Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Because “The Burrow” is a long and finally inconclusive fragment, it is difficult to establish with certainty Franz Kafka’s thematic intent. (One version of its creation asserts that the narrator ultimately meets and defeats the unknown animal, an ending that seems at variance tonally with the rest of the story.) Readers aware that this was one of Kafka’s last stories tend to view the narrator as a mask for the author himself. In this view, the burrow is a metaphor for either Kafka’s body—being besieged by various internal ailments as well as by Death, the unknown “outside” him—or the body of Kafka’s work—the structure of puzzles he has set for readers who wish to attack the heart of Kafka’s meaning, to know him.

At any rate, the story clearly deals with fear of the outside world, perhaps even paranoia, and the results of that fear. The central figure, like those in Kafka’s more finished and better-known stories “Die Verwandlung” (“Metamorphosis”) and “Ein Landartzt” (“The Country Doctor”) is isolated from his usual sources of security. A nightmare existence ensues, with no miraculous awakening or reversal. In the most general reading, the narrator’s condition resembles that of humanity itself, feverishly toiling to achieve security and happiness but inevitably condemned to death. The narrator, like Albert Camus’s Sisyphus, has only his work; unlike that existentialist hero, however, he cannot be imagined happy or even, within his limits, free. Instead, he is trapped in a prison of his own making, his paranoia (perhaps justified by the facts of his existence) continuing and intensifying as his end draws near.