~~ "Axolotl" by
Julio Cortázar ~~
the difference between a modern short story and the “tale” or
especially the mythic tales we’ve read?
Both the tale and the short story are forms of narrative, but
the modern short story features:
A fuller plot based on a causal sequence; human conflict acts as the
catalyst, the cause of things happening
Intricately developed, psychologically complex characters and character
An identifiable setting—a particular time and place that lends meaning
to the characters and actions
The expectation of an open-ended theme inviting each reader’s vision
does the theme of transformation and change that we observed in the
mythic tales, and in the Ovid tales, express itself in this short story?
The narrator maintains that he’s changed places with the axolotl; that
he has become the axolotl by the end of the story—he has metamorphised
into an axolotl in some way
of these terms would you say describes the boy in
“Axolotl”—fascination, obsession, empathy, compassion, or sympathy?
the precise meanings of those words before you make your
decision. Here are a few definitions to get you started.
The state of being intensely interested (as by awe or terror)
• archaic (esp. of a snake) deprive (a person or animal) of the ability
to resist or escape by the power of a look or gaze : the serpent
fascinates its prey.
idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person's
1: an irrational motive for
performing trivial or repetitive actions
against your will [syn: compulsion] 2:
an unhealthy and compulsive
preoccupation with something or someone [syn: fixation]
ability to understand and share the feelings of another. (ORIGIN
early 20th cent.: from Greek empatheia (from em- ‘in’ + pathos
‘feeling’ ) translating German Einfühlung.)
Sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes
of others. (ORIGIN Middle English : via Old French from ecclesiastical
Latin compassio(n-), from compati ‘suffer with.’)
1 feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune;
formal expression of such feelings; condolences. 2 understanding between people;
common feeling; support in the form of shared feelings or opinions;
agreement with or approval of an opinion or aim; a favorable attitude; ( in sympathy) relating harmoniously
to something else; in keeping; the state or fact of responding in a way
similar or corresponding to an action elsewhere (ORIGIN late 16th cent.
(sense 2) : via Latin from Greek sumpatheia, from sumpathēs, from sun-
‘with’ + pathos ‘feeling.’)
does the boy become fascinated by the axolotl in the first place
alone, on his bike, looking for something to do…friendless? It seems
so, since we never see him with a friend
of boredom? Loneliness?
of dissatisfaction with his ordinary routine—he's usually attracted to
the more popular animals, the lions and the panthers (see the Rilke poem, "The Panther") but this day they
are disappointing. The lions are "sad and ugly" and the panther is
"asleep." So he goes into the "dark, humid aquarium" and "unexpectedly"
he "hits it off" with the axolotls.
is the boy's initial reaction to the axolotls?
seem to capture his imagination, fascinate him. He reads the card, and
later he goes to the library to find out even more about them, but
ultimately it's not information from a book that he's seeking. These
factual details aren't exactly what interest him. If you look at those
details, they're the normal kinds of things that you'd find in an
encyclopedia or dictionary about a particular animal: They're a species
of Mexican salamander (but he already knows this from looking at their
"little pink Aztec faces"); they can live on land or water; they're
edible; their oil was used like cod—liver oil. But the problem with
these facts is that they really tell him next to nothing about what
it's like to be an axolotl. They treat these animals, these living,
breathing creatures that have captured the boy's imagination, like
inanimate objects. Empathy tells him they are far from inanimate. When
we turn a human being into an object to be exploited, we call that
"dehumanization." What do we call it when we turn animals into objects?
But we find it acceptable (for the most part) to turn animals into
objects, unless they are our pets, forgetting that they are living,
breathing creatures like us. This boy isn't looking for facts; he's
looking for an experience. And he gets it.
do these little details tell you about this particular boy?
sensitive; he's open to new experiences. He's imaginative. He's
may be lonely but even if he is, he makes very rich use of his solitude.
the nature of his fascination?
fascination leads to a growing empathy, which leads to feelings of
guilt (for the creature's imprisonment, it seems). At first, watching
them sit there motionless, he thought he understood "their secret will,
to abolish space and time with an indifferent immobility." But the boy
later realizes that there is no romantic "secret will" and that their
immobility has nothing to do with abolishing space and time; he
realizes that captivity is a horrible burden, an oppressive nightmare;
they want to be free like any creature, swimming freely, not sitting
immobile in a cage.
on and throughout he associates the axolotl with Aztecs, the native
Mexicans who were vanquished by the Europeans, the Spanish… the
axolotls have "eyes of gold" (Aztec gold); they are "silent and
immobile" like ancient statues that serve as reminders of the
civilization and the people who were brutally conquered. These eyes,
like the eyes of statues may "lack any life, but they are looking"—they
see into us and we try to see into them. He directly likens the axolotl
to a "statuette corroded by time" (425). He explains that it's the eyes
which fascinate ("obsess") him the most. They represent "another way of
seeing" that is now a mystery he wants to penetrate. "The golden eyes
continued burning with their soft, terrible light; they continued
looking at me from an unfathomable depth which made me dizzy" (426).
begins to identify with the axolotls. He knows they look nothing like
human beings, like monkeys do, but he sees the "humanity" in them
nevertheless." When he claims the axolotl's were "not animals" (426)
what do you think he's driving at?
