"Freud and the Literary Imagination"
Lecture Notes: Franz Kafka, "The Judgment"
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.
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
"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?
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.