Last Updated on October 19, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 610
Usually referred to by his last name alone, Ferdinand Kugler is the main character of Karel Capek’s “The Last Judgment.” This brief short story follows Kugler’s death and subsequent judgments by a panel of three human judges who determine his eternal fate. Based on the immoral and sinful nature of his earthly doings, the judges determine that Kugler shall spend eternity suffering in hell. The criminal died before he could face justice on earth, but he does not escape it entirely.
As God regales the judges with the details of the defendant’s life, he offers insights into the criminal’s character. From an early age, Kugler was difficult. He was a petulant, uncompromising child who struggled to express his emotions and communicated through rage and defiance. Moreover, his early behavioral imbalances led him to substance abuse and petty crimes, which soon spiraled into murder and violence. These abhorrent acts are slightly tempered by an array of kind deeds, as no one is entirely evil. Indeed, as God explains, the defendant has several good traits. He loved his mother, treated animals and women kindly, and occasionally helped others.
Kugler is eager to hear God’s assessment of his life and asks many questions. Despite his actions, he seems to be a nostalgic person who wistfully longs for the past. While the story is relatively short, Capek uses its brief pages to indicate the complexity of men, relying on God’s omniscience to explain the multi-faceted nature of even the worst criminals.
A panel of three judges presides over Kugler’s trial; their verdict determines the sentence his eternal soul might face. While the judges may seem cold and callous, their verdict and decision-making process resemble the human courts they once oversaw. Their task is formulaic and dehumanizing, and they are uninterested in anything beyond the scope of the defendant's guilt. Though they base their decisions on the observations of God, whose omniscience allows him unique insight into the truth of one’s soul, they focus on one’s sins and misdoings.
Unlike God, their judgments are based on facts alone. The trio ignores complexity and rejects nuance, blind to circumstance and causality. For example, they do not care that Kugler’s childhood theft of a rose was out of love; they only care that he stole it. It is a pragmatic viewpoint and, as God points out, a necessarily human one. In the end, their clear, uncompromising gaze unanimously asserts Kugler’s guilt; they unceremoniously condemn him to hell, then quickly move to the next soul. The judges are efficient machines, unswayed by empathy or compassion. Indeed, their single-mindedness and clear-cut sense of justice is the necessary force that powers the fair distribution of souls in the next life.
Capek grants God a voice and personality in his short story, figuring him as an empathetic and loving divinity who, due to his omniscience, cannot take responsibility for the judgment of men. He sees all and, as such, cannot judge. Perfect understanding becomes a weakness, as it inhibits him from finding fault or blame. God considers motive and cares about the reasons that motivate crime and sin. In the example of the stolen rose, he weighs Kugler’s desire to please the little girl he gifted it to alongside the crime itself. His is a more nuanced perspective, open to both the good and bad in a person’s character. Yet, men cannot be judged in this manner, as it misrepresents life on earth and mankind’s draw to the negative; man is judged by man alone, on earth as in the next life.