Josephine the Singer

by Franz Kafka

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The "conceit" of Kafka's short story is that it is narrated by a mouse and centers on a member of the mouse community called Josephine, whose singing ability is held in high esteem by the others. It is not, however, a children's story, for its tone and its underlying message relate to the (unsurprisingly) absurdist theme of the meaningless and futile nature of existence, whether it be that of mice or of men. Kafka's prose seems to rush forward in long extended paragraphs as if to portray the manic, frenetic way that mice themselves act. It is anthropomorphic, but in some sense it simultaneously reverses the attribution of human qualities to animals by imposing upon our human act of storytelling the quality of a mouse's energy and relentless scampering about. We also see an attempt at describing the inner life of a mouse in such a way that it evokes pity and empathy, but is also, sadly, a reflection of much that is true in human life:

Peace and quiet are what we yearn for more than anything—our lives are hard . . . (p. 1, trans. by Phillip Lundberg)

There is something initially startling about this insight, but for anyone who has actually seen a mouse and the way it normally behaves, fleeing in terror when encountering a person, it is a perfect description of the way a mouse would articulate its feelings if it were capable of doing so.

Our life is so terribly beset by strife, every day brings its share of rude surprises, fears, hopes and shocking outrages . . . (p. 5)

This surely is true of mice, but despite the differences between our circumstances and theirs, it's also true of people. Even the "celebrity status" of Josephine within the mouse community is a metaphor of this phenomenon in the human world. The narrator seems to regard Josephine with awe at first, but then resents her wish for special privileges.

One could make the deduction that Josephine's position is basically one that stands outside the law, that she is permitted to do whatever she pleases and that anything will be forgiven (p. 14).

When Josephine finally stops "performing," the narrator then notes her "disappearance" in an ambiguous manner, as if mice do not actually recognize "death" (just as many humans don't appear to). But the mice have their own pantheon of the departed. It is a wistful conclusion in which Josephine is eulogized as humans are:

It is with joy that she will be lost in the countless multitude that make up our heroes, the heroes of our folk . . . [p. 21]

Thus mice, Kafka implies (if we are to interpret the story literally as well as metaphorically), also extol those who have left us and see their achievement in life as a signal of lasting glory in the beyond.

Altogether Kafka's story is something of a prose equivalent of Burns's "To a Mouse." If there is a message beyond the absurdist one we reflexively associate with Kafka, it is one of empathy for all living beings.

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