to remain and which will be sentenced to Hell. As a result of the number and severity of his crimes, Kugler must wait an indeterminate period until his case can be judged. For the same reason, his case is reserved for a special panel of three judges rather than a jury.

The defendant must state his name, occupation, and the dates of his birth and death. Kugler’s inability to remember the date of his death bodes poorly with the judges, intensifying his own naturally contentious attitude. Without further formalities, the presiding judge summons the sole witness in Kugler’s case: God. Before God testifies, the presiding judge explains why God need not swear the oath and then instructs him to avoid particulars that have no legal bearing on the case. The judge also warns Kugler against interrupting the witness, pointing out that it would be useless to deny any part of God’s testimony.

God begins with a brief statement on Kugler’s unruliness as a child. The defendant’s first crime was his failure to express his love for his mother. When God describes Kugler’s first act of larceny—stealing a rose from the notary’s garden before he was ten—Kugler recalls having stolen the flower to give to a young girl, Irma, the daughter of the tax collector. The witness satisfies Kugler’s curiosity about Irma’s fate, explaining how she went on to marry the son of the man who owned the factory that employed Kugler’s father. The witness adds that Irma contracted a venereal disease from her husband and subsequently died of a miscarriage.

Despite the presiding judge’s persistent reminders to avoid such digressions, Kugler is irrepressibly curious as to the outcomes of the lives he touched. He discovers how his family suffered for his crimes. He was a drunkard and runaway by fourteen, bringing the dishonor to his home that would force his father to die of grief, and his pretty sister, Martika, to live a poverty-stricken life and remain unmarried.

The testimony goes down the list of Kugler’s murders. The defendant is often genuinely surprised by the resonance of his actions, at times remorseful, and at others amazed. After an accounting of Kugler’s murders is finished, the judge asks the witness to explain the defendant’s motives. “For the same reasons others do,” is his response, “From anger, from greed, deliberately and by chance.”

After Kugler turns down his only opportunity to speak in his defense, the judges withdraw to make their decision, leaving him alone with God. Kugler takes advantage of their absence to ask God several questions. God explains that the judges were also judges on earth, making Kugler wonder why God himself takes no part in passing judgments. God explains that because he knows everything, it would be impossible for him to judge, adding that “the only justice people deserve is human justice.”

After the judges return, the presiding judge pronounces Kugler guilty and sentences him to Hell. He then summarily calls the next case.

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