By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Village Schoolmaster’ is an unfinished short story by Franz Kafka (1883-1924), begun in 1914-15 before being abandoned by Kafka. The story is about interpretation versus reality, and how our understanding of the world is often determined by our motivations and outlook.
‘The Village Schoolmaster’, which is sometimes known by the alternative title ‘The Giant Mole’, is about a schoolmaster who reports a giant mole seen in his village, and the disagreement that ensues between this schoolmaster and the narrator of the story, who wishes to help bring the existence of the giant mole to the attention of the public.
‘The Village Schoolmaster’: plot summary
The narrator, a businessman, begins the story by telling of a giant mole in another village. The village schoolmaster wrote a pamphlet about it in an attempt to bring its existence to the attention of the wider public, but although the pamphlet attracts the interest of visitors to the village, the wider world pays it, and the village schoolmaster, little regard.
When the schoolmaster goes to a well-known scholar and describes the giant mole to him, the scholar has already made up his mind to disbelieve the story, and simply dismisses it, claiming the rich soil in the area would make ordinary-sized moles grow larger than average.
The narrator decides to take up the cause himself and try to convince people to pay attention to the giant mole. He knows that invoking the schoolmaster or his pamphlet will not help matters, since the teacher had already failed to convince people, and he would only become annoyed that a stranger was trying to defend his honesty when he never asked for such a defence.
So the narrator deliberately avoids reading the schoolmaster’s pamphlet until he has conducted his own research into the matter. However, when he publishes his own pamphlet about the giant mole, the narrator finds he has made an enemy of the village schoolmaster (albeit a rather timid and good-natured one), partly because the narrator disagreed with some of his findings, something that the schoolmaster attributes to the narrator’s misinterpretation of the facts.
He also accuses the narrator of seeking fame as the true discoverer of the giant mole. This disappoints the narrator, who had not been seeking fame for himself, but merely wanted to vindicate the schoolmaster and his research.
Meanwhile, the narrator’s own pamphlet fails to make much of an impact, and some readers even confuse it with the schoolmaster’s. Eventually, after he meets with the village schoolmaster, the narrator announces to him that he has sent a letter to everyone who received a copy of the pamphlet, requesting their return. He makes it clear that he doesn’t necessarily retract his views on the giant mole but wishes to recall the copies of the pamphlet for personal reasons.
The narrator also tells the schoolmaster that, unlike the schoolmaster’s own ambitions, the narrator has only ever harboured modest hopes for what his intervention might achieve, perhaps (at most) winning the schoolmaster the chance to be taken seriously by the academic profession. The discovery itself, however, would be out of the schoolmaster’s hands and would be taken up by other people. The schoolmaster seems happy that the narrator is withdrawing his support.
‘The Village Schoolmaster’: analysis
‘The Village Schoolmaster’ is perhaps best described as a parable about the problem of interpretation. It was Friedrich Nietzsche who asserted that there are no facts, only interpretations: we cannot get at true ‘reality’ because our engagement with it is always mediated by the discourse surrounding it.
It is fitting that, in English, the story is variously known as ‘The Village Schoolmaster’ or ‘The Giant Mole’: even in its title (or titles), the story is positing either the object itself or the one responsible for first writing about it as the valid ‘subject’ of the story. ‘The Village Schoolmaster’ (or ‘The Giant Mole’?) is a kind of meta-story: a story about a story of a thing, rather than a story about the thing (the mole) itself.
Indeed, the mole itself is absent from the story, present only as a talking point, and the disagreement between the narrator and the village schoolmaster form the central topic of the story. In this respect, the giant mole represents the true reality or ‘fact’ of the matter, which remains hidden from us as readers.
It is significant that we never learn the precise details – the precise reality, we might say – of the giant mole. All the narrator can tell us is that the schoolmaster’s representation of it as two yards long is an exaggeration. Once again, his description of the mole is mediated via another person’s discourse about it; and of course, even if the narrator had described the mole to us directly, this account would be a textual one which comes between us and the reality (the mole itself).
The mole, then, is decentred or displaced from the centre of ‘The Village Schoolmaster’ to the story’s margins. In a sense, that’s the point, of course: the people arguing over something end up becoming the ‘something’ themselves, even if, as the narrator professes himself to be, they are of the belief that the thing itself is more important than their own ego.
But the choice of mole is nevertheless significant. First of all, it is not an entirely absurd proposition that a giant mole might be discovered to exist. Kafka, or rather his schoolmaster, is not positing that dinosaurs have been discovered, as in Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, in some remote region of the world; he is simply saying that something that already exists in the world might be found to exist on a larger scale.
This keeps the story (just) within the bounds of plausibility. This makes the ensuing snideness from the schoolmaster towards the narrator all the more ridiculous, since he believes his discovery heralds a ground-breaking (or earth-shattering, or earth-burrowing?) development.
Indeed, the symbolism of the giant mole suggests the very idea of reality becoming buried or subsumed by layers of narrative, discourse, and discussion about that reality: moles are known for burrowing down into the earth, with only the molehills which they have created remaining to show they were there.
One wonders even if Kafka was familiar with the English idiom ‘to make a mountain out of a molehill’: to build something up as bigger and more momentous than it is, something which the village schoolmaster himself can be accused of doing. After all, he exaggerated about the size of the mole when telling the scholar about it.
Because of this unreliability (and should we even believe the narrator’s account, to which the schoolmaster takes such exception?), it’s possible that the giant mole itself doesn’t exist at all. The narrator and schoolmaster are not even arguing over the nature of reality, but over an illusion.
Kafka is often called a religious writer, with much of his work being analysed in light of his upbringing in a Jewish household. Is ‘The Village Schoolmaster’, in the last analysis, on some level a story about religious faith? The story, partly in being unfinished and partly by virtue of being a Kafka story, refuses to let its symbolism be reduced to one meaning.