There are two reasons why "The judgment" is considered the most autobiographical of Kafka's stories. First, there are Kafka's own commentaries and entries in his diary. When he re-read the story, for instance, he noted that only he could penetrate to the core of the story which, much like a newborn child, "was covered with dirt and mucus as it came out of him"; he also commented in his diary that he wanted to write down all possible relationships within the story that were not clear to him when he originally wrote it. This is not surprising for a highly introverted writer like Kafka, but it does illustrate the enormous inner pressure under which he must have written "The judgment." In this connection, it should also be remembered that he completed the story in one sitting, during a single night; he "carried his own weight on his back more than once that night," he said, commenting that one can really write only in this manner, "completely open spiritually and physically." Indeed, everything Kafka wrote before "The judgment" seems unfinished by comparison.
Second, "The judgment" is partly the result of Kafka's fateful meeting with Felice Bauer (later, his fiancée) in the home of his friend Max Brod, six weeks before the story's composition (see Life and Background). Georg Bendemann's judgment at the hand of his father is as inexorable as was that of Franz Kafka at the hand of Felice, who was to create a dilemma between his ideal of bachelorhood — to him, the necessary prerequisite for his writing — and that of a happy family life. Immediately after meeting Felice, he wrote that he was "doomed," and sometime after finishing "The judgment," he remarked that he was indirectly indebted to Felice for the story, but also that Georg dies because of Frieda. From then on, Kafka never really stopped incriminating himself because of, his feeling that if he were married to Felice, he would betray his art.
The story's most paramount theme, that of Georg's bachelorhood, has its origin in Kafka's complex relationships with his fiancée and his father, but also in his perfectionist notions of what writing should be. More than once, Max Brod wrote that Kafka was steeped in a trance during the autumn of 1912. Kafka regarded art as "a form of prayer," wanted to have nothing to do with writing for aesthetic reasons, and continuously suffered from the realization that he could not ever close the gap between what he heard inside himself and what he actually wrote. It is the realization of his impotence in the face of an Absolute that accounts for his terse and fragmentary, yet immensely dynamic, style — which is more noticeable in "The judgment" than in most of his other works. Leaving so much unsaid which, Kafka felt, eluded his grasp as a writer, this style excites the reader's imagination and consistently drives him to question and comment. Better than most of his stories, "The judgment" reflects Kafka's haunted mind, which, taking perfection and intensity of experience as its goal, races through the plot.
Kafka's curse of being able to write only in seclusion is the seamy side of his devotion to writing as life's only reward. In this sense, Georg Bendemann, like other heroes of Kafka's stories, reflects the author's most basic personal problem — that of bachelorhood. Kafka attempted to escape the conflict by being as pure a writer as possible, and in order to accomplish this, he "embraced" bachelorhood. The result was that in his stories the bachelor became an archetype of absolute loneliness.
A random selection of entries in his diary demonstrates Kafka's indecision and anxiety with regard to Felice. In spite of several letters imploring her to forget him because he would only make her unhappy, he nevertheless kept up his correspondence with her. He wrote of his desire for complete solitude, and yet only two days later, he dreamed of "growth and sublimation of his existence through marriage." He devised a list of seven points for and against marriage, in which he assured himself that everything he had ever accomplished was the result of his bachelorhood. He hated everything not pertaining to literature; he also dreaded the mere thought of having to waste time on other people. Yet he yearned for "a modest measure of happiness" as a family man. One of his most tragic entries reads: "I love her as much as I can, but my love lies stifled beneath anxiety and self-incriminations." For five long years, until after his second engagement to Felice, he was caught in this dilemma. In the end, Kafka's bachelorhood exhausted itself in the repeated description of its own contradictions. The same is, of course, true of Georg Bendemann, who answers his fiancée's argument that he should never have become engaged at all, by saying: "Well, we are both to blame for that."
Kafka's explanation of the names of the story's couple also sheds light on the heavily autobiographical nature of "The judgment." That Frieda Brandenfeld is Felice Bauer is rather obvious. Less obvious is that Georg and Bende have the same number of letters a ' s do Franz and Kafka; also, the vowel e in Bende is repeated at precisely the same places as is the vowel a in Kafka. While the first half of Brandenfeld may stem from Kafka's association with Berlin, where Felice lived (Berlin is located in the county of Brandenburg), the second half of the name Brandenfeld has, according to Kafka, a deeper meaning for him: Feld (field) is a symbol of the sensuous, fertile married life which he could not realize for himself. In The Trial, by the way, Felice Bauer will appear thinly disguised as Fraulein Burstner, also abbreviated F. B.
