By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Axolotl’ is a short story by the Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar (1914-84). The story was published in Cortázar’s 1956 collection End of the Game and Other Stories. ‘Axolotl’ is narrated by a lonely man who regularly visits the local zoo, where he becomes fascinated by the axolotls in the aquarium. In time, he states that he, too, is an axolotl, and feels he has become one of them.
You can read ‘Axolotl’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
‘Axolotl’: plot summary
The story opens with the narrator telling us that he used to think a great deal about the axolotls in the aquarium at the local Jardin des Plantes in Paris. He would watch them for hours, observing how immobile they were. He watched them for so long that he is now himself an axolotl too.
The narrator tells us how he was transformed into an axolotl himself. He had been drawn to the axolotls (having grown bored of the lions and panthers at the local zoo) and had identified with them in some way. The creatures’ pink faces reminded him of the Aztecs (which, like axolotls, were Mexican), and he becomes more and more fascinated by them. The axolotls’ golden eyes seem to suggest ‘another way of seeing’. When he consulted his dictionary, he discovered that axolotls are the larval stage of a particular species of salamander.
The moment of metamorphosis occurs – or at least, becomes apparent to the narrator – one day when he has his face pressed up against the glass of the aquarium, studying the axolotls, having become fascinated by their quietness and stillness. He realises that he is not looking at an axolotl within the tank, but a reflection of his own face, and realises he is now an axolotl.
In a possible nod to the work of Edgar Allan Poe, an important writer for Cortázar, the narrator tells us that this realisation is like a man buried alive waking up to his fate. The narrator has spent so long identifying with the axolotls trapped within the tank that he is convinced he is inside there too: his (human) body remains outside the tank looking in, but his mind is within the tank, in the body of one of the creatures.
The narrator concludes the story by telling us that ‘he’ (the man whose body was formerly occupied by the narrator’s consciousness, before it jumped ship into the axolotl) visits the aquarium less often now. Now, the narrator speaks as an axolotl within his tank, rather than as the man looking in on them.
If he still thinks and speaks like a man, that is because axolotls themselves are human inside their heads. And the narrator believes the man whose bode he had once inhabited may write a story about axolotls: the story we are reading.
One question raised by Cortázar’s ‘Axolotl’ is whether we should treat the story as fantasy or realism: in other words, whether we should view the narrator as the victim (if he is a ‘victim’) of a miraculous act of transmigration or whether he is merely deluded (and possibly mad). Does the mind of the story’s narrator miraculously transfer to the body of an axolotl, in a twist on Kafka’s Gregor Samsa metamorphosing into an insect? Or does he merely believe his mind is within the body of the animal?
Perhaps the question – which is, after all, undecidable, since Cortázar’s (possibly unreliable) narrator is our own source for the story – is important if we want to know how to categorise the story, but less crucial in terms of helping us to understand the story’s main theme, which concerns the human ability to identify with other species and to understand and even empathise with their plight.
And that central theme appears, more broadly, to be enlightenment: whether he is deluded in thinking his mind has moved into an axolotl, or the transformation is an objectively real one, the narrator appears to become more enlightened as a result of his closeness to another species. He identifies with the axolotls to such an extent that he becomes one, perhaps literally, but certainly in terms of his kinship with, and sympathy for, the creatures.
This is most apparent in the paragraph of ‘Axolotl’ in which the narrator mentions monkeys. Many people, he suggests, view monkeys as cousins of humans because of their superficial ‘anthropomorphic’ features: their physical similarities to us.
But the narrator sees something in the head and the golden eyes of the axolotl which sparks a much stronger bond, precisely because it is so unexpected: there is something about the pink head of the axolotl which, after careful study, reminds him of the human head, and their eyes appear to convey a deep knowledge. The axolotl is, for the narrator, not an ‘animal’ at all, but something closer to the human.
For there is more than one metamorphosis that takes place in ‘Axolotl’. Viewing the creatures, the narrator tells us that he could detect a ‘metamorphosis’ occurring within them, too: they appear to become aware that they are somehow great consciousnesses trapped in their little, immobile bodies, condemned to a perpetual and ‘hopeless meditation’. Can such a statement not also, if we adopt a philosophical view, be applied to man as well?
Our mind or soul is the ‘ghost in the machine’: our refined and sophisticated consciousness is trapped within our imperfect bodies and we are ‘immobile’ in that we are not free to make the most of our minds’ potential: the world of work, responsibilities, paying bills, and other commitments condemn us, too, to a life within a kind of prison not unlike the axolotls’ tank. No wonder the narrator gazes at the creatures and finds himself looking into a mirror.