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 religions have appealed.
The main reason Cortázar uses the axolotl as a focus for his story is that it is one of the few species in nature that dies before completing its metamorphosis; it reproduces during its larval stage, and thus is a curious example within the natural world of an incomplete life-form. (When the Austrian scientist Alexander von Humboldt brought the first specimen from Mexico to Paris in the nineteenth century, the discovery that it could reproduce in its larval stage caused a sensation in the scientific world.) The axolotl’s incomplete metamorphosis also makes it appropriate for Cortázar’s story: Stunted in its growth, it mirrors the human mind trapped within a body and forced to a basic, “animal” level of existence.