Themes and Meanings

In the fall of 1916, six months before the composition of “A Report to an Academy,” Franz Kafka wrote Felice Bauer, the woman to whom he was engaged twice and who played such a major and traumatic role in his life from 1912 to 1917, that he had an “infinite desire for autonomy, independence, freedom in all directions.” Torn between the demands of artistic freedom on one hand and ties to his family, work, and possible marriage on the other, Kafka insisted on the former in order to pursue his writing. While Rotpeter, in his report, adamantly denies himself such a desire for limitless freedom, he also vividly demonstrates the weaknesses of his artistry and the extent to which he has compromised his life. However, given his capture and the loss of his original freedom, Rotpeter’s ruthless pursuit of his way out of captivity has succeeded in gaining for him freedom of movement, respect, and fame.

Rotpeter remains peculiarly suspended outside both the ape and the human communities, and his case eludes human judgment, which he does not want anyway. As he well knows, he is not a human, but only mimics human behavior as a means of remaining on the path that he has chosen for himself. In human terms, his art is not true art (but rather imitative and neither original nor creative), and his measure of freedom is not true freedom (he has sacrificed his real self for the sake of his career). In his own terms, however, especially compared to his first days of captivity in the steamship, he has achieved an astounding degree of success: He can read and write and think rationally and has become a moderately cultivated and sophisticated being. Although commentators have often understood the story as a satire of conformity and accommodation to a superficial culture, the ape in fact remains a critical outsider; whatever laughter his report engenders comes less at his expense than at that of the civilization that has forced him into such narrow choices.