Kafka’s "Das Urteil" and the Downfall of the Bourgeoisie
In the bourgeois family, sons must somehow reach maturity against the will of the father and not without experiencing great feelings of guilt and frustration. The protagonist Georg's sense of guilt in "Das Urteil" derives from his relationship to his father. This man, now old and enfeebled, has made himself the sole subject within the family group as husband, father and businessman. Domination of the means of production and reproduction has been the father's lifework. He "owns" the libido of the family, and all the money as well.
In such a monopoly system, guilt and frustration have no boundaries; Georg feels infinitely (though unconsciously) aggressive toward his father for totally dominating both the libidinal and the material means within the family. Georg's unbounded aggressive drives become so extreme and involuted that they lead to neurasthenia, the virtual inability to feel anything due to emotional exhaustion. Yet even the badly impaired Georg, responding to his youthful drives, however cathected (his spring, like the spring vegetation of his home city, is pale and sparse, not vigorous and bright), feels stirrings as he contemplates both his impending marriage and the impending death of his father.
Georg knows he has taken advantage of his father, who lives with him in the same dwelling and is cared for by servants; he neglects him in his weak and powerless old age. The old man lives in the back, while Georg inhabits the brighter rooms in the front. (But isn’t youth a brighter time of life than old age?) Thus the son seems stronger than his aged father, ascending as his father descends, in harmony with the natural order of things. Nonetheless, he feels himself to be in the wrong. It is too soon for him to take over as head of the family. Of the death of the mother the father says that this event has affected him more than it did the son. This is because the death of the mother represents the end of phallic sex, the central event of the family. She dies, not as an individualized woman, but as the representation of the father's potency. Georg knows that his father's sexuality died with the mother, but Georg still cannot replace his father's manhood. For this reason, Georg does not indicate a strong attachment to his fiancee. The first thing Georg says about the woman he plans to marry is that her family is rich, as if he hesitates to think of himself as a person of means. He notes that she responds to his kisses, but as far as we can tell, he remains himself unmoved. He has no strong feelings for her, or so it seems.
In a parodic gesture, as if to break this impasse, the degenerated father exposes himself in order to show his son that he still has the larger sex organ. In this horrible and ludicrous scene, the father's wound, exposed as he lifts his nightshirt, expresses both his manhood (a war wound) and his rejection of his own mother (that psychic wound). Even in ways not immediately apparent, the father and son resemble each other in their libidinal sacrifice. We see the perpetuation or reproduction of family structure, the Oedipal drama, from generation to generation. This Kafka does not directly state, but even so, the issue is clear enough. Georg has displaced his father both in the family trade and by becoming engaged (potentially founding his own nuclear family). The father fights back by reducing his son to an infantile state (I'm bigger than you so you must fear me and obey me), in which larger must be better. He orders Georg to kill himself, and obedience wins out over Georg's (weakened) will to live. But this is only part of the story.
There is a serious distortion of reality, more insane than surreal, in Das Urteil . The father's tantrum is comic, repulsive, terrible and profoundly depressing, all at once. The father has effectively killed his son's will to live, induced him to commit suicide. He has as much as said, "Don't bother to live beyond me. There's nothing left for our kind anymore anyway. It's all futile." Georg's friend in Russia on whom he pins his hopes will not succeed. That market and that possibility for escape have been closed.
As Georg falls to his death, he sees the people streaming over the bridge, those who remain alive, the workers on the march. They symbolize the future. The world revolution of the proletariat is at hand. Love does not exist at all; only power matters, and the power is almost gone; this class of people is on its way out. The implied bourgeois family dies with the son; all hope of renewal for the bourgeoisie goes with him.