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"Narrative Complexity in the Talking-Dog Stories of Cervantes, Hoffmann, Gogol, Bulgakov, and Kafka"

Barking Humans (c) 2010 Taelyen LLC


A Thesis in the Field of Foreign Literature, Language, and Culture for the Degree of Master of Liberal Arts in Extension Studies

Harvard University, March 2012



Chapter VI: Kafka's Walking Dogs


Eric Williams describes Researches of a Hound as having “cryptic complexity which seems to systematically defy the logic of interpretative discourse.” [114] Similarly, Peter Stine describes Kafka’s animal stories as “writings whose mark of integrity is their resistance to interpretation... the prize embodiment of human truths that evade the grasp of analysis.” [115] Offering an explanatory model based on Kafka’s Zionist leanings, Iris Bruce positions Researches of a Hound as a satire on rabbinic commentary:

Kafka’s discourse possesses many features which resemble midrashic discourse. [Researches] is far from being a linear and analytical text; the narrative is highly associative and contains many narrative breaks which are filled in by anecdotal commentary which resembles aggadic anecdotes as found in the Talmud and other rabbinic texts. The anecdotes which Kafka has inserted into the narrative have the function of humorously deflecting the otherwise devastating satire of the social text. [116]

Another interpretation is suggested by Stanley Corngold, who with a Gnostic reading of Kafka locates within the story a pattern he calls “chiastic recursion,” in which “each new term, consisting of elements syntactically and conceptually parallel to those of a previous term, arises by means of an inversion of these elements.” As such, he observes, “the object of the investigations (Dogdom) turned swiftly into ‘investigation’ as an object of scrutiny in itself.” [117]

Given these widespread assessments of the challenging structure of the work, the extant critical response tends to sift through its complexity to examine specific elements, such as the significance of the seven musical dogs or the identity of the air dogs; or to uncover thematic aspects such as music and silence, or food and hunger.

Yet the structure of the narrative itself also bears further exploration using the tools of narrative theory. The most distinctive narratological feature of the work is narrative time. Genette describes three features of narrative time: narrative order, with analepses and prolepses shifting between points in time; narrative frequency, indicating in a single statement whether an event occurred once or multiple times; and narrative speed, indicating the length of time that the narrator dwells on a particular moment.

Researches of a Hound was, according to Williams, “the only story [Kafka] wrote in which all the significant phases of the protagonist’s development, from early childhood and pubescence to old age, are fashioned into a life-narrative.” [118] The story hints at a life narrative, but does not confine itself to a sequential retelling of events, nor does it provide a wealth of specifics, as with Cervantes and Hoffmann. Instead, the researching hound relates the history of his perceptions of events more than the events themselves. Each phase of his life is interspersed with impressions that the narrator had about those experiences, and bracketed by ruminations on what he was thinking at times prior, during, and after their occurrence. From a narrative standpoint, the interjections during the storytelling have the effect of slowing down narrative time, with extended pauses halting the action of the story so that the narrator can communicate at length his specific thoughts at the time of the event. These temporal perspectives become further parsed using counterfactual suppositions, which cast doubt on the importance and validity of the perspective recounted. The counterfactuals convey a sense of uncertainty, with declarative statements immediately retracted with statements that hedge the original.

This indeterminacy is visible from the first line: “How my life has changed, and how, at heart, it has not!” [119] James Rolleston places great importance in first sentences in Kafka: “Everything seems different about these sentences, notably tense and narrative perspective. But what they both do is point decisively toward the future.” [120] However, the first line of “Researches of a Dog” inverts this forward-looking tendency, by signaling an invitation to look backward, seeking similarities and differences between the past and present moments. Here, the first line invites the reader to establish dualities between the narrator at present and in the past, and between change and stasis.

More dualities, those between contemporary impressions and retrospective revisions, recur throughout the text. The dog summons up remembrances that are immediately qualified, e.g. “a slight uneasiness would come over me…sometimes even among my closest friends; no, not sometimes, but actually quite often” (132); he searches for the right turn of phrase, e.g. “my admittedly unhappy—or to express the matter more carefully, not very happy—disposition” (132), and he couches statements about his present condition as being conditional on past events, even if those past events have been only tentatively established, e.g. “Without these periods of rest and recovery, how could I ever have reached the age I now enjoy?” (132).

Characterizing Kafka’s introspection, Peter Stine writes that “the present is perpetually invaded by a dizzy recapitulation of those discarded ‘selves’ receding into oblivion.” [121] Researches merges the retelling of past events with these recapitulations, layered by how the narrator interprets these recapitulations. The analepses recount past events, but the narrative never entirely leaves the present. We are constantly reminded that we are in the presence of a storyteller, revising, generalizing and interpreting as he goes. Kafka’s dog performs the writer’s art of revision.

