R. Gray
German 390/Comp. Lit. 396/Engl 363/CHID 498/JSIS 488/Lit 298

"Freud and the Literary Imagination"

Lecture Notes: Franz Kafka, "The Judgment"

I. Background

    1. Kafka's self-described mode of literary creation conforms closely with the notion of a spontaneous creativity, unhampered by rational constraints, that is propagated by Freud. In a discussion with Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian founder of anthroposophy (founder of Waldorf education), which took place in 1911, Kafka described his creative state as closely related to the trance, or to moments of peculiar clairvoyance. (See Handout; click here to view handout.)
    2. In his discussion with Dr. Steiner Kafka lays out what he sees as the central conflict of his existence: the tension between his workaday life as a lawyer in a state-run workers compensation insurance agency, and his calling as a creative writer. Kafka feels torn between competing demands for his time and energy: his job, his family responsibilities, his need for concentrated periods of time to devote to his writing.
    3. In a diary entry written the morning after he composed "The Judgment" (see handout; click here to view handout), Kafka describes the emergence of this story from his "unconscious" as a "birth," as an "opening of body and soul." He valorizes this type of creative spontaneity as the only valid form of creativity for him, the only process that produces truly great literature. Kafka would continue throughout his life to see "The Judgment" as one of his most successful texts.

II. Story Line of "The Judgment"

1) On the surface, if read as a "realistic" fiction, "The Judgment" has a relatively simple, but nonetheless seemingly contradictory story line. Georg Bendemann, a young merchant, writes a letter to a childhood friend in St. Petersburg, announcing his engagement to a wealthy woman, Frieda Brandenfeld.
-- Georg then goes to report to his old, decrepit father about the composition of this letter.
-- The father questions the existence of this friend, or his status as "friend."
-- The father announces his alliance with the friend and with Georg's deceased mother. Georg is essentially excluded from the nuclear family.
-- The father accuses Georg of being a devilish human being and condemns him to death by drowning.
-- Georg accepts and voluntarily executes the sentence pronounced by the father, dropping himself from a bridge while declaring his love for his parents.

2) How can we comprehend the course of the narrative? Why does Georg follow through on his father's sentence and accept this condemnation? Is Georg guilty, or is he falsely accused?

III. Ruptures or turning points in the "plot" or development of the story. Why do they take us as readers by surprise? Because they take Georg by surprise, and the narrative works from the outset to locate us inside Georg's head. We view events from his limited perspective.

  1. First indication that something peculiar is at work: Georg reports 3 times to his friend about the marriage of an "unimportant man" to an "unimportant woman": "contrary to his [Georg's] intentions" the friend shows interest in "this notable event" (p. 79). Freud would call this a "slip," a "parapraxis," in which Georg "unconsciously" relates the wish (to boast to the friend about his successful marriage) that he "consciously" tries to hide. What does this say about his relationship to this "friend"?
  2. Georg's fiancee, Frieda, makes assertion that if Georg has friends like the one in Petersburg, he should not marry at all. (p. 80) What does Freida mean? Does she imply a homoerotic relationship between Georg and the friend? Or does she simply believe that if Georg can't be straightforward in his friendships, he shouldn't be getting married either?
  3. The father questions the existence of Georg's friend and admonishes his son to be honest, not to deceive him. (p. 82)
  4. Episode about the "Russian Revolution" and friend's experience of a Priest inciting a mob to violence. (Historical allusion: "Bloody Sunday" massacre, St. Petersburg, January 1905: Father Georgy Gapon.) (p. 83) This historical rebellion against Czar Nicholas II couched a demand for better labor conditions behind a pseudo-religious appeal. Note the relation to the "Sunday" on which this story takes place, and the proximity of names, Georgy and Georg. Social revolution (against the political "father") as parallel to Oedipal revolt on the level of the family?
  5. Father's rebellion against Georg's solicitations (p. 84). The father's "No" in answer to Georg's question about whether he is "well covered up". The father sees more behind Georg's simple words.
  6. Father imitates Frieda’s sexual advances and reveals the scar from his "war wound." (p. 85) What does this scar mean? Is it the sign that the father has successfully avoided "castration"? (Note the location of the scar.) Or does it simply indicate that he is a seasoned warrior, that he has history and the past on his side in his struggle with Georg?
  7. Father condemns Georg to death and crashes to the bed. (p. 87)

IV. But what about the strange figure of the friend in Petersburg? How can we explain the existence and role of this character from the perspective of Freudian theory?