he takes the step of recognizing their "humanity" (we don't have a word
for what he wants to describe!) he begins to imagine them aware as a
human being is aware. He imagines they are conscious of their
condition, as we are. The plaintive cry he imagines is "Save us, save
us." It doesn't get more empathetic than that. On another level, the
axolotls may be "Aztecs" (who were also considered subhuman "savages")
and who also might still be "saved." Once he hears this plea, he begins
to feel ashamed, ignoble. Something is taking shape from the larval
stage (axolotls never leave their larval stage) that he fears. Some
retribution for the cruelty of this imprisonment maybe? He ends up
imprisoned along with them in the end. His empathy is so complete that
he can't entirely leave them even when he stops visiting.
conscience goes on overdrive: they are "devouring me slowly with their
eyes, in a cannibalism of gold" (427). Just thinking of them places him
beside the cage. The eyes never close; they are always with him. He
can't escape his feelings of empathy.
he acknowledges that the axolotls are suffering, that they are "lying
in wait for something, a remote dominion destroyed, an age of liberty
when the world had been that of the axolotls" (427). They are lying in
wait for their freedom, and meanwhile they are in "liquid hell." This
realization is what allows him to penetrate finally into their world,
because it is the "truth." (How do we know it's the truth? We can only
that point on, the identity of the boy is confused; is he now an
axolotl or a boy? Does empathy always involve a kind of split, a kind
of fracturing of identity? Double vision? He feels "trapped." In what
way is empathy a kind of painful trap? Should we avoid it? (Not
everyone has it or wants to have it.) Do you think the story warns
against empathy or encourages it?
does the story "mean"?
justify thematic statements like:
possible for humans and animals to experience a "meeting of the minds."
the axolotl imprisoned in its cage, the soul is trapped inside the body.
those kinds of summary meanings, while they may be justified, seem so
leave that question open and answer it with a quote from commentator
Susan Nayel: "The nightmare of being trapped inside the body of a beast
is the human's experience, and the panic of being abandoned by the man
is the axolotl's final cry. The only hope, as noted by the axolotl, is
the creation of art where the writer can become another and communicate
on behalf of all creatures—expressing the feelings of all creatures so
that none may fee the terror of isolation and imprisonment."
Compare this story to Rainer Marie Rilke's
poem "The Panther."
Read the "The Panther"
In "The Panther" by modern German poet Rainer Marie
Rilke, you have a powerful example of extended personification, a very
close observation which readers can interpret as the writer’s empathy
with his subject. Where does the subject end and the object
begin? As in “Axolotl,” they seem melted together.
Throughout the poem, the panther is invested with human feeling, just
as in “Axolotl” the salamander is invested with human
consciousness. In both works, you could ask whether it is that
the speaker, observing the caged animal, identifies with the pain of
his imprisonment, or whether he is in fact projecting his own pain upon
what he the object of his observation. Whichever way that river
flows, “The Panther” and “Axolotl” are both powerful testaments to the
wonder and pain of empathy.
Reading this poem, we might ask: is it that the panther is able to
communicate his pain, breaking across the boundaries that separate our
species, and the speaker is sensitive to the panther’s pain? As the
poem opens, the speaker tells us that the panther’s vision has “grown
so weary” and that his eyes seem blank, they “can’t hold anything
else.” But does the speaker really know what the panther sees or
if he’s weary? He takes further liberties in the third line,
announcing that “It seems to him there are a thousand bars;/ and behind
the bars, no world.” Does the speaker really know what the
panther is thinking here? Empathy seems to have given him the
liberty to assume that this is what the panther is thinking. The
empathy he feels is projected upon the panther; he “identifies” with
it. Once we accept that projection, once we suspend our
disbelief, a powerful story emerges. From within that cruel
cage—which might represent any sort of loss of freedom—the world
disappears; any normal vision, normal behavior, is suspended and
actions are mere motions, with no force of will behind them. Life
becomes “going through the motions.” Free will (my favorite topic
this semester) is paralyzed—there’s no action but empty ritual.
What happens next is almost too sad, too difficult to
contemplate. That unasked for but inevitable glimpse of freedom
appears momentarily, that whisper of possibility as the “curtain of the
pupils lifts, quietly—.” It’s not a real possibility of freedom
because the bars haven’t disappeared. The bars are still there.
But the “image enters in.” It’s almost too painful to
imagine! That momentary glimpse of freedom tears through every
muscle, plunging into the heart, knife-like, leaving the poor creature
(the panther, the speaker, both?) to suffer.
Even if you read the poem literally and aren’t interested in pursuing
other levels of meaning (what might the panther symbolize, and so on),
it’s an incredibly sad portrait. It’s precisely the reason why I
can’t have a good time visiting zoos. I know they do a lot of
good work. But the sight of all those caged creatures!!! My
reaction is always very much like the boy’s in “Axolotl.” If I
allow my fascination to draw me in I become guilt-ridden and horrified;
it’s as if I’m trapped in there with them. I’ll never forget a
certain grizzly bear at the St. Louis Zoo in Forest Park (I used to
live across the street from it, and went there often when my daughter
was stroller-bound)…I still remember the disturbing way it used to pace
endlessly in that “ritual dance around a center,” which Rilke describes
so brilliantly, unable to go anywhere or do anything which would make
it feel like a real bear with real purpose and a real will. It
was so obviously in misery, like this panther. On the other hand,
the polar bears a few hundred feet away were pretty cheerful, usually
playing with their big red rubber ball, splashing in their pool,
rolling around. If you wanted to leave in anything like a good
mood, you would check in on them and walk very quickly past the grizzly
bear, trying not to look.