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The debate about the equality of men and animals is ancient. One of the most accepted arguments for men’s superiority is men’s ability of complex thought. Men have a unique consciousness and intelligence. This debate has reached out to many aspects of life, including literature. No wonder, that Julio Cortázar uses this ancient argument to emphasize his thoughts and commentary of human consciousness. In perhaps one of his most famous short stories, the “Axolotl”, he tells the story of a man who becomes obsessed with axolotls and eventually becomes one himself.
Axolotls, otherwise known as Mexican salamanders, are fish-like creatures. Cortázar’s short story uses this argument to highlight the absurdity of human consciousness by comparing the thought process of the protagonist to the thought process of the axolotls. Furthermore, he hints at the weaknesses and limitations of human consciousness. Steering away from using animal consciousness to comment on that of men, in “The Island at Noon” he uses the image of an island to point out the limitations of the protagonist’s consciousness and the limitations of literature itself, all the while challenging the reader to reach their own conclusions.
Throughout the short story the protagonist convinces himself that there is a link between human and animal consciousness. For example, the narrator states very early on, during his first visit to the axolotls, when he would “set to watching them” that “There is nothing strange in this, because after the first minute I knew that we were linked” (4).
He later on mentions it several times that there is nothing strange in him becoming an axolotl, despite how strange that actually is, because there is a link between him and the axolotls that make this transition normal, natural, and basically inevitable. The link is the similarity of the consciousness of the axolotls and the men. Since they are equally capable of thought, transitioning from one body to another is easy.This link is further emphasized by the narrator’s constant use of “we” and “us” when describing the axolotls. Referring to the bodies of axolotls as “our body” (5) or when describing the thoughts of axolotls “…we don’t enjoy moving a lot”, “we barely move” and “we’re hitting”. (5) There are many other examples of such language used throughout the rest of the short story as well. The effect of this is blurring the line between himself and his subjects of observation, ultimately reinforcing the link that exists between him and the axolotls, specifically that there is no difference in their consciousness.
An argument made outside the realm of the “Axolotl”, is that one way in which humans differ from animals is that there are different moral rules that apply to the killing of animals and humans. The ‘equal wrongness thesis’ suggests that killing a human, under any circumstance is wrong. However, as written by McMahan, when the believers of this theory are asked justify “why animals lie outside the scope of liberal egalitarian principles, most liberals respond by appealing to certain psychological capacities that humans possess, but animals lack.” Such capacities include self-consciousness, rationality, autonomy, the use of language, and action on the basis of reasons. However, this argument quickly falls apart as we examine cases of human lives when one is not capable to perform or show some or all of these abilities, showing that men are not equal. Mentally ill people or brain dead people are examples of such humans. It is still considered wrong to kill any of them. Within the context of the “Axolotl”, the protagonist is a healthy adult and should be capable of superior thought to the axolotls, according to the aforementioned theory. However, in the story, they are on equal footing, having the exact same consciousness. This shows how much the protagonist’s thought is limited. He is incapable of expression just as much as the axolotls.
Furthermore, the protagnoist also hints at some biological, evolutionary similarities between animals and men. The effect is to discredit the physical similarities between certain animals and humans and to further emphasize a link in the consciousness of the two kingdoms. Around half way through the narrative, the narrator talks about the similarities between monkeys and men. “The anthropomorphic features of a monkey reveal the reverse of what most people believe, the distance traveled from them to us. The absolute lack of similarity between axolotls and human beings proved to me that my recognition was valid, that I was not propping myself up with easy analogies”. (6) When he says the ‘recognition was valid’ he is referring to the recognition that axolotls and humans are the same, that they share the same intelligence. He justifies this by the contrast shown between monkeys and men. Monkeys are thought to be one of the most intelligent animals after humans. Their cognitive abilities should make them more equal to humans than axolotls. However, this logic is turned around as this “reveals the reverse of what most people believe”. (6) To the protagonist, the similarity between men and monkeys reveal the opposite of what we may think, and the same logic is applied to the axolotls by him: axolotls are more intelligent than we might conclude by observing solely their physical features. Using this convoluted logic, Cortázarhints at the absurdity of the protagonist’s consciousness.
