Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

For Franz Kafka and for his narrator, the world of this story is an alien one, geographically and culturally. The two sides between which he finds himself know their places and their desires, but the outsider is subjected to confusion. As in many of Kafka’s narratives, he hears conflicting sides of an issue and is not in the position to know which is correct. In fact, probably both are valid in “Jackals and Arabs.” The beasts and the men exist in a dual relationship of enmity and symbiosis, hating each other and needing each other to survive and flourish. Their symbiotic existence may be considered a part of the natural order of life, but not their enmity, for it relies on deception and duplicity, and these are human, not animal, traits. Thus, the jackals appeal to a noble sense of cleanliness in order to have the stranger assume the guilt of murdering their enemies. The Arabs are equally perfidious, if less sophisticated, in their treatment of the beasts. The caravan driver asserts that the jackals make finer dogs than any of the ordinary kind, yet he gives them the food they crave most and then would drive them repeatedly from it with his whip. It is a closed world that functions handsomely and is founded on age-old traditions of coexistence, yet the sum of its parts is paradoxical.

Alongside this commentary on the strange system itself is the portrait Kafka presents of the outsider momentarily caught in it. “Jackals and Arabs” is also about the “Northerner,” the European, a satire on the presumed superiority of Western thought and culture. It is given to the cunning old jackal to flatter the storyteller as a savior from the North, clever and possessed of an intelligence not found in the Arabs, and it is possible that he would be taken in by the flattery. Should his European wisdom fail him, in any case, there is great persuasive force in the teeth of the encircling jackals, two of them already locked on his clothing. Luckily, however, the narrator has no time to consider the rightness of what he is asked to do, for the caravan leader’s intervention relieves him of making that decision.