The opening scene, on Sunday morning, radiates Georg's contentment, which, as the story progresses, will give way to a mounting emotional instability. But now, at the "height of spring," everything is fine, and the bridge connects the monotonous city on his side of the river with the "tender green" of the hills on the other side. The bridge is still intact as the symbol of communication, which it will not be by the time he uses it to jump to his death. As is typical of the beginnings of Kafka's stories, the hero finds himself awakening from a dream, or at least in a dreamlike state.
The basis of the story's structure — Georg's musing about his friend and the letter he writes takes up about a third of the story. The letter is striking in that the one item which made Georg sit down and write to his friend is mentioned only at the very end: his engagement. Before breaking the news to him, Georg writes about the marriages of uninteresting people merely to test his reaction. To his father, Georg confesses that he wrote to St. Petersburg only to prevent the possibility of his friend finding out about his engagement from somebody else. Even after Georg had made up his mind to tell his friend, he is careful not to describe Frieda in detail. All we hear is that she is well-to-do and that the absent friend will have a "genuine friend of the opposite sex" in her. The letter reveals more about Georg's reluctance than perhaps he wants to admit: his reluctance to describe life at home as it really is; his reluctance to follow through with his plan to make his friend come back ("How could one be sure that he would make a success of life at home?"); and his reluctance, above all, to view his engagement without any reservation and to write about it.
Frieda is the symbol of the sensual world and, in this sense, the representation of the "normal" life Kafka really desired but could not attain. Naturally she senses Georg's reluctance and ambiguity toward her and insists that the distant friend attend the wedding so that this bond of bachelorhood can be dissolved. In the light of this, Georg's assurance to his friend that he will get along beautifully with Frieda is wrong: she realizes the potential danger to their marriage, and he is equally aware of the temptation in the form of this bachelorhood relationship. Frieda gains control over Georg to the extent he loses contact with his friend, and after discussing his friend with her, Georg says to himself: "I can't cut myself to another pattern that might make a more suitable friend for him." She remains the stronger and he becomes attached to the life she represents.
Who, then, is this friend whose very existence is questioned by Georg's father at first? He is absent, nameless, single, lonely, and unsuccessful. The only thing positive we hear is that he obviously sympathizes with the uprisings in Russia so much that he wants to stay there despite the uncertain political situation. The combination of political and religious imagery in the scene at Kiev suggests Georg's idealistic view of his friend pursuing some cause and of Russia as the source of social salvation — or at least rejuvenation. During his last visit he already had a full beard resembling the kind Russian monks used to wear. (The turn of the century brought repeated uprisings in Russia, the worst one in 1905. It resulted in the relative freedom of the press and the right of free assembly. Soon after, however, Czar Nicholas II succeeded in suppressing open revolution and had several leaders — Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin deported to Siberia. For more about Kafka's political views, consult Understanding Kafka.)
Georg's treatment of his friend is slightly condescending in tone, especially the paragraph beginning with "What could one write to such a man?" It is also highly ambiguous. He condemns him, and yet he pities him; he considers persuading him to return, and yet is afraid of the responsibility connected with it. He keeps toying with the idea of letting his friend know about his flourishing business, and yet insists it would look peculiar if he did it now. Most significantly, it is only with great reluctance and countless reservations that he finally decides to tell him about his engagement.
Perhaps the distant friend is best described in terms of what Georg lacks and vice versa. His friend's business once flourished but has gone downhill; Georg's business has boomed. The friend once tried to talk Georg into emigrating because success was promising "for precisely Georg's branch of trade"; Georg thought of persuading him to come back. His friend has almost no contacts in St. Petersburg and is "resigning himself to being a permanent bachelor"; Georg is engaged. The question remains unresolved as to what his business really is. It is not ordinary, not exactly geared to money-making, and it seems to require isolation. Is it perhaps Kafka's own "branch of trade" — writing?