The dog’s reminiscences predominantly employ iterative frequency, a feature of narrative time whereby a repeating event or habitual activity is described using a single statement. For example, after the encounter with the musical dogs, he says: “I ran around telling my story and asking questions, making accusations and doing research” (138). We do not know to whom he told the story or how many times he told it, but rather that it was a repeated, or iterative, event, each instance having an undefined number of occurrences. Similarly, the dog describes the actions of the “poor, meager, mute beings” in habitual terms, “how they pass each other by in so alienated a way” (133), rather than with specific instances of encounters with those beings.

Even singular occurrences are abstracted into iterative forms, which are then interpreted as a class of phenomena rather than as a single incident. For example, in describing his encounter with the musical dogs, the narrative’s first prolonged occurrence of a singulative episode, the dog prefaces his story by denoting it as just one of a series of similar episodes. Meeting the musical dogs is “something extraordinary [that] happened,” and this is immediately recast as being “nothing extraordinary—since then I have often enough seen such things, and even more remarkable ones” (134). The narrator further disclaims its singularity: “As I said, the entire incident does not contain anything out of the ordinary, in the course of a long life you will encounter many things that would be even more astonishing if taken out of context and seen through the eyes of a child” (137).

The childlike perception is emphasized from the beginning, as the entire encounter is encapsulated as stemming from “one of those blessed, inexplicable states of excitement that everyone probably experiences as a child” (133). Although qualified by the modifier “probably,” this comment suggests universality in the dog’s experience. The narrator’s intent seems less to tell a story in the traditional sense than to explain a universal paradigm through his own example, i.e. when a child in a state of excitement invests an ordinary event with extraordinary meaning, doing so may trigger the emergence of that child’s innate nature. The specifics of the incident itself are unimportant relative to that universal paradigm.

Later anecdotes amplify this singular event in the dog’s life. For example, a linear, time-oriented narrative would have mentioned the air dogs prior to the musical dogs. However, Kafka’s canine narrator instead uses the rumored existence of the air dogs as a means to circle back around the episode of the musical dogs, providing further examples of his thinking before and after that singular event of his youth. When the narrator first heard of the air dogs, he thought at the time that the tellers were attempting “to exploit excessively the unbiased mind of a young dog” (144). Then, after the encounter with the musical dogs, he says that “from that point on I considered anything possible, no prejudices limited my conceptual powers” (144). Before the encounter he considers himself without bias of mind, while after the encounter he claims to be without prejudice. With age comes bias, the narrator seems to suggest, but it is a bias based on experience and investigations rather than prejudice.

The encounter with the hunting dog is the only dialogue in the story involving the narrator as one of the participants, and only the second quoted dialogue of any kind. Earlier, the dog quotes a dialogue between sages on the topic of fasting (156), but even this dialogue is told only in part, with the first sage’s pronouncement reported in transposed speech. The answer of the second sage, posed as a question (“Well, isn’t fasting, after all, forbidden?”), is the first quoted utterance directly attributed to another being. With the strange dog in the woods, we are thrust into the back-and-forth play of dialogue familiar in literature as we have not seen throughout the twists of the interior monologue, and the device is at once wrenching, refreshing and surprising. Also, it is just the second singulative episode in the story. Like the first, the episode transforms the narrator, who says: “I bear the consequences even today” (160).

Alison Turner observes that music is the connecting thread between these singulative episodes, and that “one experience happens at the moment of greatest hope in the dog’s life, the other at the moment of greatest despair.” [122] Turner describes the meaning of the music: “The ‘inner music’ which plays so important a part in Kafka’s works symbolizes the creative ecstasy of the writer, who possessed by his genius, succeeds momentarily in transcending the normal limitations of existence.” [123]

The symbol of the writer’s ecstasy suggests additional contrasts between the two episodes: One experience has dogs failing to respond to another dog, while the other has the only example of a spoken dialogue within the story. The impossibility of dialogue with the wraithlike, unresponsive singing dogs put the narrator on a path that led him to his own isolated experiments, while the dialogic interaction with the hunting dog leads him back into the community of dogdom.

