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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 435

This story is essentially an extended narration done by a mouse, whose focus is ostensibly on a member of the mouse community named Josephine, celebrated for her singing ability. The narrator starts by extolling Josephine's extraordinary vocal skill and the way her audience is transported by her singing. But as...

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This story is essentially an extended narration done by a mouse, whose focus is ostensibly on a member of the mouse community named Josephine, celebrated for her singing ability. The narrator starts by extolling Josephine's extraordinary vocal skill and the way her audience is transported by her singing. But as the story progresses it seems less and less to be specifically about the Josephine character or about the power of her music than about the general conditions in which the community of mice live. Eventually Josephine doesn't appear to be an object of admiration so much as a being expecting to have special privileges, such as exemption from "work," in return for the pleasure her singing grants her audience. Ultimately she stops giving her vocal performances altogether. She first claims that she can't sing because she's injured her foot. Then she claims exhaustion. Then we're given to understand that Josephine has simply disappeared. The narrator concludes that Josephine has been released from earthly bondage and has joined the ranks of the past heroes of the mouse community.

Kafka's story could be seen as an amusing children's fable were it not for the grim undertone that pervades it. It is written in a frenetic style that seems to capture what we might imagine the mentality of a mouse is. Much of it is an extended single paragraph that rushes on and on, the way mice themselves tend to scamper about and constantly rush from place to place. The narrator notes at the outset something to the effect that "our people" do not generally care much for music, though "we" are always doing some sort of whistling or piping ourselves—and, in fact, Josephine's "singing" is merely a supposedly exalted form of the sounds that mice ordinarily make. More than once, the narrator comments on the difficult and dangerous lives "our folk" lead, always in constant danger from enemies. The value of Kafka's story lies in the empathy he succeeds in evoking for his subjects. Anyone who has had even a single brief chance to observe mice can see how they tend to dart about in constant terror, their lives obviously consumed in a relentless search for food and to avoid being killed. Kafka makes the mouse a metaphor for life in general, for both humans and animals. On one level, the story is a bit of anthropomorphic nonsense. But on a deeper level, it is a melancholy observation of the randomness of existence and a mirror of our own human pretensions and absurdities, seen through the eyes of one of the humbler creatures of the Earth.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 903

The narrator, a philosophizing mouse, reflects on the powerful effect that the singing of his fellow mouse Josephine has on the unmusical community of mice. Among the practical, sly, and care-laden mice, Josephine is an exception. She alone loves music and knows how to supply it. However, there are some mice who do not find anything extraordinary in Josephine’s singing. The narrator partly includes himself in this opposition group that finds nothing artistic in her song, which seems to be nothing more than common mouse squeaking. The narrator adds, however, that one must see her as well as hear her in order to understand her art, which derives its uniqueness from the way she stands before the assembled mice and does with great ceremony what every other mouse does without thinking. The fact that she is somewhat less proficient in squeaking than the average mouse seems only to heighten the effect of her performance.

It is times of trouble that Josephine deems most fitting for her recitals, for at such times the restless and anxious mice are eager to come together for mutual support and comfort. “Quiet peace is our most beloved music,” the narrator notes early in the story, and when the mice fall silent in her auditorium, it is as if they were participating in this longed-for peace. Thus, the narrator asks himself: “Is it her song that delights us, or perhaps rather the solemn stillness, with which her weak little voice is surrounded?” In order to gather the scurrying mice, Josephine usually needs only to assume her singing pose, with her head tilted back, mouth half open, and eyes turned to the heights. If the number of listeners is too few, she will stamp her feet, swear, and even bite until a suitable audience is found.

Why do the mice go to such lengths for her, the narrator asks. He suggests that the community sees itself as Josephine’s protector, as a father for this fragile, needy child. Josephine, on the other hand, believes that her role is to protect the mice from their daily troubles. Her song supposedly saves them from their serious economic and political situation. However, it is all too easy, the narrator insists, to pose as the savior of the mouse folk, who are accustomed to suffering and capable of overcoming on their own any challenges to their survival.

Josephine’s singing profits from a childlike quality that characterizes the mouse folk. Life is too difficult for the mice, their enemies too many, and the dangers facing them too incalculable for a prolonged, carefree, and playful childhood. In contradiction to their practical intellect, their underdeveloped childish side causes them to behave foolishly for the sake of a little fun. However, they are also grown-ups for too long, which leads to a certain tiredness, despondency, and lack of musicality. “We are too old for music,” the narrator claims.

During Josephine’s concerts, only the young mice pay attention to the nuances of her delivery. In these brief moments of rest from their struggles, the older mice withdraw dreamily into themselves: “It is as though the limbs of each individual were loosened, as though the restless one were permitted for once to relax and stretch out pleasureably on the great warm bed of the people.” Josephine’s staccato squeaking resounds in the dreams of her listeners and liberates them from the fetters of their daily lives: “Something of our poor brief childhood is in it, something of lost, never to be recovered happiness, but also something of the active life of today, of its slight, incomprehensible cheerfulness that lasts in spite of everything and is inextinguishable.”

This is not to say, though, that Josephine herself gives new strength to the mice in times of danger, which is what she and her adherents like to believe. Nor does the power of her singing justify the demands for special privileges that she makes, especially the demand to be freed from all daily work, which she claims damages her voice. What she really wants, according to the narrator, is unequivocal and lasting public recognition of her art. This is precisely what eludes her.

Recently Josephine has stepped up her struggle for recognition, threatening to overwhelm her opponents with her singing or, failing that, to cut her coloratura arias. The narrator dismisses these notions as empty rumors circulated by her followers. She is unrelenting, however, claiming to have injured her foot or to be indisposed. Her concerts have turned into theatrical performances. After her adherents flatter and coax her into singing, she still breaks down and eventually leaves, but not without first checking the crowd for the least sign of their understanding of her music.

The latest news is that she has disappeared on an occasion when her singing was expected, and that the search for her has turned up nothing. Although she may go into hiding and destroy the power of her song, the mouse folk are strong and can overcome even her death. They will not have to forgo much, for the memory of her squeaking will live on in future assemblies, perhaps with greater vitality.

As for Josephine herself, she will be delivered from her earthly torment and happily lose herself among the countless heroes of the mouse folk. As the mice do not practice history, she will soon be forgotten “in heightened redemption like all her brothers.”

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