When Georg sits down to write to his friend, it is as if he were writing to part of himself It is as if this were Kafka's soliloquy, told to his writing — self, full of all the self-incriminations and tortures he went through during the time he wrote "The judgment." Successful in business, willing to enter into marriage — yet shuddering at the mere thought of business and marriage Georg represents the bourgeois element in Kafka, the part that would love to quit writing for good and become a family man. In this case, the distant friend is the "inner Kafka," escaping his father's world and trying to pursue his writing in solitude. He develops the "yellow skin" and the religious visions of self-imposed asceticism, not unlike the hero of "A Hunger Artist. Considered in this way, "The judgment" is really a story about the unrelenting "inner Kafka," defending himself against Kafka, the human being with all his weaknesses, rooted in the sensuous world.
However, the friend is also more than Kafka's "inner self," more than his symbolic perfection and more than his watchful superego. The atmosphere with which Kafka surrounds him is deliberately metaphysical and mystical. Georg sees him "among the wreckage of his showcases," a failure, a victim, almost a martyr. Yet he does not forsake the country which has ruined him materially; he has saved his spiritual purity. If he died, this purity and idealism would also die. If Georg died, this would only be the end of the Bendemanns. The friend survives, comes to control and, eventually, condemn Georg in the person of his father.
The autobiographical significance of old Bendemann emerging as his son's judge is obvious. In most of Kafka's stories, though to varying degrees, an overpowering father figure plays a decisive role. Georg's father "kept him from developing any true activity of his own"; "My father is still a giant of a man"; "Georg shrank into a corner as far away as possible from his father"; these are a few of the clear allusions to Kafka's own father. Yet old Bendemann's authority dissolves and he collapses on his bed after driving his son out of the room. He is the despotic father figure, the executor of a quasi-divine will. This realization that the judgment of the father, as well as the self-execution of his son, are in no way evidence of a tragedy and are meaningful only within the context of this story is important. It is the best argument against the interpretation of "The judgment" as an expressionist horror piece (1912 is usually listed as the beginning of the expressionist movement in anthologies).
Regardless of which view of old Bendemann one has, he is also a symbol of the enormous force behind Georg's life with which he cannot come to grips. Here, Kafka uses his childhood experiences to give us a parable of how everything we cannot handle in ourselves continues to grow, is projected into the outside world, gradually eludes our control, and eventually turns against us. In other words, the death sentence is the result of Georg's father fixation, the real cause of his overriding sense of guilt. It is not that Georg is innocent and does not deserve punishment for his inactivity; it is the exclusiveness with which he keeps staring at his father that draws him into the whirlpool of self-annihilation.
That Georg has a guilty conscience is evident. The way he dodges his father's inquiry about the friend by answering "You don't really look after yourself"; the way he has neglected his parents; the way he believes his father has lured him into a trap: all these are proof of his guilty conscience. One issue of the story lies in Georg's recognition that his father's words are essentially just and therefore unbearable. As a consequence, Georg accepts his sentence without complaining.
Old Bendemann is also the embodiment of absolute law to his son, and the many references to his negligent physical appearance point to Kafka's use of dirt as an aspect of legal authorities. (In The Trial, for instance, Joseph K. finds pornographic literature as he prowls through the office of the legal authorities.) Old Bendemann has the quality of a god of wrath who punishes Georg for his failure to live up to the ideal of his friend (the "inner self"), the ideal of art as a form of prayer, and bachelorhood as the means of attaining it. One advantage of stressing this quasi-divine aspect of old Bendemann is that his bewildering contradictions about the friend's existence lose their paradoxical quality and can simply be ascribed to his ineffability. The view of him as insane has the same effect. The trouble with this interpretation is that the only scene which might justify it, the scene in which the old man plays with the watch chain on Georg's breast, is not proof enough. To see Georg's suicide as the result of the decree of an insane mind would reduce "The judgment" to an unnecessarily complex story; it would leave us with the view that contradictions and paradoxes are simply insane. Nothing could be further from the intention of Kafka, who once remarked that to understand something and to misunderstand the same thing do not necessarily exclude each other.
