Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 748

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Kafka’s letters to Felice are important in several ways. First, they are interesting to the reader as a documentation of one of the more complex and tormented romantic relationships of this century. The vicissitudes of the relationship between Kafka and Felice present a painful and compelling story.

The correspondence is more important, however, as an adjunct to Kafka’s fiction, in that it documents the kinds of psychological pressures he was experiencing while he composed some of his greatest works. In certain respects, the letters themselves could be considered great literature. A brief critical discussion of The Judgment will reveal the ways in which the letters to Felice relate to the larger context of Kafka’s literary works. The Judgment is dedicated to Felice Bauer and reveals in fictional guise the conscious and unconscious emotions that that relationship unleashed in the author. The story represents a kind of fictional commentary on the letters themselves.

The Judgment is the story of Georg Bendemann, a young man who has recently become engaged to a woman named Frieda Brandenfeld. His mother is deceased, and he has taken over the family business from his infirm father, who lives in one of the apartment’s back rooms. His life seems to be going in a positive direction, and at the beginning of the text he is writing a letter to an old friend who lives, alone and without friends, in Russia. His friend’s life there has been rather dismal, and Georg has been reluctant to tell him of his good fortune. His fiancee, Frieda, does not approve of his friend and has told Georg that he should not have become engaged if he wishes to have such friends. He finishes the letter and goes to see his father.

When Georg attempts to put the sickly old man to bed, the father is suddenly healthy and strong and begins to denounce his now-cowering son for being a deceitful and devilish human being. The father claims that he has been in secret communication with Georg’s friend for years and that they are united in their rejection of Georg’s deceit and hypocrisy. The father then condemns Georg to death, and Georg rushes out and throws himself in the river.

Kafka wrote the story in one sitting, with, as he later noted in his diary, ecstatic feelings of release and creative abandon. This dreamlike story was clearly an emotional catharsis as well as an artistic breakthrough. Although as enigmatic as a dream, The Judgment reveals its symbolic meaning when interpreted psychoanalytically in the context of Kafka’s relationship with Felice.

The initials of Frieda Brandenfeld refer to Felice Bauer. The key to the text, however, is the intimate connection between Georg and his friend in Russia. They are both projections of Kafka’s divided self, a structural pattern that occurs in much of Kafka’s fiction and his letters. The friend represents the author’s true ascetic and artistic self, committed to a creative life of monklike solitude and introspection. Georg is that side of Kafka that the world—his family and Felice—expected of him, a successful bourgeois man about to be married and ready to rear his own family. That was the aspect of himself that Kafka believed was false, an elaborate facade presented to others. That he considered this part to be false is suggested by the fact that the father has been in secret communication with the true self and that they both condemn Georg for his deceit. Frieda even implies an insight into his hypocrisy when she says that Georg should not have such friends if he intends to wed. The two selves are clearly incompatible.

What is astonishing here is that Kafka clearly realized (on some level)—two days after his first letter to Felice—that his attempt to wed this woman would be doomed to failure, and it was. The judgment of the father in this story—that Georg is a deceitful individual—is in part an expression of the guilt that Kafka must have felt in initiating this correspondence with a woman he knew he could never marry.

The so-called biographical fallacy notwithstanding, it is clear that Kafka’s creative output was closely related to events in his personal life and that Letters to Felice is an indispensable resource for any serious student of Kafka. Any readings of the fiction from this period would lose a meaningful dimension of interpretation without consideration of these letters.