Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Instructions for John Howell” is representative of the artistic and political concerns that are evident in all the fiction of Julio Cortázar. As in many of his stories, Cortázar here elaborates on a familiar theme: the juxtaposition of art and life through the device of a play viewed by a spectator who cannot distinguish the theatrical illusion from the world of real experience. The theme is primarily an artistic one, for it questions the relative authenticity of reality and art, but it becomes in Cortázar’s story a symbolic representation of the conflict of individual liberty and the restrictiveness of organized social and political forces. Rice is forced into the role that he must play, is given specific instructions on how to play it, and is ostracized and then pursued by unseen oppressive forces when he exerts his individual will in an effort to change the inevitable outcome of the events.

Although Cortázar always declared himself in sympathy with socialist societies such as Salvador Allende’s Chile and Fidel Castro’s Cuba, he did not align himself with any particular political ideology; rather, he was committed to the principle that the exploitation of human beings is evil. It is possible to view Cortázar’s political commitment as naïve, but in fact that naïveté is one of the themes of his fiction. The story of Rice is a narrative of a loss of innocence, as the character—bored with the weekend in London and then impatient with...

(The entire section is 417 words.)