Franz Kafka’s “The Judgment” is the tale of a quiet young man caught in an outrageous situation. The story starts off by following its main character, Georg Bendemann, as he deals with a series of day-to-day concerns: his upcoming marriage, his family’s business affairs, his long-distance correspondence with an old friend, and, perhaps most importantly, his relationship with his aged father. Although Kafka’s third-person narration maps out the circumstances of Georg’s life with considerable detail, “The Judgment” is not really a sprawling work of fiction. All the main events of the story occur on a “Sunday morning in the height of spring” (49). And, until the very end, all the main events of the story take place in the small, gloomy house that Georg shares with his father.
But as the story progresses, Georg’s life takes a bizarre turn. For much of “The Judgment”, Georg’s father is depicted as a weak, helpless man—a shadow, it seems, of the imposing businessman he once was. Yet this father transforms into a figure of enormous knowledge and power. He springs up in fury when Georg is tucking him into bed, viciously mocks Georg’s friendships and upcoming marriage, and ends by condemning his son to “death by drowning”. Georg flees the scene. And instead of thinking over or rebelling against what he has seen, he rushes to a nearby bridge, swings over the railing, and carries out his father’s wish: “With weakening grip he was still holding on when he spied between the railings a motor-bus coming which would easily cover the noise of his fall, called in a low voice: ‘Dear parents, I have always loved you, all the same,’ and let himself drop” (63).
Background and Contexts:
Kafka’s Writing Methods: As Kafka states in his diary for 1912, “this story, ‘The Judgment’, I wrote in one sitting of the 22nd-23rd, from ten o’clock to six o’clock in the morning. I was hardly able to pull my legs out from under the desk, they had got so stiff from sitting. The fearful strain and joy, how the story developed before me, as if I were advancing over water…” This method of rapid, continuous, one-shot composition wasn’t simply Kafka’s method for “The Judgment”. It was his ideal method of writing fiction. In the same diary entry, Kafka declares that “only in this way can writing be done, only with such coherence, with such a complete opening out of the body and soul.”
Of all his stories, “The Judgment” was apparently the one that pleased Kafka the most. And the writing method that he used for this bleak tale became one of the standards that he used to judge his other pieces of fiction. In a 1914 diary entry, Kafka recorded his “great antipathy to The Metamorphosis. Unreadable ending. Imperfect almost to its very marrow. It would have turned out very much better if I had not been interrupted at the time by the business trip.” The Metamorphosis was one of Kafka’s better-known stories during his lifetime, and it is almost without a doubt his best-known story today. Yet for Kafka, it represented an unfortunate departure from the method of highly-focused composition and unbroken emotional investment exemplified by “The Judgment”.
Kafka’s Own Father: Kafka’s relationship with his father was quite uneasy. Hermann Kafka was a well-off businessman, and a figure who inspired a mixture of intimidation, anxiety, and grudging respect in his sensitive son Franz. In his “Letter to My Father”, Kafka acknowledges his father’s “dislike of my writing and all that, unknown to you, was connected with it.” But as depicted in this famous (and unsent) letter, Hermann Kafka is also canny and manipulative. He is fearsome, but not outwardly brutal. In the younger Kafka’s words, “I might go on to describe further orbits of your influence and of struggle against it, but there I would be entering uncertain ground and would have to construct things, and apart from that, the further you are at a remove from your business and your family the pleasanter you have always become, easier to get on with, better mannered, more considerate, and more sympathetic (I mean outwardly too), in exactly the same way as for instance an autocrat, when he happen to be outside the frontiers of his own country, has no reason to go on being tyrannical and is able to associate good-humoredly with even the lowest of the low.”