A more likely, though by no means wholly satisfactory, interpretation of the father's contradictions about the existence of the distant friend is that the friend gradually ceases to exist in Georg's mind after the latter has betrayed his ideals. As a result, his letters to St. Petersburg do not reach a real friend, but are mailed to what we may consider the relic of happy childhood days lingering in Georg's mind. In fact, the letter announcing his engagement — the height of betrayal in his friend's eyes severs the last link between them. Does Georg not sense its fatefulness when he stares out the window after writing it? To the extent that Georg becomes unfaithful to his ideals, Georg's friend becomes old Bendemann's favorite. Triumphantly, the old man admits he has been in touch with the friend all along, and he grows from a weak man in his dotage to an overpowering authority for his son. Alone like Georg — he is a widower — the father becomes the friend's representative: not only is this term taken from the world of business in which old Bendemarm has moved, but it also indicates the great importance of the friend in whose name he accuses and condemns his son. Georg, however, is unable to see this representation because he remains attached to the sensual, empirical world. Only for a split second does his father's enthusiasm for his friend dawn on him when "his words turned into deadly seriousness." Old Bendemann's assertion that the friend knows everything "a thousand times" better is an indication of his closeness to him, as well as a literal allusion to the friend's power.
The old man then, like the distant friend, is neither a human being nor a symbol, but he is both. He appears to be interested after Georg reveals to him that he has written to his friend, but more and more he takes on the quality of a last authority for Georg in a legal and moral sense. According to Kafka, what the old and the young Bendemann have in common is symbolized by the distant friend, from whom they emerge in opposition to each other.
Georg's condemnation has a psychological aspect to it which builds up throughout the story and reaches a climax with the accusation old Bendemann hurls at his son before sentencing him to death: "Till now you've known only about yourself!" Then there is the paradoxical pronouncement itself that Georg was "truly" a child but "more truly" a "devilish human being." Here we have two norms contrasted which cannot be reconciled on the empirical level. The juxtaposition of these two adverbs illustrates the futility of empirical logic in the face of the Absolute and its unfathomable judgment. This knowledge of absolute truth that Georg experiences as the highest commandment and as a binding decree, this realization that he has irretrievably lost his opportunity to live because he has betrayed his "inner self " — they drive him to suicide. He has roots in this life, and yet he has spent his days trying to shun responsibilities and to avoid clear-cut commitments. This is his guilt. Faced with death by drowning, he desperately seeks to recapture the Absolute he has forfeited. Reminiscent of "The Metamorphosis" and, especially, "A Hunger Artist," where longing for spiritual food is a paramount theme, the Absolute is symbolized here by the railings Georg grasps "as a starving man clutches food."
Georg's death by drowning may be seen as an attempt to return to the unity his mother used to hold the family and the distant friend together, as we conclude from the fact that the friend — purity, idealism — never returns after the death of Georg's mother. Her lingering presence is still powerful, however, and even old Bendemann admits it was she who gave him enough strength to establish rapport with the distant friend.
Whether or not the "unending steam of traffic" drowning out Georg's fall from the bridge also has sexual connotations is a minor point. (The German verkehr means both traffic and intercourse.) What counts is that traffic is a symbol for life here, if only in the sense of communication. In the form of a motor bus, life silences a suicide, illustrating that his death is of interest only to him. Taken literally or figuratively, life on any level remains inaccessible to Georg, who dies from alienation.
Beyond all autobiographical and psychological considerations, "The judgment" deals with the complex interactions of good and evil. Representing the purity of his friend, old Bendemann condemns the power which has corrupted this purity in his son. However, even the execution of this condemnation seems to be a paradox because the suicide toward which the story builds becomes an execution. Here, as in the case of other contradictions in other stories, let us remember that, for Kafka, truth always reveals itself in paradoxes. This is why Georg, the victim, is also the executor of his judgment.
Probably the most serious paradox is the absolute incompatibility of Georg's guilt and his punishment. Particularly in view of his love for his parents, which is present throughout the story and is repeated in a prominent position at the end, the gravity of the sentence is incomprehensible. Nothing except Kafka's lifelong, deep-seated, and colossal fear of his unpredictable father can possibly account for its justification. It lifts the story's second half to the level of a surreal and therefore a rationally inexplicable nightmare. The incredibly terse and dense language stands in horrible contrast to the dominant themes of anxiety and doom in Georg's mad rush to his death.