    1) Georg and the friend have a "peculiar relationship of correspondence" (p. 79) = not only their concrete "correspondence" in exchanged letters, but also a symbolic "correspondence" as inherently connected figures.
    2) How can we characterize Georg's relationship with the friend? Belittling (p. 77)? Characterized by unconscious malice? Passive-aggressive ("the more kindly, the more offensively," p. 77)? Dialectic of revelation and concealment? (p. 79; note Georg's "symptomatic" gesture with the letter, p. 81, which he only partially reveals, then conceal again.)
    3) Is this relationship typical of the relations Georg entertains with other people in general? (See the passing acquaintance, whom he barely greets, p. 80) Does it also characterize his relationship and "communications" with the father?

V. Correspondence via Opposition:

The "correspondence between Georg and the friend follows the pattern of opposition we have already observed in "The Country Doctor."





in alien country

stays at home


much social contact


engaged to be married

"big child"

independent man

"innocent child"

"devilish human being"

The father's accusations against Georg are confirmed.
-- Father overturns Georg's projected self-understanding as the dutiful son by exposing him as a cunning and successful "businessman" who is about to conclude a hostile takeover.
-- Father identifies friend as a "son after his own heart" (p. 85).
-- Father identifies the friend and the mother as his allies.

The configuration father / mother / friend is structured in contrast and opposition to the configuration father / mother / Georg.
-- The friend models the negative Oedipal complex: he is closely identified with affectionate feelings toward the father and it is suggested that he is indifferent or even hostile to the mother (see his reported reaction to Georg's news of the mother's death).
-- The friend escapes rivalry with the father, but at the price of sacrificing a "healthy" psycho-sexual development = he is isolated, alone, a bachelor, etc.

VI. Hypothesis from a Freudian perspective: (For background, see Freud Reader, 641-42, on the ambivalent character of the super-ego as introjected authority (father) figure.)

G. is (or feels) "guilty" of Oedipal revolt; he rebels against his father, takes advantage of the death of his mother to assert his authority over the father, wishes his father dead, wants to supplant him, "bury" him ("cover him up") and take over his position of authority in diverse areas. Georg also imitates the father; he practices a radical form of mimesis, trying to become "identical" with the father in stature, authority, social position, economic success, marital status.

1) To pursue this line of interpretation we must understand the text not as a realistic account of events in the world, but rather as a psychic text, a projection into fictional space of Georg's psychological landscape.
-- The narrative perspective of the story is that of Georg himself; we experience the tale as he experiences it; we view events through the filter or lens of Georg's own psyche. (See in this regard the opening paragraphs, which chart a movement from the empirical world outside into the inner core of Georg's psyche.)
-- This calls into question the reliability of the narration, since it reflects Georg's subjective wishes, designs, etc.
-- The narrative is split between the surface thoughts of Georg (his conscious mind) and his deep-seated, unconscious wishes, desires, intentions. (Example: Complete Stories, 80-81) He is, in the father's words, both an "innocent child" (Georg's conscious self-understanding) and a "devilish human being" (Georg's unconscious intentions).

2) What evidence speaks for the father's accusation that Georg is "devilish" to the extent that he is seeking to supplant his father?

