last judgement

Karel Čapek (1890-1938), Czech playwright, novelist and short story writer, is recognized for his intelligent humour and exceptional imagination. He’s probably best known for his futuristic play R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots), where he was the first one to use the word ROBOT, invented by his brother Joseph Čapek (poet and cartoonist), as well as for his anti-fascist novel “The War with the Newts”. He was even nominated for the Nobel Prize for the anti-war messages included in his plays. Unfortunately, it was during the Nazi Germany and the Swedish Academy was too afraid to give it to Čapek.

The Last Judgment is just one of the brilliant short detective stories from a hilarious work called “Stories from a Pocket and Stories from Another Pocket”. The story only seems to be pretty straightforward, it’s written with a clever humour with a rather sophisticated message.

The Last Judgment

by Karel Čapek

The notorious multiple-killer Kugler, pursued by several warrants and a whole army of policemen and detectives, swore that he’d never be taken. He wasn’t either – at least not alive. The last of his nine murderous deeds was shooting a policeman who tried to arrest him. The policeman indeed died, but not before putting a total of seven bullets into Kugler. Of these seven, three were fatal. Kugler’s death came so quickly that he felt no pain. And so it seemed Kugler had escaped earthly justice.

When his soul left his body, it should have been surprised at the sight of the next world – a world beyond space, grey, and infinitely desolate – but it wasn’t. A man who has been jailed on two continents looks upon the next life merely as new surroundings. Kugler expected to struggle through, equipped only with a bit of courage, as he had in the last world.

At length the inevitable Last Judgment got around to Kugler. The judges were old and worthy councilors with austere, bored faces. Kugler complied with the usual tedious formalities: Ferdinand Kugler, unemployed, born on such and such a date, died… at this point it was shown Kugler didn’t know the date of his own death. Immediately he realized this was a damaging omission in the eyes of the judges; his spirit of helpfulness faded.

“Do you plead guilty or not guilty?” asked the presiding judge.

“Not guilty,” said Kugler obdurately.

“Bring in the first witness,” the judge sighed.

Opposite Kugler appeared an extraordinary gentleman, stately, bearded, and clothed in a blue robe strewn with golden stars.

At his entrance, the judges arose. Even Kugler stood up, reluctant but fascinated. Only when the old gentleman took a seat did the judges again sit down.

“Witness,” began the presiding judge, “omniscient God, this court has summoned you in order to hear your testimony in the case against Kugler, Ferdinand. As you are the supreme truth, you need not take the oath. In the interest of the proceedings, however, we ask you to keep to the subject at hand rather than branch out into particulars – unless they have a bearing on this case.”

“And you, Kugler, don’t interrupt the witness. He knows everything, so there’s no use denying anything.”

“And now, witness, if you would please begin.”

God, the witness, coughed lightly and began:

“Yes. Kugler, Ferdinand. Ferdinand Kugler, son of a factory worker, was a bad, unmanageable child from his earliest days. He loved his mother dearly, but was unable to show it, this made him unruly and defiant. Young man, you irked everyone! Do you remember how you bit your father on the thumb when he tried to spank you? You had stolen a rose from the notary’s garden.”

“The rose was for Irma, the tax collector’s daughter,” Kugler said.

“I know,” said God. “Irma was seven years old at that time. Did you ever hear what happened to her?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“She married Oscar, the son of the factory owner. But she contracted a venereal disease from him and died of a miscarriage. You remember Rudy Zaruba?”

“What happened to him?”

“Why, he joined the navy and died accidentally in Bombay. You two were the worst boys in the whole town. Kugler, Ferdinand, was a thief before his tenth year and an inveterate liar. He kept bad company, too: old Gribble, for instance, a drunkard and an idler, living on handouts. Nevertheless, Kugler shared many of his own meals with Gribble.”

The presiding judge motioned with his hand, as if much of this was perhaps unnecessary, but Kugler himself asked hesitantly, “And… what happened to his daughter?” “What’s she doing right now?”

“This very minute she’s buying thread at Wolfe’s. Do you remember that shop? Once, when you were six years old, you bought a colored glass marble there. On that very same day you lost it and never, never found it. Do you remember how you cried with rage?”

“Whatever happened to it?” Kugler asked eagerly.

“Well, it rolled into the drain and under the gutterspout. Right now it’s still there, after thirty years. Right now it’s raining on earth and your marble is shivering in the gush of cold water.”

Kugler bent his head, overcome by this revelation. But the presiding judge fitted his spectacles back on his nose, and said mildly, “Witness, we are obliged to get on with the case. Has the accused committed murder?”

“He murdered nine people. The first one he killed in a brawl, and it was during his prison term for his crime that he became completely corrupted. The second victim was his unfaithful sweetheart. For that he was sentenced to death, but he escaped. The third was an old man whom he robbed. The fourth was a night watchman.”

“Then he died?” Kugler asked.

“He died after three days in terrible pain,” God said. “And he left six children behind him. The fifth and sixth victims were an old married couple. He killed them with an axe and found only sixteen dollars, although they had twenty thousand hidden away.”

Kugler jumped up. “Where?”

“In the straw mattress,” God said. “In a linen sack inside the mattress. That’s where they hid all the money they acquired from greed and penny-pinching. The seventh man he killed in America, a countryman of his, a bewildered, friendless immigrant.”

“So it was in the mattress,” whispered Kugler in amazement.

“Yes,” continued God. “The eighth man was merely a passerby who happened to be in Kugler’s way when Kugler was trying to outrun the police. At that time Kugler had periostitis and was delirious from the pain. Young man, you were suffering terribly. The ninth and last was the policeman who killed Kugler exactly when Kugler shot him.”

