Kafka’s imagination is a “psychoanalytic” one and from all of his stories, The Judgment furnishes the clearest demonstration of his psychoanalytic vision. It is primary a psychological story.
The image that the judgment unfolds, is one of paternal censure and execution; it is the story of a father who’s sentencing his son to death. The essential metaphor of the story lies in the title, The Judgment, has both literal and legal-judicial meaning of “sentence or verdict”. The literal death sentence reveals the murderous truth buried underneath the abstract surface of the father’s opinion of the son. The story is symbolic and rises a question whether the father be a figure of godlike authority to his son, with the power to give and take life whenever he wants or he simply be one man like another. Shall his father’s judgment of Georg be a sentence of death on him or one man’s opinion of another? Is his father a god or just acting as a parody? The whole struggle takes place in Georg’s subjectivity, between his “primitive,” childish”, “irrational” conception of his father. It is a story about Georg’s struggle against his “neurotic” submission to his father’s “comic” pretensions to absolute authority.
Language tries symbolically to bridge the split between consciousness and the existence. In the judgment, the symbolical relation is dynamic, that expresses the split as an active contention within the soul. For Goethe, the judgment is “unheard of occurrence”, but one so unheard of that it has passed beyond the limits of empirical reality into a dream world. As to experience the story you have to read it from Georg’s point-of-view, which is felt as literal rather than metaphorical, same happens in dreaming. You feel the dream as literally true; awake you analyze it as a metaphor.
In Kafka’s stories, the narrator, like the dreamer, sees and hears only what is inside his own head. He knows the world only as it is reflected inside himself. The evolution of modern narrative shows a more or less steady surrender of the traditional godlike claim of the storyteller to omniscience. Commenting on narrator’s point-of-view, Friedrich Beissner writes that, the Kafka narrator does not “manipulate his characters like a puppeteer or… explain the external facts and the external course of events to the reader though some knowledge he possess by virtue of his detachment – rather he has completely transformed himself into the lonely Georg…” George is Kafka’s narrator, then why he doesn’t write “I” instead of “Georg”? because in the dream “I” appears to the dreamer as “him” – the self looks at the self and judges itself.
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The judgment turns upon the conflict between George’s self as he thinks he is, between the apparently successful young businessman who reverie opens the story and the helpless Georg for who his father’s word makes all things be or not be, Georg, who dies saying, “Dear parents, I have always loved you, all the same.”
The story opens on Georg looking out of the window of his room on Sunday morning, engrossed in his own thoughts. A successful young merchant, he has just finished a letter to an old friend now settled in Russia belatedly announcing his engagement to a well-off girl. His lengthy reverie turns around his unsuccessful anthropic friend who he has hesitated to tell about his business successes and most recently about his personal success in becoming engaged. In the course of Georg’s reverie, we learn the main facts about his life; that he shares the household with his father, that his mother died two years before and that since then he has taken an active part in the family business, which his father used to run dictatorially.
When Georg crosses from his own room to his father’s, which he hasn’t visited for months, he is surprised how dark it is. The darkness is the interior darkness of his own self. as his father rises to meet him, his heavy dressing gown swinging open and the skirts fluttering, Georg thinks, with a touch of surprise: “My father is still a giant of a man.” His surprise at his father’s strength increases as they talk: “In business hours he is quite different, he was thinking, how solidly he sits here with his arms crossed.” In the light of day, his father appeared elderly and enfeebled; at the level of dreams – at the symbolical level he sits with solid strength.
Georg has come to tell his father that he has written the news of his engagement to his friend in St. Petersburg.
“To St. Petersburg?” asked his father.
“To my friend there,” said Georg, trying to meet his father’s eye…
“Oh yes. To your friend,” said his father, with emphasis.
The interrogation of his father echoes and emphases undermine Georg’s words so that they begin to ring hollowly. His father, then finally speaks, “lightening his toothless mouth” – there is a constant shuttling back and forth in Georg between seeing his father as a dodderer and seeing has a giant.
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Georg’s response to the elder Bendemann’s questioning the existence of his friend in Russia is one of “embarrassment,” in which fear of his father, fear of giant, fear for dodderer are mingled. Georg resolves to take better care of his father in the future, to see that he eats properly, to call in a doctor. This satisfies his fear for himself, lest his father overthrow the successful, independent Georg who is about to cap his triumphs with marriage; but it is also a surrender of his bed to his father. His putting his father into his bed is both a counter-attack and a surrender.
