Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Although parables in the traditional sense are thought of as didactic stories with a moral truth or insight, Kafka’s tales do not purport to have arrived at such truths. Instead they record observations on the human experience. Because the human condition, at least to Kafka’s eye, is experienced as a fragmented, incoherent, sometimes mystifying, and frightening existence, stories such as “The Hunter Gracchus” do not proceed from a clear beginning through a logical series of developments to a conclusive ending. They are marked by apparent disjunctions of thought and seemingly arbitrary, extraneous elements. Told—like parables—in analogous, not literal terms, they nevertheless embody a realism of their own. However, it is not Gracchus’s fantastic story that is realistic; it is rather the sense of unending limbo, a twilight existence between life and death, and the helplessness that he feels that constitute Kafka’s realism.

Certain elements of “The Hunter Gracchus” are palpably symbolic—the doves that announce the hunter’s arrival, the fifty or so little boys who form the receiving line for the burgomaster, and the picture of the spear-wielding bushman in Gracchus’s cabin. Exactly what the symbolism means is difficult to say; this is the sort of device that gives rise to interpretive disputes over Kafka’s writings.

There is also a familiar, superficial realism about the story. The waterfront setting in which it begins, with boys playing at dice, a man reading his newspaper, the denizens of the café, a monument to some military hero, the fruit peels littering the street, the exterior and interior details of the house where the bier is taken; these lend the story a “realistic” overlay. However, in fact they parody traditional realism because they distract from, rather than explicate or complement, the main idea of the parable. This level of realism, especially as it focuses on the ordinary and unswept corners of life, may establish an initial credibility for the narrative, but there is humor in its dull ordinariness, and because of that, it contrasts all the more starkly with the grave existential “illness” that Gracchus’s fate engenders in the rest of humanity.