By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Judgment’, written in 1912, was in many ways Franz Kafka’s breakthrough work. In this short story, a man writes to his friend who is living in Russia. He then speaks to his father, who questions whether the friend even exists. At the end of the story, the man’s father condemns his son to death by drowning, and the son goes and throws himself into the river.
What is the meaning of this story, which Kafka reportedly wrote in a single sitting? In many ways, it provides a microcosm of some of Kafka’s key themes.
‘The Judgment’: summary
A merchant named Georg Bendemann is writing a letter to a friend of his who moved to Russia several years earlier. This friend’s business is in trouble. Georg is writing to tell his friend that he is engaged to be married to a wealthy woman named Frieda Brandenfeld.
During the course of writing his letter, Georg stops to go and check on his invalid father, who still appears as a ‘giant’ to his son. Georg tells his father that he is writing a letter to his friend, but his father questions the existence of the friend. He also questions his son’s knowledge of business, and accuses Georg of being less upset by the death of his mother than he should have been.
Georg’s father becomes increasingly cruel in his comments towards his son, accusing Georg of wanting him dead merely because Georg tries to persuade his father to lie down. He also criticises Georg’s neglect of his friend who moved to Russia. In the end, his comments cause Georg to cower in the corner of the room.
But the final blow is when Georg’s father accuses him of being selfish. He sentences his son to death by drowning; upon the utterance of these words, Georg feels himself being pushed from the room and he runs away to a bridge over some water. He throws himself into the water, presumably drowning, just as an ‘unending stream of traffic’ goes over the bridge.
‘The Judgment’: analysis
Even the title of this early work by Kafka, ‘The Judgment’, gives a clue to its ‘Kafkaesque’ qualities (more on that word below). Kafka’s big themes are law, crime, guilt, punishment, and judgment: both the judgment that comes from state authorities and that from more personal qualities, including our own families, and even ourselves.
‘The Judgment’ is, like much of Kafka’s writing, highly autobiographical. Kafka’s own father was a domineering presence in his son’s life, and was frequently irascible and unpredictable. Fathers, or their stand-ins, tend to be unsympathetic to their sons’ plight in Kafka’s work: in ‘The Metamorphosis’, which we have analysed here, Gregor Samsa’s father throws apples at his son, who has been transformed into a giant beetle or ‘vermin’.
In The Trial, Josef K.’s uncle, a variation on the judgmental father figure, is more concerned with the shame his nephew is bringing upon the family than he is about his nephew’s own welfare. And the Commandant of Kafka’s short story ‘In the Penal Colony’ is, in a sense, the ultimate towering father-figure, to whom deference is demanded at all times.
In ‘The Judgment’, note how the father’s opinion of Georg so clearly matters to the young merchant. Although his father has been made weak by illness and dependent on his son for care and support (one explanation for his resentment and consequent treatment of his son), he still appears as a ‘giant’ to George, as if the adult has been rendered a small child once more.
And as Georg’s father launches a psychological assault on his son (sounding more and more like an elderly man who has lost his sense of perspective, or has perhaps even been afflicted with something like dementia), Georg finds that, although he knows his father is not speaking the truth, he is hard-wired to be emotionally affected by his words.
Kafka has been named as a key influence on later magic realist fiction, and mysterious force which appears to propel Georg from the room and to his death at the end of the story is a kind of absurdist exaggeration of the pull (or, in this case, push) that a parental figure can have on their child, even once that ‘child’ has grown up into an adult.
Of course, Georg’s father does not have any official power to ‘condemn’ his son to ‘death by drowning’, but the words have such an impact on him that he nevertheless goes straight out, like a hypnotised victim or automaton, and throws himself into the water.
This, too, is of a piece with Kafka’s other protagonists, who either come to a premature end at their own hand (in ‘The Metamorphosis’, Gregor Samsa takes his own life to spare his family the shame of living with a giant ‘vermin’) or who are killed by some mysterious agents of the state, having come to half-believe in their own guilt (at the end of The Trial, which we have analysed here, Josef K. is stabbed, having earlier been arrested for some unspecified crime).
In each case, there is a focus on the worthlessness of these protagonists: Josef K.’s last words, to describe his own death, are ‘like a dog!’, while Gregor is literally transformed into ‘monstrous vermin’, a bug or beetle or some other creature (contrary to popular belief, Kafka’s original German does not identify the animal). And Georg Bendemann, too, is seen as worthless to his own father, especially when unfavourably compared with his friend who moved away to Russia.
About Franz Kafka
The German-speaking Bohemian (now Czech) author Franz Kafka (1883-1924) has been called everything from a modernist to an existentialist, a fantasy writer to a realist. His work almost stands alone as its own subgenre, and the adjective ‘Kafkaesque’ – whose meaning, like the meaning of Kafka’s work, is hard to pin down – has become well-known even to people who have never read a word of Kafka’s writing. Perhaps inevitably, he is often misinterpreted as being a gloomy and humourless writer about nightmarish scenarios, when this at best conveys only part of what he is about.
The critic J. P. Stern attempted to define ‘Kafkaesque’, the adjective derived from Kafka’s works, by using synonyms ranging from ‘weird’ and ‘mysterious’ to ‘tortuously bureaucratic’ and even ‘nightmarish’ and ‘horrible’. Undoubtedly all of these terms are applicable. Perhaps only ‘Orwellian’ can stand ahead of ‘Kafkaesque’ as a twentieth-century literary term which so sharply describes, and even shapes, our own thinking about our twenty-first-century world. As Stern observes, though, alongside ‘nightmarish’ we must also place ‘humdrum’: the ‘everyday quality’ of Kafka’s people and situations is indistinguishable from its horror.
Much of Kafka’s work remained unpublished until after his death. As he lay dying of tuberculosis in 1924, he commanded his friend Max Brod to burn all of his unpublished material (and even his published work). Brod refused to honour Kafka’s dying wish, seeing his friend’s slim body of work as an original contribution to literature and too important not to publish.