Revolutionary Russia: Throughout “The Judgment”, Georg mulls over his correspondence with a friend “who had actually run away to Russia some years before, being dissatisfied with his prospects at home” (49). Georg even reminds his father of this friend’s “incredible stories of the Russian Revolution. For instance, when he was on a business trip in Kiev and ran into a riot, and saw a priest on a balcony who cut a broad cross in blood on the palm of his hand and held the hand up and appealed to the mob” (58). Kafka may be referring to the Russian Revolution of 1905. In fact, one of the leaders of this Revolution was a priest named Gregory Gapon, who organized a peaceful march outside the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.
Nonetheless, it would be wrong to assume that Kafka wants to provide a historically accurate picture of early 20th-century Russia. In “The Judgment”, Russia is a perilously exotic place. It is a stretch of the world that Georg and his father have never seen and perhaps don’t understand, and somewhere that Kafka, consequently, would have little reason to describe in documentary detail. (As an author, Kafka was not averse to simultaneously talking about foreign locations and keeping them at a distance. After all, he began composing the novel Amerika without having visited the United States.) Yet Kafka was well versed in certain Russian authors, particularly Dostoevsky. From reading Russian literature, he may have gleaned the stark, unsettling, imaginary visions of Russia that crop up in “The Judgment.” Consider, for instance, Georg’s speculations about his friend: “Lost in the vastness of Russia he saw him. At the door of an empty, plundered warehouse he saw him. Among the wreckage of his showcases, the slashed remnants of his wares, the falling gas brackets, he was just standing up. Why, why did he have to go so far away!” (59).
Money, Business, and Power: Matters of trade and finance initially draw Georg and his father together—only to become a subject of discord and contention later in “The Judgment”. Early on, Georg tells his father that “I can’t do without you in the business, you know that very well” (56). Though they are bound together by the family firm, Georg does seem to hold most of the power. He sees his father as an “old man” who—if he didn’t have a kind or pitying son—“would go on living alone in the old house” (58). But when Georg’s father finds his voice late in the story, he ridicules his son’s business activities. Now, instead of submitting to Georg’s favors, he gleefully reproaches Georg for “strutting through the world, finishing off deals I had prepared for him, bursting with triumphant glee and staling away from his father with the closed face of a respectable business man!” (61).
Unreliable Information, and Complex Reactions: Late in “The Judgment”, some of Georg’s most basic assumptions are rapidly overturned. Georg’s father goes from seeming physically depleted to making outlandish, even violent physical gestures. And Georg’s father reveals that his knowledge of the Russian friend is much, much deeper than Georg had ever imagined. As the father triumphantly states the case to Georg, “he knows everything a hundred times better than you do yourself, in his left hand he crumples your letters unopened while in his right hand he holds up my letters to read through!” (62). Georg reacts to this news—and many of the father’s other pronouncements—without any doubt or questioning. Yet the situation should not be so straightforward for Kafka’s reader.
When Georg and his father are in the midst of their conflict, Georg seldom seems to think over what he is hearing in any detail. However, the events of “The Judgment” are so strange and so sudden that, at times, it seems Kafka is inviting us to do the difficult analytic and interpretive work that Georg himself seldom performs. Georg’s father may be exaggerating, or lying. Or maybe Kafka has created a story that is more like a dream than a depiction of reality—a story where the most twisted, overblown, unthinking reactions make a kind of hidden, perfect sense.
A Few Discussion Questions:
1) Does “The Judgment” strike you as a story that was written in one impassioned sitting? Are there any times when it doesn’t follow Kaka’s standards of “coherence” and “opening out”—times when Kafka’s writing is reserved or puzzling, for instance?
2) Who or what, from the real world, is Kafka criticizing in “The Judgment”? His father? Family values? Capitalism? Himself? Or do you read “The Judgment” as a story that, instead of aiming at a specific satiric target, simply aims to shock and entertain its readers?
3) How would you sum up the way Georg feels about his father? The way his father feels about him? Are there any facts you don’t know, but that could change your views on this question if you did know them?
4) Did you find “The Judgment” mostly disturbing or mostly humorous? Are there any times when Kafka manages to be disturbing and humorous at the same moment?