Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 584

The parable of the hunter Gracchus, with its overtones of both classical mythology and Germanic legend, is perhaps most reminiscent of the folk saga of the Flying Dutchman, the man whose blasphemous boasting condemned him to sail the seas on his ghostly ship forever unless released from his punishment by the faithfulness of a woman. He too, like Gracchus, sought death as a liberation from his endless wanderings, but he found himself powerless to end his own life. Like Gracchus, the voyager of the legend was accorded the chance to come ashore from his ship periodically to seek that which might free him from the curse.

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However, Gracchus is condemned to sail wherever the winds may drive his boat without the benefit of knowing the offense of which he is guilty, and this is where his story differs so significantly from the legend of the Flying Dutchman and what makes his plight so characteristic of the human condition as Franz Kafka confronts it. Indeed, as he says, Gracchus lived his life as he had been meant to live it: joyously, proudly, and with distinction. His labors were blessed. He was known as the Great Hunter of the Black Forest. The death that he thought was his, and for which he still wishes, is not a desperate wish but rather the natural consequence and fitting reward for the life that went before it. He met death gladly and expectantly, donning his shroud as a bride would her wedding gown. “Then came the mishap.”

It was the fault of the boatman, Gracchus claims, and if anyone could explain what went wrong in his crossing from life into death, it would be this enigmatic figure. A number of Kafka’s novels and stories include such persons. It is sometimes unclear whether they are the guides who show the way or the guards who bar it. Often they appear to be both, seemingly helpful but then again frustratingly ineffectual or even perversely obstructive. The boatman in this story does not speak a word and is no longer present when Gracchus tells his story to the burgomaster, yet he seems to control the course of events. His actions, even if arbitrary and inexplicable, are not subject to question, and the passenger, whatever his station and distinctions otherwise in life, is at his mercy. The boatman calls to mind the mythical ferryman Charon, but he is a Charon in reverse: not the guide who makes entry into the realm of the dead possible, but the one who presumably committed the fatal error and now keeps Gracchus a wanderer while maintaining silence about the reason for it and about the eventual fate of his passenger.

Gracchus (still a hunter, even though he once believed his hunting days were happily over) hovers between two worlds. He tells the burgomaster that he is dead but also still alive. One might also say that he is neither and that the “no man’s land” he now inhabits may help to explain the open end of the story. It has been said of Kafka himself that, occupying a kind of border territory between sociability and solitude, he could not live; but that condition enabled him to observe how life was lived. So it is with Gracchus. He cannot intend to stay in Riva or to leave again because intending is not within his power now. He can say only, “I am here, more than that I do not know, further than that I cannot go.”

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