Initially, in view of the narrator’s childlike personality and his tremendous dependence on his father, the story reads like a pure psychological exploration of a son’s relationship to his father. The author is now an adult, but he is reaching back into childhood to recapture the essence of his feelings and need for his parent. The relationship is not one of pure mutual admiration. Father shows disapproval of the son’s pornographic book order (which is magically turned into a telescope). Though the son loves his father, he ultimately does abandon him and only after the fact consoles himself with the thought that Father is, after all, dead. The son’s guilt and fear at letting Father go even in death form the very foundation of the plot: The Sanatorium exists precisely in order to give dead people only a little more time to continue living.
However, the theme of a son’s grief, guilt, and poor adjustment to his loss by no means exhausts the story’s message. The outside world intrudes in the form of a war, “not preceded by diplomatic activity,” in which discontented local people actively collaborate with the invaders. The black clothing worn by the inhabitants of this dreamworld after death acquires other than funereal significance. Those who collaborate with the enemy wear black clothing crossed with white straps. As they march through the streets carrying rifles, they flash “ironical dark looks” in which there is “a touch of superiority, a glimmer of malicious enjoyment.” When this story appeared in 1937, such an image could only be a transparent and bold reference to Nazism.
More than bold, the story was prophetic. The Holocaust had not yet reached Poland in 1937, yet how uncannily Bruno Schulz describes the process of relentless circumscription, relinquishment, and slow death. Joseph’s father, a dead man who has not yet died, has opened a tiny shop in this dream-ghetto (from which he will never escape). Joseph finds the old man’s behavior strange, “yet what could one expect of Father, who was only half real, who lived a relative and conditional life, circumscribed by so many limitations!”
The name of the narrator, Joseph, was not chosen by chance, but is very much part of Schulz’s traditions. The name harks back to the Old Testament’s Joseph, the prophetic dreamer and seer.