Julio Cortázar Essay - Critical Essays

Julio Cortázar Short Fiction Analysis

Influenced by the European movements of nineteenth century Symbolism and twentieth century Surrealism, Julio Cortázar combines symbols, dreams, and the fantastic with what seems to be an ordinary, realistic situation in order to expose a different kind of reality that exists in the innermost heart and mind of modern human beings. Like Edgar Allan Poe, Cortázar is fascinated by terror. He uses human beings’ worst nightmares to explore which fears control them and how phobias and dreams coexist with seemingly rational thought. Using symbols and metaphors for subconscious obsessions, Cortázar’s short fictions, unlike those of the Surrealists, are carefully constructed. His journey into the irrational is not a free-flowing adventure; rather, it is a study of a particular corner of the mind that is common to all people.


“Bestiary,” an early story published in 1951, contains many of the elements of poesy and mystery that are characteristic of the nineteenth century Symbolists so admired by Cortázar. The story is told by a child whose scope of understanding and point of view are limited, thereby leaving certain details vague and confusing. Isabel is sent to the country for the summer to stay in a home inhabited by another child, Nino, and three adults: Luis, Nino’s father; Rema, who may or may not be Nino’s mother, Luis’ wife or sister, Nino’s sister, or the housekeeper; and the Kid, who is not a kid but Luis’ brother. The information given about the family is not specific in those terms, but it is quite specific in Isabel’s feelings about each person. The over whelming oddity about this summer home is that a tiger is allowed to roam freely about the house and grounds. The people are advised as to the location of the tiger each day, and they go about their business as usual by simply avoiding the room or part of the fields in which the tiger happens to be.

Life seems to be filled with very typical activities: Luis works in his study; the children gather an ant collection; and Rema supervises meals. Isabel is especially fond of Rema but not of the Kid. Events are relayed that expose Isabel’s true feelings about the Kid and the kind of person she believes him to be. He is surly at the dinner table. Once, after Nino has hit a ball through the window leading to the Kid’s room, the Kid hits Nino; the most disturbing moment, however, is a scene between Rema and the Kid during which Isabel acts as a voyeur, revealing some sort of sexual abuse on the part of the Kid toward Rema. Because of Isabel’s admiration for Rema, she decides to take revenge on the Kid. The culmination of the story is that Isabel lies to the family about the whereabouts of the tiger, sending the Kid into the room where the animal is. Screams are heard, and it is clear that the Kid has been mauled to death. Isabel notices that Rema squeezes her hand with what the child believes to be gratitude.

Many critics have speculated about the meaning of the tiger. Cortázar, in true Symbolist fashion, has himself said that the reader receives a richer experience if no specific symbol is attributed to the animal in this story. As in the works of Poe, constant tension and terror pervade the work, and the tiger’s meaning becomes a relative one—a personal nightmare for each character and each reader.

“Letter to a Young Lady in Paris”

“Letter to a Young Lady in Paris” begins on a charming note. It is a letter from a young man to his girlfriend, who is visiting Paris. She has asked him to move into her apartment, and, through very delicate language, he tries to convince her that he would disrupt her very orderly and truly elegant apartment. He succumbs to her wishes, however, and moves his belongings, but on the way up in the elevator he begins to feel sick. Panic ensues when he vomits a bunny rabbit, and, while living in the apartment, each wave of anxiety produces another. Soon, he is sequestering ten bunny rabbits in an armoire. The rabbits sleep in the daytime and are awakened at night; he manages to keep his secret from his girlfriend’s nosy maid. The nocturnal insomnia and the constant production of bunny rabbits drive him to jump out the window along with the last one regurgitated. The charming letter is really a suicide note, and the seemingly eccentric but sweet story becomes a horrific account of phobia and insanity.


Cortázar seems particularly fascinated with the unusual placement of animals in...

(The entire section is 1851 words.)