Despite the obvious difference between axolotls and humans, the narrator attempts to describe the axolotls with very human features, in an attempt to point to their humanity. He observes the axolotls in great detail, “but what obsessed [him] was the feet, of the slenderest nicety, ending in tiny fingers with minutely human nails”. (5). This can be seen as a double reference. On one hand, it could be referencing one of the fundamental observations which validated Darwin’s theory of evolution: the observation that most creatures are pentadactyls, meaning that they have five fingers on their forearms. On the other hand, this observation made by the narrator adds a human characteristic to the axolotls, regardless of their evolutionary history. Later on, within the same section of the narrator describing the physical features of the axolotls, he observes their gills “on both sides of the head where the ears should have been”. (5) This comment, once again, adds to the narrator’s obsession with the axolotls, that they are equals.
Another important thing to consider in the Axolotl is the setting. As Schwalm emphasizes in his essay, settings that are rich with animals are important factors to be considered when analyzing an author’s intent or message. While Schwalm mostly discusses circuses, another setting, the zoo, is also mentioned. Therefore, it is reasonable to give some importance to the setting of the short story. Schwalm writes: “[humans] capture, dominate, control and intimidate nonhuman animals through zoo and circus practices” Putting animals in zoos is a form of control exerted by humans. Through this setting Cortázar suggests the ignorance of humans of animals, as well their potential fear of animals. Humans make no effort to see animals as intelligent beings, and instead resolve to locking them up in cages or aquariums. The protagonist himself seems to be guilty of this. In the introductory paragraph of the short story, he confesses that his initial reason to go into the aquarium was because “he had grown tired of the lions and tigers” (4). Here, the narrator himself admits a certain bias towards certain animals, interesting which is in accordance with the previously mentioned idea that while all humans are equal, the same cannot be said for animals. Furthermore, this shows his fear, which he also admits later, from animals. This correlates to the way humans fear animals.
However, the biggest assumption the narrator makes is that him and the axolotls are capable of equal thought. To the protagonist, this also destroys the aforementioned idea of humans being capable of superior thought. The narrator describes what convinced him of the nature of axolotls. “I think it was the axolotls’ heads, that triangular pink shape with tiny eyes of gold. That looked and knew. That laid the claim. They were not animals”. (6) After establishing that they are not animals, he acknowledges them as another form of intelligence: “[they] spoke to me of the presence of a different life, of another way of seeing.” (6). Just as there are differences between individual human perspectives, the perspective of the axolotls is just that: another way of seeing, but a valid way regardless. In the last paragraph of the story, Cortázar nails this final point when writing “I am an axolotl for good now, and if I think like a man it’s only because every axolotl thinks like a man…” (9) Suggesting that axolotls and humans have always been capable of equal thought, but have been incapable of expressing these thoughts. This is also supported by the narrator’s initial description of becoming an axolotl: “…[I] metamorphosed into him with my human mind intact, buried alive in an axolotl.” (8) “… all of us were thinking humanlike, incapable of expression, limited to the golden splendor of our eyes… (9)” This final point suggests that it’s the limitation of language that differentiates humans and animals, but that it is not to say that that means that animals are less capable of thought.
“How we understand the bizarre contradictions of modern fiction is a rhetorical question.” (Chatman, 1980) As the protagonist becomes an axolotl, he loses his ability to speak and thus, as he states, his ability to express himself. However, since he had shared previously that all men and the axolotls are equals, it suggests that he was never capable of expression to begin with. This is reinforced by the confusing ending of the story. The audience is left in the dark about who the man visiting the aquarium is, whether it is the same person as the narrator, or whether the narrator ever became an axolotl. This confusion adds layers to the narrator’s inability to express himself. Since he is the man writing the story, his inability to come up with a clear, concise, unambiguous ending shows his disturbed consciousness. This comments on literature as a whole, too. Just like he is incapable of communicating, so are writers in general. The limitations of writing, ultimately leave the reader to have to make their own conclusions. It is up to us, whether we really believe that he has turned into an axolotl. In the case of Cortázar, instead of trying to overcome this limitation, he embraces it, leaving hints of the rhetoric in the text for the reader to puzzle together and come up with their own interpretation of the text (Chatman, 1980).
