Dec 19, 2012

Discussing "The Judgment" by Franz Kafka

Some preliminary discussion points on a classic Kafka short story...

A book must be like an axe to the frozen sea within us, says Kafka in a famous quote, which speaks to his belief that literature can transform a person by opening them up to the depths within. It is important for readers to break through the clutter and walls that enclose them. Kafka thought it would take a certain kind of art to cut through the ice, namely a violent, disturbing, unsettling art -- art to make you uncomfortable, art that grabs you and won’t let go.

"The Judgment" is that kind of art. Kafka himself thought of it as breakthrough story in his own artistic development. He wrote it during a long September evening, and afterward expressed satisfaction in his achievement. Clearly the story has biographical overtones. It is a story of deep resentment between father and son, ending with the father’s sentencing Georg to death by drowning, an act which he promptly, impulsively, and dutifully performs to somehow prove his love of his parents.

What begins as a mild mannered almost sleepy story of Georg’s letter writing and decision to announce his engagement to his distant friend in St. Petersburg, takes a sudden and awful turn when he discusses the letter and friend with his father. “Am I covered up yet?” the father asks. “No!” he shouts, throwing off the blankets, standing on the bed, whereupon he mocks, shames, and brutally takes apart his son. It happens so suddenly that we as readers, like George the protagonist, are thrown off balance, horrified.

The story plays out like a nightmare. Reeling from this relentless guilt trip, Georg is squashed by the domineering parent. It is easy to see Freudian echoes here: the deep Oedipal conflict between father and son: the father who feels threatened and challenged by the younger generation, who feels he is being displaced and ultimately replaced, who doesn’t feel respected or properly cared for; and the son who has been gaining in power and influence, is about to marry (and play the role of father himself), and is ready to assume a parental role towards the old man. At the same time he has been neglecting or ignoring his father (remember he has not visited Dad's room in a long time).

Another angle worth pursuing is to compare the characters of Georg and his friend. Georg is the man of society, engaged, a success in business, who has stayed at home to care for the family and business, while his friend is in another country, friendless, single, struggling to make it on his own. Are these two characters symbolically two sides of the same person? Some critics have asserted that Georg and his friend represent two sides of Kafka: the stay-at-home dutiful (yet resentful) son and the more authentic, single artist pursuing his life’s work for better or worse.

No matter what interpretation we lay over this story, we may get the sense that we can’t quite point exactly to a particular meaning. The story resists any reductive reading. What can’t be resisted is the gravitational pull of the tense energy produced by the maelstrom of family tensions between father and son. Just as Georg was compelled to meet his death by drowning, so we are drawn into Kafka’s fictional world, where he breaks down the walls of realism , sending us down into deeper psychological meanings where emotional pain and dislocated identities take over. Kafka’s fiction follows a kind of surreal dream logic where we sense that we’ve arrived at something important and fitting, even though we can’t exactly delineate a coherent representation of something other than the story itself.