Commentary by Karen Bernardo
In his short story “The Hunter Gracchus” Kafka unveils his view of life through a glimpse into the world of the dead. The protagonist of “The Hunter Gracchus” insists he is dead; according to his narration, he had died from a fall in the Black Woods sometime in the fourth century (it is now, presumably, the early twentieth) and his spirit boarded a ship for the next world. However, the pilot became lost, and consequently the boat bearing the Hunter on a bier keeps docking at one port after another, looking in vain for his destination.
By beginning his tale with a long description of indolent, aimless villagers—playing dice, reading the paper, gazing at the lake, or dozing—Kafka seems to be telling us that these people have no more direction in their lives than the Hunter Gracchus has in death. Death is supposed to be first a journey to a better place, and then a paradise where one can rest from the struggles of mortal life. However, in Gracchus’ case the journey never ends, and his existence in death is merely boring and endless life. Kafka suggests that those of us who believe religion’s promises of an eternal life in glory may be deceived.
But even more disconcerting is his suggestion that there are more Hunter Gracchuses out there than we know. Kafka tells his tale in such a chillingly matter-of-fact tone that it sounds as if the living dead are floating around us all the time, just as bewildered by their situation as Kafka was by his own. “I am here,” Gracchus tells the astonished Burgomaster. “More than that I do not know, further than that I cannot go.” There is nothing on the “other side” except more of the same, so, Kafka warns, people miserable with their current lot needn’t expect the afterlife—any kind of afterlife—to be an improvement. Gracchus’s role as a dead man in the world of the living ironically parallels Kafka’s position as a Jew in a Christian and anti-Semitic society. He is an outsider, and there is nothing to be done about it.
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