In fact, as suggested by the narrator, him and the axolotls are equally incapable of expressing themselves. The narrator imagines the axolotls as “aware, slaves of their bodies, condemned indefinitely to the silence of the abyss, to a hopeless meditation.” (7). This quotation is also very descriptive of humans. Humans continuously try to communicate their feelings through art, namely through literature. However, language fails them just as much as it would fail animals. Good Although humans attempt to convey their thoughts and feelings through writing they are continuously unsuccessful. (Stephenson, 1980) Cortázar is very well known of the emphasis he puts on reader-author interaction. This is mostly seen through his novel Hopscotch where the reader has the liberty to choose in which order they want to read the chapters. What Cortázar suggests with the novel and with some little hints in the Axolotl, is that authors and readers will always have a different understanding of the same text. The author’s intent never matches the reader’s expectations. No matter how skilled a writer is, he will never be able to convey his feelings and thoughts exactly as he wants. This inability is hinted towards in the short story, as axolotls are described as aware and intelligent, but incapable of expression. It is precisely this awareness that Cortázar draws on in his literature, again, embracing the limitations of writing and leaving part of the work up to the reader.
While “The Island at Noon” may sound like an odd story to compare to the “Axolotl”, surprisingly, there are many parallels between the protagonists of the two stories. The protagonist of “The Island at Noon”, Marini, similarly to the narrator of the “Axolotl” becomes obsessed with a non-human entity. In the case of Marini, the subject of his obsession is an island (Xiros) he sees from the window of the plane he works on as a flight attendant. While not as central as in the previous short story, there is still some animal imagery present. It makes for a good transition between the themes of the two short stories that the island “had an unmistakable shape, like a turtle whose paws were barely out of the water.” (91) Furthermore, the window of the plane is described as “cold crystal like the boundary of an aquarium, where the golden turtle slowly moved in the thick blue.” (94). Here, Cortázar introduces the familiar image of the aquarium as well as the golden color, also present in the “Axolotl”. The aquarium in both cases echoes Schwalm’s idea of isolating animals for humans. However, while obsession is a central theme here as well, a closer look at “The Island at Noon” yields new commentary on the consciousness of human beings.
Marini’s obsession with the island is developed gradually – just like addictions in real life usually develop – from noticing the island to thinking about it constantly. His fascination with the island starts innocently enough: one day while serving food to an American woman he notices the island from the window. His obsession starts with a thought:“[he] kept thinking about the island, looking at it when he remembered or if there was a window near, almost always shrugging his shoulders in the end.” (92) The first indication of his developing obsession is when he confesses that he has a desire to repeat it (92). Marini himself sees the problem with this little mania of his. This is seen when they offer him an alternate job at a New York flight “Marini thought it was the chance to end that innocent and annoying obsession.” (92) However, “he answered no, hearing himself as from a distance, and, avoiding the shocked surprise of a boss and two secretaries…” (92) This is the instance where Marini loses control of himself and his craze with the island and everything begins to go downhill from here.
As Marini sinks into the abyss of his obsession, he begins to lose track of all things going on around him. Everything seems to blur together around him, everything is derivative, boring, unimportant. This feeling of monotony is seen through several passages in the text, from “In Rome it rained, in Beirut Tania was always waiting for him; there were other stories, always relatives or sore throats; one day it was again the Teheran run, the island at noon.” (93) to “Time passed in things like that, in infinite trays of food, each one with the smile to which the passenger had the right.” (93)This feeling of losing touch of reality progresses throughout the middle section of the story, to the point that the island becomes the single most important thing in Marini’s days. He describes this through the lines “Everything had such little importance at noon, on Mondays and Thursdays and Saturdays (twice a month on Sundays).” (94) Mentioning the specific days when he does the Teheran run signifies the importance of these runs. Instead of saying “Seeing the island three times a week is important” he is very specific about the phrasing of the information, further signifying his obsession with the island. While Marini continues his life like this, the moment of clarity comes when he finally makes the decision to abandon his life and go to the island. The sentence “Nothing was difficult once decided” (95) drives home how unimportant Marini’s life has been since he first saw the island. He continued to live his life, when he could have made the choice earlier to go to the island. Once he made his decision, everything was easy. This says a lot about human nature, continuously coming up with excuses and over planning things, when in reality, where there is a will, there is a way.