      1. Georg has replaced his father in the family business;
        -- Georg has had great success, especially since the death of his mother (see Complete Stories, 78-79).
        -- Georg has neglected his father; hasn't been in his room for months; goes out evening with friends and his fiancée; his mother's death did not adversely affect him
        -- Georg wishes his father would collapse, crash down on the bed. He fails the father's test of his solicitude (see Complete Stories, 86).
      2. But Georg acts out a drama of great care and solicitude toward the father; he treats the father, as it were, as though the father were the child and Georg the father = role reversal.
        -- Offers to exchange rooms with the father.
        -- Puts father to bed and "tucks him in."
        -- Undresses father.
        -- Feels guilty for being neglectful and not doing his filial duty (p. 84).
        -- Resolves to take father into his new household after the marriage to Frieda.
      3. Georg essentially seeks to supplant the father on various fronts:
        1. In business, as the "boss," the breadwinner, the successful and energetic CEO who sacrifices himself for the good of the "firm" and its employees and partners.
        2. In the household, where G. suggests that he and the father change places, change rooms, and change roles.
        3. Georg turns the father into a child and himself assumes the paternal role.
        4. In the sexual domain, Georg assumes the role of progenitor that his father once occupied; death of the mother = father's loss of sexual partner > Georg's libidinal bond with Frieda (see their "hot" kisses, p. 80) and the father's accusation that Georg is attracted to Frieda solely by lust and sexual attachment (see. p. 85).
      4. The German word "Verkehr," meaning commerce, intercourse, sexual interaction, communication, social contact, fuses all these various dimensions into one semantic node; it is the last word of the text, the "traffic" that covers over the sound of Georg's fall from the bridge.

      3) The father defends himself against Georg's Oedipal revolt; he summons his last strength so as to defeat his own son, whom he now sees as his main rival in business, at home, in society, and in sexual matters.
      -- This aspect of the story portrays an intensified Oedipal conflict; Georg has a positive attachment to the mother, who is replaced upon her death by a "proper" sexual substitute, Frieda. Georg feels intense rivalry and hostility toward his father, but also identifies with him in the sense that he wants to take the father's place: Georg imitates the father.
      -- Georg's AMBIVALENCE: he identifies with the father, but also feels hostile toward him.
      -- The turning-point of the story arrives when the father nullifies Georg's Oedipal ambitions and reverses Georg's intended role reversal, asserting his authority over Georg as his father.

      4) Freudian theory can also explain why Georg accepts the father's condemnation and carries out the sentence: Georg has introjected the authority of the father in the form of his own authoritarian and disciplinary super-ego. This is what Freud sees as the result of the Oedipus conflict. Kafka's story portrays the negative consequences, as it were, of this so-called "positive" resolution of the Oedipal complex.

      5) Friend in Petersburg in "negative" Oedipal relation:
      -- Hostility toward mother "his "dry" expression of grief at her death);
      -- Affection for the father (alliance with father; son after father's "own heart")
      -- Feminization; the friend's celibacy, isolation, social marginalization.

VI. Interpretive Conclusions:

1. Kafka's text thus presents us with an either/or situation in which neither alternative is satisfactory; one leads to guilt and death (Georg), the other to celibacy (or worse?), isolation, social marginalization, "feminization."

2. The story thereby plays out the ambivalence Freud attaches, via his thesis of basic human bisexuality, to the Oedipus Complex and the conflicted feelings toward the father that result from it.

VII. Implications of this interpretative frame for the narrative structure of Kafka's story.

    1. Unlike the interior monologue of "Gustl" and the first-person narrative structure of "Country Doctor," "The Judgment" is told in the third person. It presents a third basic possibility of narrative approach for the depiction of Freudian psycho-texts.
    2. "Judgment" is structured around the technique of "narrated monologue" = the relating of the subjective thoughts of the protagonist in the diction of a third-person narrator.
    3. We as readers are presented outwardly with Georg's consciousness, his self-justifications, but we also witness, if we dig deeper, how Georg withholds information from himself, from his father, and from his friend. Georg's letters to his friend as prototype of his psychic constitution = he alludes to events, but refrains from being wholly honest, and we arrive at his true meaning only by reading against his intentions. See pp. 78 & 79.
    4. Georg is deceitful, as is the text (the story) that reflects his conflicted psyche; thus the father's admonition that Georg "tell the whole truth" (p. 82) is justified.
    5. The text is constituted as a reflection of this ambivalence, as a semantic complex that reveals 2 vastly different intentional or psychological planes, the "manifest" and the "latent" content, to use Freud's terminology. These are joined together--coherent with Freudian theory--by certain words ("intercourse," "success," "Verkehr," etc.) or peculiarly contradictory statements voiced by the protagonist. These nodal points expose the "true" meaning that underlies Georg's pleasant, solicitous facade. These nodal points function much in the manner of "Freudian slips"; they are parapraxes of speech or thought (on the level of the character or protagonist) transferred to the text itself. We as interpreters must "analyze" and explain these parapraxes as "symptoms" of the genuine feelings of Georg Bendemann.