Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Through the device of the theatrical illusion in “Instructions for John Howell,” Cortázar develops one of the more terrifying aspects of the loss of political innocence. The actor who portrays John Howell becomes John Howell. In like manner, the tall man who gives the instructions points out that Rice is no longer Rice, nor is he an actor. Rather, he is John Howell. The transformation of the “real” person into the character that he is portraying occurs in the text through the language of the narrator, who frequently refers to the actor as Howell and, in the last moment of the story, uses pronouns ambiguously to confuse the identities of the two men: the two John Howells crouched in the alleyway to elude their unseen pursuers. Thus, the narrator’s linguistic structures reinforce the theme of the effect of oppression on the freedom of the individual.

The transformation of the character into another person, or the mutation of the individual into an object with which the individual is obsessed, occurs frequently in Cortázar’s stories, and it always is effected through the narrative voice. It is evident that Rice becomes John Howell onstage not so much because of what he does but because of what he says, and because of his conviction that he can alter the reality of the play by his words. The illusion of the play becomes for Rice/Howell an inevitable reality that can be changed only by the force of his linguistic resources.

The narrator begins the story with words that provide an explanation for the seemingly impossible events: “Thinking about it afterwards—on the street, in a train, crossing fields—all that would have seemed absurd, but what is theater but a compromise with the absurd and its most efficient, lavish practice?” These words not only justify the denouement of the plot but also create a symmetry in the narrative, for the reference to street, train, and fields anticipates the aftermath of the events: Rice (or Howell) fleeing his pursuers by way of streets, trains, and fields.