The Judgment (Das Urteil) by Franz Kafka, 1916

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by Franz Kafka, 1916

Franz Kafka's story "The Judgment" ("Das Urteil") is famous for at least two reasons. First, it was almost the only one of his works Kafka himself seemed pleased with. He wrote it in the space of a single night in September 1912, read it personally in public at least four times, and had it published early in 1913. Second, it is even more enigmatic than most of his other pieces. What makes it so difficult is that, while it has a purely realistic opening and never deviates very far from a naturalistic surface, its inexplicability forces the reader to speculate about symbolic and other meanings.

"The Judgment" was originally to have been collected, along with "The Metamorphosis" and "The Stoker," in a volume to be entitled Sons, and its title reminds us of The Trial (Der Prozess). Angel Flores has said that it contains in miniature the essence of Kafka's themes and techniques as developed in his later work. Flores went so far as to publish an edition of the story with 11 essays appended that consider its various meanings and the history of its critical reception. Few short fictions can have had so much close attention devoted to them.

The judgment in question is the judgment of a father upon his son. The constant Oedipal struggle evident in Kafka is brutally brought to the surface here. What is so peculiarly Freudian is the fact that the struggle is presented in a welter of oblique symbols that bear to the central theme the same relation that Freud's dream symbols bear to the matter signified. Thus, the plot of the story, such as it is, appears to turn on whether or not Georg, the hero, should send a letter to a friend who lives in St. Petersburg. The letter takes on a role it would hardly have in the work of most other writers, and so does the absent friend. Adorno commented that every sentence of Kafka says, "Interpret me," and nowhere in his work is this truer than in the case of "The Judgment." Elements in the story seem almost free of immediate significance and are thus virtually constituted by the interpretations placed on them.

In the first half of the story we learn of the correspondence between Georg and his friend. Georg gives an excessive amount of consideration to the question of what to tell his friend, and it becomes apparent that the friend is, in fact, some sort of alter ego of Georg. Thus, the friend is resigned to bachelorhood while Georg has become engaged and now questions the wisdom of telling him, the friend's business is failing while Georg's is thriving, and so on. In a characteristic moment Kafka said in a letter to Milena that writing letters was "an intercourse with ghosts … with the ghost of the recipient … with one's own ghost." The friend is apparently utterly alienated from Georg's world. He has not been home for three years and is completely stuck in his Russian loneliness. Georg needs isolation and bachelorhood to pursue his writing, which is symbolized by his writing the letter, where all is well until he starts to involve another person—his father. Although his friend has achieved these things, he appears to have paid a price in terms of his health and prosperity. Against this harsh requirement to suffer and write is set the figure of Georg's fiancée, who, even while "breathing faster under his kisses," protests at Georg's reluctance to tell his friend of their engagement. "If you've got friends like that, Georg, you should never have got engaged," she tells him, and, indeed, if the friend is in fact a part of Georg, she is right to object.

In the second half of the story Georg crosses the hall to his father's room, and their conversation forms the main action. Here the strangeness thickens, for everything in his father's room seems at once to be inside and outside Georg, a figment of his anxious imagination and an objective statement of fact. A hallucinatory quality is produced by such unexplained touches as his father's size. At first he is said to be "still a giant of a man," but later Georg is easily able to lift him up and carry him across to his own room. Georg's perceptions evidently form a greater part of the narrative than is at first apparent. The father is clearly an internalized figure operating in Georg's psyche, and even the letter turns out to have only a dubious sort of existence.

In the final three paragraphs of the story the father sentences Georg to death, and Georg runs out of the house, bumps into the charwoman ("Jesus," she cries and "covers her face with her apron"), jumps over the railings by the river, and drops into it, saying, "Dear parents, I did always love you." The theme of parenthood is unmistakable, but an erotic element in the final, single-sentence paragraph is easier to miss, "At that moment the traffic was passing over the bridge in a positively unending stream." As Lacan has said, perhaps the father is the symbolic originator of the dynamics of desire and signification. We write and we love in "the name of the Father." Paternal permission is needed to send the letter to Russia (as it turns out, Georg's father does not even believe in the existence of the friend) and, of course, to marry. Perhaps the strange episode in the father's room symbolizes this Oedipal seeking of permission and its denial, with the resulting life in death as the son's psyche returns to the dark flow of the river and accepts that other releases are forbidden him.

—Lance St. John Butler