‘The Distances’ is a short story by the Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar (1914-84), published in his 1951 collection Bestiary. In the story, a woman discovers her ‘double’ while dreaming and then, in the real world, exchanges identities with this other woman.
Like many of Julio Cortázar’s short stories, ‘The Distances’ is playful, dense, and difficult – but before we offer an analysis of the story’s meaning and themes, here’s a brief summary of the story’s plot.
‘The Distances’: plot summary
The story comprises the diary entries of a woman named Alina Reyes, who lives with her mother in Buenos Aires. She is engaged to a man named Luis María, whom she marries towards the end of the story. Her first diary entry reveals a woman who is fond of playing with words and inventing anagrams; this early entry also suggests that Reyes’ identity is somewhat indeterminate as she likes to talk about herself impersonally, as though she is observing someone else.
In her diary, Reyes describes her life as a socialite among Argentinian high society, attending various social occasions. As the diary entries continue, it becomes apparent that Reyes is preoccupied by an elderly beggar woman living thousands of miles away, in Hungary. Her consciousness of this other woman has come to her via ‘the distances’. Reyes writes that she longs to send this beggar woman a telegram arranging to meet her at a bridge in Budapest.
While she is attending a music concert, Alina’s mind wanders once again to the life of this woman in Budapest, whom she imagines is beaten regularly. She wonders whether this thought is some sort of memory (the beggar woman is already dead?) or premonition (the beggar woman will be beaten, some time within the next fourteen years?). Having married Luis María, she persuades him to take her to Budapest to ‘meet’ this mysterious woman she keeps thinking about, although she doesn’t reveal to him the real reason for wanting to make the trip.
Because she is now married, Alina expresses her intention of stopping her diary, since marriage and diary-keeping don’t, in her mind, go well together. She states that she will go and meet this woman and make her ‘yield’ to her. Her diary entries then give way to another narrator, an omniscient third-person voice which informs us that Alina and her husband were divorced a few months after making their trip to Budapest.
We are told that Alina went out to explore Budapest alone and met the beggar woman on the bridge, as she had predicted. The two women embraced, and when they eventually let each other go, Alina is horrified to watch herself departing from her: the two women have exchanged bodies. She has taken on the form of the beggar woman, who has taken the body of the young ‘Alina’.
‘The Distances’: analysis
One of the prominent themes of ‘The Distances’ is the relationship between imagination and objective reality. Although Alina Reyes is not the beggar woman and is thousands of miles away, her imagining of this other woman’s life experiences (being badly beaten, for example) become more and more real to her. Even when she is still in Argentina, as she imagines travelling to Budapest and wandering through the plaza, the mere thought of doing so becomes disarmingly real. It is as though she really has travelled those ‘distances’, those thousands of miles, to Hungary where this other woman supposedly dwells.
All of this culminates in the literal, physical exchange of bodies at the end of the story, which sees Alina’s consciousness swap with the other woman’s, so that Alina’s mind is apparently in the elderly woman’s body, while the beggar woman’s mind is in Alina’s young body. This raises some interesting questions, especially in the wake of the narrator’s revelation that Alina was divorced from her husband several months after this event. Did Alina, in her new (i.e., old) body, return to her bridegroom, who was predictably horrified to discover his young bride was now an old woman?
Or did Luis María catch up with Alina – or who he took to be Alina – wandering the streets of Budapest, only to discover, when talking to her, that she was mentally no longer the woman he had married?
It seems logical to assume the first of these: Alina went back to her husband as an old woman who now no longer wished to be married to someone whose mind may be unchanged but whose body was now old (and, among other things, somewhat beyond childbearing age). But it is one of the hallmarks of Cortázar’s fiction that we are prompted to ask more questions, to want to fill in the gaps, to speculate on what he has not told us.
‘The Distances’ is, then, a variation on the story of the double or doppelganger. Although Alina and the Hungarian woman are not physically alike and lead very different lives – one wealthy, the other poor; one comfortable and looked after, the other beaten and abused; one young, the other old – their two lives somehow converge, with Alina’s mind becoming more and more obsessed with the life of this Other. In the end, the exchange becomes not just psychological but physical, prompting us to ask another question: was this beggar woman thinking continually about Alina before they met? Did the exchange go both ways not only physically but mentally, too?
There are a number of ways we can interpret ‘The Distances’ as a symbolic parable. It might be analysed as a tale about the human capacity for empathy, about our ability to imagine what life is like for someone leading a very different (and harder) life. In a sense, Cortázar is taking the idea of ‘imagining being in someone else’s shoes’ and making this idiom literal: Alina will indeed end up in not only the beggar woman’s shoes, but her entire body, at the end of the process.
We need not conclude that Cortázar is suggesting empathy in itself is undesirable; merely that identifying too much with someone else’s life, a life which is alien to our own, might not be a bad thing if it comes at the cost of our own self. It is easy to see how such a reading works if we changed out ‘beggar woman’ for ‘high-profile celebrity’. How many people, especially young people, imagine being their favourite pop star or sports player? And how many, at an impressionable age, become in danger of taking such hero-worship to extremes, so that they threaten to lose sight of who they themselves are? Such identification with the Other can carry a cost when the Other overwhelms the self.
What lends credence to such a reading is that another of Cortázar’s short stories, the brilliant ‘Axolotl’, appears to be about a man who identifies with the plight of the salamanders in the local park so much that he effectively becomes one of them. Identifying too strongly with something wholly other than ourselves will lead us to become that other thing.