Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
This story centers on Argentine writer Julio Cortázar’s favorite theme: the monstrous, the bestial as mysteriously attached to human destiny. The main meaning of this particular story, “Axolotl,” is that it raises the question of the mysterious relationship between the human subject and the animal kingdom. After all, we cannot look into the heads of other creatures; for all we know, they may be thinking about philosophy and are simply unable to express their thoughts. “Axolotl” also explores the question of the empathy between creator and reader; in a sense readers are being sucked into the text. If the story is successful, according to Cortázar’s criterion, readers will feel sucked into its plot and arrive at a meeting of minds similar to that between the narrator and the axolotl.
Also present as a theme in this story is the notion of unease with the human body. In an essay on the short story and its environment published in 1969, Cortázar explains how writing serves as an exorcism for him, a way of “casting out invading creatures,” and this seems to fit “Axolotl” in the sense that it appears to exorcise a feeling of nausea created by a sense of entrapment within the clumsy heaviness of the human body. “Axolotl” is gripping precisely because it speaks to its readers about a more elemental feeling, that of the soul being trapped within a body, or spirit being trapped within matter. This is an archetypal idea to which many...
(The entire section is 376 words.)
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One of Cortazar's most famous stories, "Axolotl" is told by a man who has been transformed into an axolotl, a species of salamander, after spending many hours watching axolotls in an aquarium. As an axolotl, the man still sees the human he used to be and hopes the human will write a story about a man who becomes an axolotl. Many critics find the axolotl's final comment to be the pervading theme of Cortazar's short fiction—that through art one can become another and communicate on behalf of all creatures, so that none may feel the terror of isolation and imprisonment. "Axolotl" was published at a time when Cortazar was no longer living in his native Argentina, but had moved to Paris, France. The story is set in Paris and appears to take place in the time it was written. Critic Terry J. Peavler has noted that the existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, an important intellectual movement of the day, influenced "Axolotl." In fact, existentialism, which began in France, inspired many authors of the 1950s, including Irish playwright Samuel Beckett and French authors Albert Camus and Jean Genet. Peavler draws a comparison between "Axolotl" and Sartre's book Being and Nothingness, which was published the same year. Sartre felt that individuals create their own identities through their choices and actions. While people should not think of themselves as comprising a fixed set of characteristics or categories, neither should they go to the other extreme and...
(The entire section is 1177 words.)
Change and Transformation
On one level, the narrator has been transformed into an axolotl. On another, deeper, level he has become a more enlightened being. The literal transformation of man into animal can be understood as a metaphor (a word, thing, or action applied to a distinctly different kind of word, thing or action, without asserting a direct comparison) for a kind of spiritual transformation. In other words, the narrator was unable to think beyond his rational conception of himself until he entered the mind of the axolotl and realized that there were other ways of experiencing existence. The transformation, however, is not complete, since the physical man still exists outside the tank and eventually stops visiting it and his axolotl-self. The existence of the story, however, seems to confirm that some permanent change in the man outside the tank has taken place, since he has presumably retained enough of his insights to write the story.
The man's consciousness struggles against his unconscious. Contemporary studies of human behavior suggest that all people have in the unconscious mind a primitive and instinctual side that they repress more and more deeply as they grow from infancy into adulthood. In contrast, animals never bury these forces. Many psychologists believe that accessing the unconscious can provide a person with a more complete way of living and perceiving the world. This is why psychologists...
(The entire section is 889 words.)