Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Written only a few months before his death, Franz Kafka’s last tale depicts the conflict between an artist seeking proper recognition for her work and a community that has only limited understanding of her artistry. As the title indicates, Josephine, a name that echoes that of Joseph K., protagonist of Kafka’s novel Der Prozess (1925; The Trial, 1937), and the mouse folk exist in a reciprocal relationship, one in which, however, neither side can comprehend the truth of the other. Because Josephine is seen through the eyes of one of her critics, albeit one who tries hard to be as objective as possible, it is hardly surprising that the outcome of the narrator’s reflections is the downfall of the artist and the triumph of the superior wisdom of the mouse folk.

The narrator ascribes the powerful effect of Josephine’s singing not to any vocal talent—her squeaking is clearly substandard—but to the gestures and style of her performance and, more important, to the receptivity of her audience. The mice appear to be particularly moved by the silence that precedes her singing as well as by the opportunity it provides for a communal respite from their labors and worries. Josephine’s insistence on special privileges and recognition of her exceptional status, however, eventually undermines any claims she might have to be a protector of the mouse folk.

At the end of his life, Kafka thus seemed to condemn the artist’s claim to autonomy and radical individuality and affirm instead the artist’s function within a responsive community. Neither Josephine’s personality nor the quality of her art will be remembered by this ahistorical folk, but rather the liberating power of her performances in the midst of danger, worry, and haste. Paradoxically, her redemption will come about only when she as a heroic individual is forgotten, leaving nothing but the collective memory of the dreams and the sense of well-being that her singing induced.