The Judgment

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by Nathan Ernst

Published in 1913, “The Judgment” is a short story written by Franz Kafka. Among Kafka’s critics, it is often viewed as his “breakthrough” work, in which his unique literary style is fully revealed for the first time.[1] In the story, the titular judgment, which is pronounced over the main character, Georg Bendemann, by his father, is presented in a paradoxical manner that seemingly defies comprehension. Hence, “The Judgment” is one of the most analyzed and interpreted of Kafka’s stories: critics often remark upon its apparently chaotic mix of paradoxes, its expressionistic style of narration, and its strange mixture of the wonderful with the everyday.[2]

Composition of “The Judgment”

Kafka himself immediately recognized the importance of “The Judgment.” He penned the story in a single night, from December 22 to 23, 1912. Yet during this restricted period of composition, a near boundless excitement electrified him: the story was written, Kafka notes in his diary, "with a complete opening of body and soul,” under the “frightful exertion and pleasure of experiencing how [the story] developed right in front of me."[3] His diary relates the events of that night—the passing of a car, pains in his chest, the entry of the maid in the morning—in incredible detail. According to Kafka biographer Rainer Stach, Kafka’s enthusiastic view of the work, coupled with his detailed description of its creation, demonstrates its immense importance to him: this excitement contrasts markedly with the “despairingly uncertain” opinion he held of his earlier works.[4]

Georg Bendemann’s Letter to his Friend

“The Judgment” opens by describing a writing process that is, in contrast to the inspired process by which Kafka composed the story, tedious and uncertain. In the first scene, Georg Bendemann, the main character, having just finished writi
Franz Kafka
ng a letter to an unnamed friend in Russia, now mentally reviews the many doubts and considerations that plagued him during the letter’s composition.

Georg’s inner musings are presented here at great length in a passage of free indirect discourse, whereby the reader is filled in on the recent events in Georg’s life. Indeed, throughout the book, Georg’s thoughts and reflections are a main focus; since the narrated plot is scanty, most of the reader’s knowledge of events arises from the characters’ speech and thoughts. His friend, Georg recapitulates, had left for Russia in order to improve his business prospects, but is now fairing ill abroad: his business is declining, he lives in isolation among the foreigners, and his face, last seen by Georg three years ago during the friend’s visit home, is “so yellow as to indicate the presence of some latent illness."[5] Consequently, the composition of the letter is full of problems, for “What could one write to such a man, who had obviously run off the rails, a man one could be sorry for, but could not help?” (55).

In carefully considering—or perhaps over-thinking—the intricacies of the dilemma, Georg reaches one of the impasses common in Kafka’s works. Despite his friend’s miserable position, Georg does not want to ask him to come home, for such a request could embarrass his friend by drawing attention to his failure; his friend, embittered by the implied criticism, might decide to remain in Russia and cut off the friendship. And even the friend’s return might be undesirable, insofar as it could prove burdensome to both his acquaintances at home and the friend himself. Therefore, Georg had decided not to tell his friend of the many important events that had occurred since the friend’s last visit, such as the death of Georg’s mother, Georg’s great success in business, and his engagement to the well-off Frieda Bradenfield; instead, Georg had filled up the letter with inconsequential gossip. But Georg was pressed by his fiancée, with whom he had often discussed the friend, to announce his engagement, so he finally informed his friend of the upcoming wedding in his letter. Georg’s extended indirect discourse accordingly ends with a short excerpt from the actual letter, in which he announces his engagement, and cautiously invites his friend to his wedding.

Georg and his Father: A Complicated Relationship

The second half of “The Judgment” concerns the relationship between Georg and his father, and is characterized by sharp oscillations in the relation between the two characters, so that the very truths of the story appear to reverse themselves several times. Georg enters his father’s room in order to inform his father of his decision to announce his engagement to the friend abroad. His father, however, who claims to be sick and senile, denies the existence of Georg’s friend. Thinking his father’s age has affected his memory, Georg promises his father that he will take better care of him in the future, and he tries jogging his father’s memory by summarizing the friend’s bloody tales of the Russian Revolution, and by reminding him, “you used not to like [the friend] very much” (61). Finally, Georg carries his father to his bed, thinking it will be better for his health (61). Behind this apparently caring familial relationship, however, a disconcerting ambivalence lurks. For instance, Georg has trouble meeting his father’s eye during their conversation, and his father appears not as a sickly invalid, but as a “huge” man whom Georg can carry only with difficulty (59-63).

The story reverses when Georg’s father asks his son whether he, the father, is well covered up. Georg assures him that he is, but his father, suddenly sitting upright in his bed, denies the fact. Claiming that Georg’s filial care was but a pretense, his father now accuses his son of actually wanting to get rid of him: “You wanted to cover me up, my son, but I’m far from being covered up” (62). A list of accusations and revelations then follows. His father reveals that he does indeed know who Georg’s friend in Russia is and accuses his son of betraying the friend. But the father claims that he himself secretly stood by the friend in Russia, informing him of the events Georg concealed. In fact, the father now considers the friend his true son. The father’s sickness, moreover, seems now to be a pretense, for the father appears to be in good health, and he even threatens to separate his son from his future bride. Although Georg never admits his father’s claims to be true, at one point he secretly hopes his father will fall and die.

The paradoxes presented here are perhaps the most analyzed aspect of the story. The story’s baffling form and plot—Kafka himself wrote to his fiancée, Felice Bauer, that “The Judgment” was inexplicable—leads the structuralist Michael Scheffel to maintain that the world presented in the story is irreconcilably contradictory.[6] Other critics, however, have sought a meaning in the paradoxes themselves, often reading the story as a depiction of complex familial relationships.[7] It is tempting and easy to draw parallels between the story and Kafka’s life. In his “Letter to his Father,” Kafka writes with similarly near-paradoxical style of the complex and troubled relationship he himself had with his father.

The Father’s Judgment and the Power of Language

The story’s conclusion, instead of answering the multitude of questions raised by the text, poses yet more enigmas. Georg’s father ends his stream of accusations by pronouncing a formal judgment over his son:

So now you know what else there is in the world besides yourself, till now you’ve known only about yourself! An innocent child, yes, that you were, truly, but still more truly you have been a devilish human being! And therefore take note: I sentence you now to death by drowning. (65)

This pronouncement seems to actualize itself, for the son “felt himself urged” to fulfill the sentence (65). Georg is mysteriously forced to the river and feels himself slipping from the balustrade of a bridge into water, while “an unending stream of traffic was just going over the bridge” (66).

Given that the judgment itself appears to be the immediate cause of Georg’s death, many analysts have interpreted the final scene as an expression of the power of language. In this view, the story emphasizes the influence an artist’s words can exert in society (Neumann, 68). “The Judgment,” in any case, is one of Kafka’s own major artistic achievements. As his first great work, it sets an important standard by which even Kafka himself weighed many of his subsequent works.[8]

  1. Neumann, Gerhard, Franz Kafka, 'Das Urteil': Text, Materialien, Kommentar (München: Carl Hanser, 1981), pp. 189-190.
  2. Neumann, pp. 143-145.
  3. Quoted in Reiner Stach, Kafka, The Decisive Years, trans. Shelley Frisch (Orlando: Harcourt, 2005), p. 113.
  4. Stach 113-114).
  5. Kafka, Franz. “The Judgment," The Basic Kafka (New York: Pocket Books, 1979), p. 55. All subsequent parenthetical references are to this edition.
  6. Neuman, pp. 59-60.
  7. Neumann, p. 115.
  8. See Stach, p. 114.
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