Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1248
“The Burrow” opens with the successful completion of the burrow and the narrator claiming that he is no longer afraid, then immediately stating his fear that someone could inadvertently discover the opening of the burrow and “destroy everything for good.” Though at the zenith of his life, he cannot be tranquil, even in his burrow’s strongest, innermost chamber, for some unknown, unnamed enemy may be burrowing toward him. The narrator has the advantage of knowing all the burrow’s passages and each of its more than fifty rooms; he is, however, growing old. Not only do real, external enemies frighten him; so do legendary creatures of the inner earth, in whom he firmly believes. Still, the burrow is peaceful, and hunting the “small fry” that venture through it gives him a constant, if modest, food supply.
The narrator boasts particularly of his Castle Keep, the burrow’s chief cell, into the construction of which he has literally poured his life’s blood, pounding its walls with his forehead to harden them. In the Keep he has placed all of his food stores, the extent of which he now gloatingly contemplates. On the other hand, he sometimes fears that storing all of his food in one place may be disastrously wrong. At such times, he panics and feverishly redistributes it to several chambers, randomly. Then, reflecting on the problems with the scheme—and the cost to his conceit when he can no longer see all of his stores together—he puts them back in the Castle Keep, wishing now that he had planned and constructed several of them when he was younger. At times, the tempting smells of the stockpiled food overwhelm him: Gorging sessions ensue, followed by renewed guilt and recrimination.
Such lapses always lead to a review of the burrow’s entire plan, and his gluttony necessitates his leaving the burrow to restock it. As he approaches the elaborate labyrinth just inside the entrance, he feels both pride in this theoretically brilliant tour de force and fear that it could not sustain a serious attack. In any case, it is too late now to think seriously of constructing another, absolutely impregnable labyrinth; that would take a giant’s strength, of which he can only dream.
Exiting through the moss-covered trapdoor, he momentarily appreciates the freedoms of life outside: the better (if more difficult) hunting, the sense of bodily strength. However, he can never venture too far from the burrow; indeed, the thought of its presence sustains him. Even watching the entrance for days and nights on end reaffirms his sense of its safety: He has yet to see anyone investigating the front door. Admittedly, he has had to flee at the scent of any serious enemy, so he cannot be sure of their ignorance of or attitude toward the burrow. This very reflection on its safety inevitably leads him to consider its perils. He even briefly toys with the idea of going back to his pre-burrow existence, “one indiscriminate succession of perils,” but perils whose universality kept him from focusing on any particular one—as he now must do.
The fear of reentering the burrow also paralyzes him for days: An enemy might see him enter and, unobserved, follow him down the hole and attack. He thinks, if only he had someone, a “trusty confederate,” to stand guard. However, then the advantage of the burrow, its secrecy, would be lost, for the trustee would need to know of it, perhaps even to see inside, perhaps even to share it. Also, the narrator would be obliged to rely on the trustee, even though he could not supervise his ally. It is best after all, he concludes, not to complain that he is alone and has nobody to trust.
The narrator daydreams of a two-entrance burrow, which would allow him to watch one entrance unobserved while peeping from the other. The dream, however, shames him. Is not the burrow more than enough already, a place still and empty where he can be so at home as even to accept death calmly? Finally, worn out by the internal turmoil, he creeps exhaustedly back inside and tries to sleep.
Being back in the burrow, however, reawakens his zeal for inspecting and improving on it, tired from his hunting, wandering, watching, and fretting though he may be. His new supply of flesh must be stored in the Castle Keep, the few small defects in the fortress repaired, and all the other rooms and passages visited and inspected. Still, the joy of being back home makes the work seem like play: He goes contentedly about it until overcome by sleep.
He wakes to an almost inaudible whistling noise. At first, he attributes it to the small fry’s having burrowed a new channel somewhere, a passage that has intersected an older one and produced the bothersome sound. He sets off to find and repair the noise’s source. As the search continues, however, the noise seems more pervasive, more troubling, more distinct and uniform wherever he is. Perhaps there are two noises. The whistling is audible even in the Castle Keep, where the insolent small fry apparently have penetrated, drawn by the smell of his hoard. Why has he not heard them before, though? Perhaps the intruder is a new, unknown animal—or a swarm of them. Alternating between feigned nonchalance and desperate agitation, the narrator determines to find the truth, whatever the labor and the consequence. He conceives and abandons various schemes, attempts to ignore the noise, eats and pretends it was never there, busies himself repairing the walls.
However, as he does so the noise seems subtly louder and closer. Fearful, distracted, he wanders about the burrow, finding himself eventually at the entrance. Outside, all seems tranquil, as it used to be in the burrow, which is now “plunged into the melee of the world and all its perils.” He pauses between the surface and below, his conviction growing that a single, large beast is approaching his home, burrowing at furious speed and sending reverberations great distances through the ground. The whistling must come from the beast’s pointed muzzle; it works with constant freshness and vigor, never veering from its object.
Cursing himself that he has not been constantly prepared for such a foe, longing for the “petty dangers” of the past, wondering why he has not defended the burrow more elaborately against such a danger as the present one, the narrator now thinks back to an earlier, similar peril. Then, at the beginning of his work, he had heard another burrower approach, then move away. Perhaps that burrower is returning, though the narrator remains as unprepared as before. In fact, his situation is worse: He now has an elaborate burrow to defend, yet he is no longer the vigorous young apprentice who might successfully do so but an “old architect.” Even death seems preferable to this new life, filled with uncertainty and ceaseless anxiety.
At last, the narrator retreats to the Castle Keep, there to munch on the flesh of his stores and wonder about the approaching beast. Is it merely wandering, or is it digging its own burrow? Does the beast know about him? If so, how, because his own digging has been so quiet, his own movement so discreet? The narrative—apparently unfinished, the ending lost or destroyed—closes abruptly, leaving the narrator isolated, fearful, with none of his questions answered, and the noise continuing unabated.
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