Julio Cortazar is a very popular South American author who has the theme of essentialism running through many of his short stories. Not only this, but he frequently comments on the boundary – or lack thereof – between humans and their environment. He does this by having the characters of his stories interact so intimately with animals or other objects that the line between them blurs indefinitely. His short story “Axolotl” is a prime example of all of these traits, and through the analysis of the narrator’s experience with the axolotls, I argue that Cortazar’s purpose for writing this story was to display that existence can’t be labeled simply.
In order for Cortazar to show that existence isn’t simple, he must first add layers of complexity. The first layer he adds is getting the reader to believe that in this world, and possibly their own world, being and consciousness belongs to all things. This is essential to the overall meaning of the story, in that “Cortazar thus retrieves the ancient idea of a fully sentient universe, where consciousness is not limited to man alone but is an essential attribute of the creation…” (Bennett 62) He first does this by having the author describe the axolotls. They’re described as humanlike, and the narrator is obsessed with that fact and the animals themselves. It’s almost as if he sees much of himself in the axolotls. He beings to research them more and learn everything he can about them. Once he has this knowledge and shares that with the reader, he relates them to humanity in a physical, emotional, and historical context. What stands out the most to the reader is how he describes their minds, as this is the most surprising and new aspect of the story for the reader. However, he introduces the idea of the axolotls being conscious slowly. He first starts by just describing them physically, then moves on to deeper and deeper detailed descriptions of their minds and thoughts. Through these observations and his descriptions of the axolotl’s behavior, it seems to the reader as if the axolotls are actually consciously making decisions inside the tank in which they live. This may sound impossible, “but the tale’s power derives from its recognition and subsequent obliteration of absolute distinctions.” (Bennett 58) The reader originally begins reading the story with a firm set of beliefs that he or she may believe to be true indefinitely, such as humans are conscious while everything else is not. However, one of the main goals of the story is to get the reader to second guess these beliefs so that Cortazar has a completely open mind to speak to. He seeks to destroy these firm beliefs in entirety and is actually quite successful. That is the first wall he must break down in order for the meaning of the story to be heard, and he even had a plan B in case the descriptions described above were not convincing enough. Just in case the reader didn’t necessarily believe that the axolotls were conscious beings, Cortazar takes it a step further so that “… consciousness seems clearly located in the axolotl, for the narrator speaks… from the tank, from among other axolotls.” (Wight 62) At this point, there is no denying that the axolotl has consciousness because the narrator has become one and is now narrating the story from the perspective of an axolotl, displaying being in something other than a human.
The second layer of complexity that Cortazar must add is the breaking of the barrier between humans and their surroundings. He first does this by creating a character that has the basic characteristics of a human, but is just slightly more complex. However, the fact that the narrator starts the story off as human is extremely important. However, from the very beginning of the story, the reader can sense that there’s something a bit off about the narrator. All that the audience knows about him is that he comes to this aquarium every single day to stare at these axolotls. The audience can hear his thoughts, as he addresses them directly, but he never really speaks out loud in the story. However, the narrator really only develops as the axolotls develop as well and “ironically, the greater the narrator’s preoccupation with the axolotls, the more he begins to resemble them, spending hours motionless by their tank.” (McNab 21) This is just the beginning of Cortazar trying to parallel the narrator and the axolotls, making them seem as one. As the story goes on, Cortazar uses this connection in order to blur the line between the narrator and the axolotls so much that they eventually merge together literally. This is essential to the meaning of the story in that Cortazar is trying to destroy this feeling of ‘otherness’ that humans often feel when interacting with something that isn’t another human. He is trying to get society to recognize and pay more attention to their surroundings by making the surroundings more important. He gives the surroundings, in this case the axolotls, an essence of being that yearns to be investigated by the narrator. “In other words, essence does not constitute epistemological truth; rather, only through acknowledging the existence of things can their true reality be known.” (Harris 9) This is ultimately one of the goals of this short story, for this ‘true reality’ to be known so that people can recognize their surroundings more accurately. However, what stops people from doing this is that same feeling of ‘otherness’ or separateness from the world. This is why it is so significant that the narrator becomes an axolotl – this instance completely defies the idea of the ‘other,’ and instead creates a feeling of togetherness or of being ‘one.’ He does this by showing “significant being is neither specifically ‘other’ nor restrictively human, but derives from the mutual consciousness formulated between the axolotl’s silent visual awareness and the human narrator’s capacity for language.” (Bennett 62) In this way, the axolotl and the narrator each have essential parts to being, and they work together to become one full conscious. Once the narrator recognized his environment to its full capacity, he was able to be reborn into that environment as something that was more fitting to his essence. Thus, this completes the idea that there really is no ‘other’ and that humans are one with their environment.
Finally, the third layer of complexity is what Cortazar intends for the reader to take away after finishing this story. By establishing that all beings have a sentient, conscious mind and then removing the barrier between humans and their environment, he has allowed for a deeper interpretation and study of societies surroundings. Cortazar is almost asking the reader to take a closer look to the things surrounding them and to treat them with care. The way the audience looks at the story is similar to the way that Cortazar wants us to look at the world. “The important considerations, then, are not what happens but the implications of the process and the result.” (Bennett 58) The result in the narrator’s case was getting so close with his surroundings that he became them. While this wouldn’t happen in real life, Cortazar is dramatizing what it would feel like to be that close and in touch with one’s outer surroundings. The possible implications of this are that people could have a better understanding of what goes on around them, leading to a more peaceful relationship with nature. For example, if all of society were to have a greater understanding of animals and what they feel or think – if they even do – it would most likely be more difficult for people to treat animals, such as house pets, with disrespect. If people start to think of animals and the ‘other’ as our equal, or even just similar to us, it could have numerous beneficial effects for the relationship of humanity and others. However, even if every single person were to read this story and this essay, the intended effect in this general positive direction would be minimal “for though axolotls think like humans, humans refuse to think like axolotls.” (Wight 63)
In my overall opinion, the short story “Axolotl” could be interpreted many different ways. There are many different interpretations already floating around and debates about what certain things in the story mean and where certain aspects came from. However, I believe this interpretation has some merit. While it’s never explicitly said, Cortazar definitely encourages a close relationship with humans and their environment as this is not only a theme in Axolotl but in many of his other short stories as well. The narrator seeks to understand the axolotl as intimately as one can know oneself. The only effects that could possibly come off of this is that the narrator has a greater understanding of the axolotls and thus would know how to treat and interact with them. If this were to be applied to all of society, perhaps global warming could be better understood, animals could stop going extinct, and the overall interaction between human and earth could be more pleasant. If only people would try to think like the axolotls.