Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
An unnamed man living in Paris becomes fascinated by an axolotl, a creature that he observes in the aquarium of the Jardin des Plantes. (A salamander noted for its permanent retention of larval features, such as external gills, the axolotl, or axolote, is found in lakes near Mexico City, where it is considered edible.) Despite its association with the everyday, the creature gradually assumes a mysterious quality as the narrator’s fascination with the animal intensifies. He visits the exhibit every day and feels a growing affinity between himself and the creature. His description of the axolotl is realistic (the axolotl is like a lizard, about six inches long, with a delicate fish tail and paws), but he adds some eerie details. The creatures have humanlike nails and eyes with unfathomable depth.
After the narrator describes the axolotl in the fourth paragraph of the story, the first hint appears that the affinity between him and the axolotl goes beyond that of a naturalist’s love for the object of his study. Suddenly the narrator starts speaking in the first-person plural, as if he himself were an axolotl: “We don’t like moving around too much, and the aquarium is so cramped; we hardly move and then we bang our tail or our head into another one of us; then we get problems, fights, tiredness. Time is less oppressive if we stay still.” The narrator is projecting himself into the mind of the creature that he is observing; it is the first indication...
(The entire section is 526 words.)
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"Axolotl" opens with a blunt summary of its own plot: "There was a time when I thought a great deal about the axolotls I went to see them in the aquarium at the Jardin des Plantes and stayed for hours watching them, observing their immobility, their faint movements. Now I am an axolotl." An axolotl, the narrator later explains, is the larval stage of a type of salamander.
The rest of the story recounts how this fantastic transformation took place. The narrator, a man living in Paris, has grown bored with the lions and panthers he usually observes at the zoo, the Jardin des Plantes. He decides to explore the aquarium and unexpectedly "hits it off with the axolotls.'' A sign above the tank tells him they are Mexican, but he already knows this because their pink faces remind him of Aztecs. He begins to visit the axolotls several times a day. He peers through the glass for hours, studying them closely. He becomes particularly fascinated by their golden eyes, which suggest to him "the presence of a different life, of another way of seeing."
As time goes on he feels a growing sense of relationship with the axolotls. One day, as he is pressing his face against the glass, he suddenly realizes that he is no longer looking at the face of an axolotl inside the tank but at his own face, staring into the tank from outside At that instant he realizes that it is impossible for the man to understand the world of the axolotl: "He was outside the aquarium, his...
(The entire section is 375 words.)