“And why did the accused commit murder?” asked the presiding judge.

“For the same reasons others have,” answered God. “Out of anger or desire for money, both deliberately and accidentally-some with pleasure, others from necessity. However, he was generous and often helpful. He was kind to women, gentle with animals, and kept his word. Am I to mention his good deeds?”

“For the same reasons others have,” answered God. “Out of anger or desire for money, both deliberately and accidentally – some with pleasure, others from necessity. However, he was generous and often helpful. He was kind to women, gentle with animals, and kept his word. Am I to mention his good deeds?”

“Thank you,” said the presiding judge, “but it isn’t necessary. Does the accused have anything to say in his own defense?”

“No,” Kugler replied with honest indifference.

“The judges of this court will now take this matter under advisement,” declared the presiding judge, and the three of them withdrew.

Only God and Kugler remained in the courtroom.

“Who are they?” asked Kugler, indicating with his head the men who just left.

“People like you,” answered God. “They were judges on earth, so they’re judges here as well.”

Kugler nibbled his fingertips. “I expected… I mean, I never really thought about it. But I figured you would judge since…”

“Since I’m God,” finished the stately gentleman. “But that’s just it, don’t you see? Because I know everything, I can’t possibly judge. That wouldn’t do at all. By the way, do you know who turned you in this time?”

“No, I don’t,” said Kugler, surprised.

“Lucky, the waitress. She did it out of jealousy.”

“Excuse me,” Kugler ventured, “but you forgot about that good-for-nothing Teddy I shot in Chicago.”

“Not at all,” God said. “He recovered and is alive this very minute. I know he’s an informer, but otherwise he’s a very good man and terribly fond of children. You shouldn’t think of any person as being completely worthless.”

“But I still don’t understand why you aren’t the judge,” Kugler said thoughtfully.
“But why are they judging… the same people who were judges on earth?”

“Because man belongs to man. As you see, I’m only the witness. But the verdict is determined by man, even in heaven. Believe me, Kugler, this is the way it should be. Man isn’t worthy of divine judgment. He deserves to be judged only by other men.”

At that moment, the three returned from their deliberation. In heavy tones the presiding judge announced, “For repeated crimes of first – degree murder, manslaughter, robbery, disrespect for the law, illegally carrying weapons, and for the theft of a rose; Kugler, Ferdinand, is sentenced to lifelong punishment in hell.

“Next case please: Torrance, Frank.”

“Is the accused present in court?”

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8 Insightful Bits in response to “A Bit Of Literature – The Last Judgment”

  1. What a coincidence. I’m reading “War With The Newts”, and recently bought “Stories From a Pocket”, but haven’t started it yet. Čapek is a brilliant writer, and although the play, RUR feels a little dated now, his writing is beautiful, his imagination wonderful; he is a true story teller, insightful. and even gives humor to the profound.

    Thanks, Vivien. Nice to start the day with Čapek.

  2. Vivien

    that is quite a coincidence :-) I’m sure you’ll enjoy Stories from a Pocket. I’ve read them long time ago and should re-read them soon.
    I didn’t read War with the Newts though. What do you think about it so far?

  3. Interesting. And for some reason it seems so modern considering it was written in the early twentieth. Have you read The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov? I makes me wonder why the Eastern Bloc seems to have taken a playful tone about god and religion so early on while American authors took decades before we got to play with god. I have to wonder if Hemingway and his terse prose didn’t have something to do with this. :)

  4. Vivien

    Hi Joseph. Yes, I did read The Master and Margarita. Bulgakov was one of the persecuted and prohibited writers in Soviet Russia, so his books didn’t get widely publicized until much later.

    There’s another outstanding work by Bulgakov, called Heart Of A Dog. I highly recommend reading it. It’s the harshest satire ever written about the Soviet regime. There was even a movie based on that book, that didn’t get released until Gorbachev came to power, and started Perestroyka.
    The incredible thing about this book, that it could be applied not only to Soviet period.

    There’s actually an online text version of this book, so you don’t have to spend any money on reading it.

  5. mhay ann azada

    can i ask? in the story of the last judgement by karel capek, how does it show his inventiveness?

  6. mhay ann, why do you ask that? nobody mentioned Čapek being inventive in this particular story.

  7. lei

    i have a question.

    1)What is the point in making God the witness instead of the judge, as 1 would normally expect? what are the implications made by this statement: because i know everything, i can’t possibly judge.
    2)What do judges consider irrelevant in God’s account of Kugler’s life?for what instance, why does the water include and the theft for a rose?
    3)Is this story a commentary in heavenly justice alone?what about any implication regarding the nature and consequences for the human justice?explain.

  8. i think what he tries to illustrate is that man is a much harsher judge than God is. Since God is all knowing, he will find it harder to make a judgement on an individual because he will have knowledge of both the good and bad sides of one’s character. When someone can see both sides to a story they will be more compassionate and find it harder to reach a firm judgement.

    And God doesn’t really live on Earth and the crimes we commit do not affect him directly. They only impact man. Therefore man is a more appropriate judge for other men’s crimes than God is. God with his power serves as a suitable witness as he is able to reveal objectively every detail of a man’s life.

    Finally I personally believe that Capek is out to show that man is much harder on his fellow beings than God can ever be.

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Hi, I'm Vivien. Thanks for visiting my Inspiration Bit. I often find myself scouring the internet looking for either answers to many questions I have or websites that inspire me, sites that I can learn from. On what topics you might ask — any topics that interest me, anything from web design to typography and art, from blogging to entrepreneurship, from programming to open source.
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When I'm not blogging, I design web sites, teach, play with my daughter and try to balance family, work, friends and a somewhat active social life on