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The Last Judgement
Submitted by Taylor Stoehr (profile)

Title and Author: The Last Judgement by Karel Capek
Genre: Short story (an ironic Czech parable)
Theme: Judgment and punishment
Class type: Men's group, mostly black and Hispanic, inexperienced readers

We use this story for our final class, usually in combination with another story (recently, Tolstoy's God Sees the Truth But Waits). Our basic text all semester has been Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, which we read in small segments coupled with supplementary texts, nonfiction and fiction, matched thematically with Douglass. At the end of the semester, however, we will have finished Douglass before coming to this final assignment. The thematic material of the previous week's meeting has to do with "hitting bottom," despair, and forgiveness - themes that are now picked up, in Capek's story from a different angle. The story raises questions about the right of any human being to judge another, while at the same time acknowledging that such judgment is necessary in the modern social order.

In the story, a murderer dies and faces judgment. God appears, not as judge, but as witness, knowing everything. When the murderer asks why God is not his judge, the reply is that knowing everything about a man precludes being able to judge him. The story is very short and straightforward, though it has this rather sophisticated message. It can give rise, in the classroom, to considerable excitement in students who, after all, have recently been judged, for it brings into a new focus the problems of guilt and innocence and the nature of judgment and punishment. Sometimes students express anger at society, sometimes they experience a new sense of compassion, or a new conception of the nature of justice. It's hard to predict.

Most recently, at our graduation ceremony, one student made a speech while accepting his diploma, and in the midst of it, he turned to the judges to tell them the plot of this story, and charged them to remember that they were only human beings too, judging other human beings. This is a good story for getting some closure on problems of "re-entry" into civil society after having been judged and punished by its representatives. If you have a judge sitting in on your classes, it's an especially provocative selection.

Suggested questions and writing prompt:

Who has the right to sit in judgment on others? Is the way that our society deals with judgment and punishment just? How else could it be done?

Other readings: See Douglass's Narrative for connections with the rest of the syllabus.

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