One of the things that separates “The Island at Noon” from the “Axolotl” is that Marini interacts with other characters throughout the story. The development of Marini’s obsession with the island at noon can be carefully tracked through his relationship with the other characters around him in the story. Every time he describes a development in his personal life, he thinks and talks about the island, often mentioning a life event and a characteristic of the island within the same sentence. This is first seen after he rejects the position in New York. “Carla’s bewildered disappointment did not disturb him; the southern coast of Xiros was uninhabitable…” (92) A few lines afterwards he repeats the same thing:“Carla’s head ached, and she left almost immediately; octopus was the principal resource for the handful of inhabitants…” (92) Very likely due to his obsession, he is left by Carla, who moves back in with her sister. However, Carla is not the only character who is annoyed by Marini’s obsession, in fact, everyone around seems to be noticing his problem. On a date with one of the other flight attendant, “…he talked to her about Xiros for a while, but later he realized she preferred the vodka-lime of the Hilton.” (93) Obviously, Marini is unable to express interest in anything other than the island. He later finds out that “the pilots called him the madman of the island but that didn’t bother him.” (94) Clearly, at this point, he is not concerned with anything else other than Xiros. When he finds out that Carla “had decided not to have the baby, [he] sent her two weeks’ wages and thought that the rest would not be enough for his vacation.” (94) He finds out that she is aborting their baby, but the only thing he is concerned with is whether his money would be enough for his vacation to Xiros. This is very concerning in regards to Marini’s mental health. His initially innocent fascination is now a full-blown obsession.
Stephenson, in his section of Dialectical Anthropology, writes about the development and role of language in communication among humans. While language is important, Stephenson argues, the ability to communicate without words must not be dismissed. In “The Island at Noon” Cortázar shows some alternate ways of communication between humans when language fails, ultimately accentuating the beauty of communication as a whole. When Marini finally arrives to the island, he finds that him and the natives don’t speak the same language, and resort to “communicate through signs and laughter.” (95) However, Marini briefly attempts to learn Greek and to teach the natives Italian. This is also an instance where language ultimately fails, as neither party understands the other when they use words. However, they still get along just fine, showing us two things. Firstly, that language is not our one and only way to communicate with each other and secondly that if language is not necessary for understanding, then why do we use it so much? Language is limited, and thus it becomes important to realize that writing in itself is never understood as intended. This realization is something, once again, that Cortázar capitalizes on to enhance the meaning of his short stories as well as to further comment on the consciousness of the protagonists. Language fails both of them in communicating with their centers of obsession. The unnamed man in “Axolotl” fails to communicate with the salamanders because they are incapable of speech, thus making up their thoughts based on their physical features (i.e. their eyes), while in the case of Marini, he resorts to communicating through means other than language.
Both short stories draw on the idea of the double and irony. In both cases, the protagonist’s encounter with his double, a meeting between him and his animal in “Axolotl” and with himself in “The Island at Noon” serve as the narrative material by which Cortázar depicts the human condition. In addition to the portrayal of man through the confrontation of an individual with his double, Cortázar turned to the ancient device of irony, a clash between reality and appearance. “Shared by both irony and the concept of the double is a structure of duality: in the former case, the duality consists of two conflicting interpretations of an event or of a single situation; in the latter case, on the other hand, two conflicting aspects of a single personality or identity form the pairing we know to be the double.”(Johnston, 1977) Essential for the effectiveness of both these literary devices is the presence the reader who sees the story unfold independent of the characters, as well as understanding the plot from their perspective. In the case of “The Island at Noon”, the reader both identifies with Marini’s obsession, while still understanding the reactions of the other characters. By the end of either short story, the reader is presented with facts, but is left to piece the truth together. The reader knows that Marini is definitely dead, and that the plane definitely crashed, but is left to decide whether Marini ever reached the island or if he all just imagined it and died in the plane crash. Cortázar counts on the reader to join the constituent elements of either irony or the double to “form a perceptual unit from which the symbolic meaning of a work emerges.” (Johnston, 1977). This also guarantees that each reader will have a unique experience and understanding of the work, leading to debate and discussion among people, further adding to the effect of irony and the double.
In conclusion, Cortázar uses a variety of techniques to enhance the reader’s experience of his literary works, “The Island at Noon” and “Axolotl” and also to comment on human consciousness in the aforementioned works. He uses intricate and detailed descriptions to help the reader understand how the protagonist sees the world. He, furthermore, uses the idea of dramatic irony and the double to create a confusion in the narrative, leading to the reader having to make their own conclusions of the short stories. Ultimately, what makes Julio Cortázar’s literature unique is his ability to overcome and embrace the limitations of writing, capitalizing on it to achieve a better literary effect on the reader.
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