The father submits to being put to bed; the senile way he plays with his son’s watch chain while being carried there and hangs onto it when he attempts to lay him down, gives Georg a “dreadful feeling.” Bendemann Sr. draws the covers up and looks at Georg “with a not unfriendly eye.” Father’s repeated question about whether he “well covered up now.” “Don’t worry, you’re well covered up.” Georg replies soothingly.
At this point, here rises an explosion, the story into a nightmare in whose lurid light the “primitive” truth about Georg Bendemann and his father is revealed.
The father understands “covered up” as meaning “buried,” the bed Georg wishes to confine him to as a grave, their relations as a death struggle. The covers that he flings off are all those trappings of civilization which conceal the primitive battle to the death between fathers and sons.
In the eyes of the father the son’s succession as head of the family business is a usurpation, never mind his own failing strength. For the father, the son’s life as a man is his own death; his life needs his son’s defeat. Therefore, he hits out cruelly at Georg’s engagement. Bendemann Sr. takes Georg’s engagement as a blow at himself, just as if he were the leader of the horde and it was one of his own mates Georg was coveting. That’s why he calls Georg a child and a devil in the same breath, just before he pronounces the death sentence:
“An innocent child, yes, that you were, truly, but still more truly have you been a devilish human being!”
But Georg, who’s wrestling for possession of his own soul and who tries to see his father as a man like any other, struggles desperately against the other Georg who bends hypnotically to the father’s command. “I have your customers here in my pocket!” the son seizes on the insignificant phrase and takes it literally so as to persuade the world that his father is an “impossible” figure, in a passage of penetrating shrewdness.
The elder Bendemann tells the “stupid boy” that he has been secretly communicating with his friend in Russia all along.
“… he knows everything a hundred times better than you do yourself…”
Now, his own words turn against him, his attempt to reduce his father from a symbol to a human being is defeated; the time for sentencing “to death by drowning” is at hand. As he “feels himself driven” from the room, down the stairs and to the river side, “the crash with which his father fell on the bed behind him was still in his ears”. Georg whispers abjectly, “Dear parents, I have always loved you all the same,” just before he drops into the river.
The puzzle of the story is the friend in Russia. Kate Flores suggests that Georg’s expatriated friend is a side of Kafka himself. Throughout Kafka’s work Russia figures as an image of the most extreme solitude. The friend, in The Judgment is described as a man who “was resigning himself to become a permanent bachelor” – Kafka had just met the woman to whom he later became engaged but never married, and was carrying on a tortured debate with himself that lasted his entire life over the question of marriage.
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Georg’s friendship with the man in Russia, imperils his marriage. The two friends are in an uneasy relationship in which each refuses to accept the other as he is. Georg’s writing the news of his engagement to St. Petersburg is a first step towards a rupture with his friend; his marriage would have completed the rupture. But the father intervenes at this point and saves the friend from being “betrayed” by Georg:
“But your friend hasn’t been betrayed after all!” cried his father.
The theme of The Judgment is “the opposition between fathers and sons,”. But Kafka intended to represent the conflict between marriage and writing as an integral part of the father-son opposition. The friend in Russia is unable to come alive in the story with the meaning that Kafka wished him to have. He remains a ghostly ineffectual presence.
The contradictions in the father’s relation to the friend in Russia can be explained only out of biographical sources. In “Letter to his father” Kafka says that his father was the never-ending theme of his writing:
My writing was all about you, all I did there, after all, was to complain about the things I couldn’t complain about on your breast.
The friend is joined to the father in the story as Kafka the writer was joined to the obsessive theme of his father; the friend is in “league” with the father against Georg as Kafka the writer was “leagued” with his father against Kafka the man who had recently met Felice Bauer and was thinking hard about marriage. Kafka is saying that his father was the reason why he was a writer, by having banished him from the world to the freezing inhuman solitude (Russia) in which only writing was possible. In making the father the ally and support of the friend in Russia, Kafka is trying to give objective narrative expressions to his sense of his father’s responsibility in positive terms and produces the absurdity that the closer father and friend in the story are allied, the nearer to perishing in Russia the latter is.
Like so many writers of the modern age, Kafka starts out from a feeling of filial grievance. The Judgment aims primarily at psychological truth; it trembles on the point of saying all those things which we find in Kafka’s later works. As an “objective” fact it indicates the old man’s fustiness and incapacity to take care of himself any longer; to Georg, who has been intent on marriage and independence, it is a reproach that works to draw him back into his father’s orbit.
Like dreams, their surface hides shadowy depths of meaning; inside their explicit content latent contents lurk. Like Biblical narrative, Kafka’s narratives, especially in his work The Judgment, reveal a perspective that, beginning with few words on the surface page, extends downward or backward into an indefinite depth.
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