My Own Axolotl: A textual analysis

Zephryus Croft
April 30, 2024

My own Axolotl

Photo on banner by Matias Tapia on Unsplash.

Axolotl, published in Julio Cortázar’s 1956 collection End of the Game and Other Stories, is a short story that I would not have ordinarily picked up and read. I prefer longer traditional books, fantasy and sci-fi, with coherent plots and a narrative to follow. Axolotl, and Cortázar’s other works, are far from my usual material. The story of a particularly humanlike and consciously aware axolotl and the ending is explained in the hook of the first paragraph. He was once human and is now an axolotl. As a lonely human, he travelled to the zoo often to watch the animals. Upon finding the axolotl, he is struck by their empty golden eyes and their strange pink colour. He spends hours pressing his face up against the glass to watch the axolotl. His mental state slips and slides, obsessed with the axolotl immobile in the tank. He pushes for meaning in their unfamiliar skin and blank eyes, finding himself in them where the apes were too close to humanity. At the pinnacle of his obsession, face on the glass, he realises the face in the glass is no longer an axolotl but is a human. The body he once was in blinks back at him and admires him like he used to admire axolotls. He is forced to watch, trapped in the rosy stone axolotl body, as his old body slowly loses interest in the axolotls and gradually, his visits gradually vanish.

There are several techniques Cortázar uses in seven pages of text, but out of all of them, I thought there was only one that was crucial. As a short story, there is only so much space to communicate, and time is compressed to cross this bridge. Suzanne Ferguson (1982) explains that short stories shave off everything except the bones and in those fragments is a story – it does this, she explains, through recognisable formal qualities. I identified in Axolotl that the limited point of view of the axolotl was the key component of the story. The ending is spoiled – from the beginning I knew it was a story of how he became an axolotl. Cortázar specifically sprinkles in the plural pronoun we in moments the consciousness was describing axolotl. The slip from ‘axolotls are from Mexico’ to ‘tails … the most sensitive part of our body’ caught me. It was like Cortázar was sitting next to me and tapping at the text: pay attention. This is important.

The story Cortázar created, as I read it, was meant to be as confusing and confounding as possible. The way it often delves into language so poetic and pretty that the words lose meaning, the strangeness of becoming an axolotl, the narrator no longer a human, the story is as far as possible from logic and sensibility.

It would seem easy, almost obvious, to fall into mythology. I began seeing in the axolotls a metamorphosis which did not succeed in revoking a mysterious humanity. I imagined them aware, slaves of their bodies, condemned infinitely to the silence of the abyss, to a hopeless meditation. Their blind gaze, the diminutive gold disc without expression and nonetheless terribly shining, went through me like a message: “Save us, save us.” I caught myself mumbling words of advice, conveying childish hopes. They continued to look at me, immobile; from time to time the rosy branches of the gills stiffened. In that instant I felt a muted pain; perhaps they were seeing me, attracting my strength to penetrate into the impenetrable thing of their lives. They were not human beings, but I found in no animal such a profound relation with myself.

This makes the story very hard to discuss and describe because every interpretation is unique and vague. Axolotl becomes an axolotl for each reader to project their own readings and meaning onto. I saw the axolotl as trapped in the stifling tank as a reflection of my own feelings of lockdown; I saw the obsession with an axolotl and not a monkey for meaning as a reflection of alienation and depression from lockdown and overwork, burnout and loneliness pushing me to try to find meaning in anything. Ironically, my interpretation – that the reader is to find their own interpretation – also says that there is only one interpretation.

Death of the Author, a framework from Barthes’ 1967 essay, says that every factor comes together to create the reader. Moreover, the meaning from the author, society, emotions, history, location, everything, does not come together until the reader exists. The text is written exactly in the space of the reader.

My reading of Axolotl was influenced by the fact that I needed to read it to write this assignment. I was already primed to take notes, to look for literary tradition and narrative techniques, to pull out meaning from the text. Burnout and depression had hit hard in the beginning of the semester, so I had only gone through all the lectures in the past week and therefore, the material was still fresh in my mind. Perhaps that, as I was reading it, the out-of-body experience the axolotl feels as his consciousness left his old body, reflected my own out-of-body experience of trying to monitor how I felt about the story to write about it for an assignment influenced my interpretation of it.

All of this collided into meaning when Axolotl was read by me.

The lack of a straightforward meaning and uncertainty of the validity of the axolotl’s story, it follows the postmodern literature technique of rejection of metanarratives (Lyotard, 1984). My own interpretation follows – I chose to not pursue a grand meaning. Axolotl is absurdity in its rawest form: it’s a story of how a guy turned into an axolotl. What else is there to it? The writing is purposely grand and superfluous, often woven into unnecessary depth and detail to the point that it loses meaning. Julio Cortázar has made it as confusing and meaningless as possible, and so too has my interpretation of it.


Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: a report on knowledge (1984 [1979]), tr by Cecil Bennington and Brian Massumi, foreword by Frederic Jameson, Theory and History of Literature, vol. 10.

Cortazar, J. (1978) Axolotl in End of the Game and Other Stories, Harper Colophon Books, New York.

Suzanne C Ferguson (1982) ‘Defining the short story: impressionism and form’, Modern Fiction Studies , vol. 28, no. 1.

Roland Barthes, (1986 [1968]) ‘The Death of the Author’ in The Rustle of Language (tr Richard Howard), University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.