From this, we can surmise that it is the process of dialogue that informs the writer’s creativity, much more than the passive, one-way communication of the darkened theater. Williams provides ample evidence that the episode of the musical dogs takes place in a silent movie theater with live musicians. He summarizes the critical literature regarding other interpretations of the scene, which has been explained as Yiddish theater, a circus act, a variety show, a troupe of trained dogs, and as a metaphorical construct referring to Jewish mysticism or other allegorical constructs. [124] Yet the theater was a growing presence in 1920s Prague, and not entirely benign by Kafka’s standards, as he explains in a conversation reported by Gustav Janouch:

‘Of course it is a marvelous toy. But I cannot bear it, because perhaps I am too ‘optical’ by nature. I am an Eye-man. But the cinema disturbs one’s vision. The speed of the movements and the rapid change of images force men to look continually from one to another. Sight does not master the pictures, it is the pictures which master one’s sight. They flood one’s consciousness. The cinema involves putting the eye into uniform, when before it was naked.’

‘That is a terrible statement,’ I said. ‘The eye is the window of the soul, a Czech proverb says.’

Kafka nodded.

‘Films are iron shutters.’ [125]

The narrative complexity of Researches of a Hound demonstrates the full power of literature to achieve effects that cannot be captured on film. The art of film tends toward straightforward, linear events with unadorned dialogue, whereas the novel, as Kafka ably demonstrates with his talking dog, follows human consciousness off-piste. Kafka’s associative discourse defies the capabilities of film, allowing the eye to maintain its freedom from enclosure, a freedom highly valued at the closing of the story.  The “cryptic complexity” of Researches is a thumb in the shuttered eye of the new media of film and a powerful statement about the artistic potential of the novel.

As for why Kafka chose to use a dog for this challenging narrative story, two complementary explanations suggest themselves. First, the historical use of talking dogs in complex narratives, particularly in E.T.A. Hoffmann and Gogol, may have acted as a known precedent for Kafka. Second, the imagery of the dog had strong connotations for Kafka. Dietmar Goltschnigg enumerates several appearances of dogs in Kafka, including the death of Josef K. “like a dog,” the father’s denunciations of Kafka’s friends as “dogs” and fleas” as mentioned in “Letter to My Father,” and the doggish tendencies of “A Crossbreed.” [126] To this list, we can add “Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor,” which includes a discussion of the relative merits and difficulties of dog ownership. [127]

In addition, the conjunction between talking dogs and narrative complexity can, particularly in this case, be considered mimetic in a sense, with the style of the dog’s speech being an imitation of an actual dog’s physical movements. A hound searching for something does not always make a beeline for the object in question. Instead, it traverses the terrain back and forth, questing for a scent that may grow stronger or weaker with each pass, depending on wind and other factors. Part of the joke of the story may be that the dog’s inner thoughts mimic its outer motions, whether it be searching for a downed bird or gnawing on a marrow-filled bone. That a dog’s outwardly animalistic behaviors mask a Talmudic sensibility conveys a humorous effect that could not be thus achieved using any other animal while still allowing for recognition of the device by the reader. Of all the talking-dog authors explored thus far, Kafka alone took the imaginative step of eschewing the human-mediated talking dog to reveal the possibility of an untold inner life for dogs. The dog and the narrative complexity both represent essential parts of the satire.





[114] Eric Williams, “Of Cinema, Food, and Desire: Franz Kafka’s ‘Investigations of a Dog,’” College Literature 34.4 (2007): 100.

[115] Peter Stine, “Franz Kafka and Animals,” Contemporary Literature 22.1 (Winter, 1981):  42.

[116] Iris Bruce, “Aggadah Raises Its Paw Against Halakha: Kafka’s Zionist Critique in Forschungen eines Hundes” Journal of the Kafka Society of America 16.1 (June 1992): 6.

[117] Stanley Corngold, Lambent Traces (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004) 121-122.

[118] Williams 100.

[119] Franz Kafka, Kafka’s Selected Stories, trans. Stanley Corngold (New York: Norton, 2007) 132. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the chapter.

[120] James Rolleston, “Kafka’s Time Machines,” Franz Kafka (1883-1983): His Craft and Thought, ed. Roman Struc and J.C. Yardley (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1986) 34.

[121] Stine 59.

[122] Alison Turner, “Kafka’s Two Worlds of Music,” Monatshefte 55.5 (Oct., 1963): 270.

[123] Turner 275.

[124] Williams 103-104.

[125] Gustav Janouch, Conversations with Kafka: Notes and Reminiscences (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1953) 89.

[126] Dietmar Goltschnigg, “The Miserable End of Josef K.,” Turn-of-the-Century Vienna and Its Legacy: Essays in Honor of Donald G. Daviau, ed. Jeffrey B. Berlin, Jorun B. Johns, and Richard H. Lawson ([S.l.] : Edition Atelier, 1993) 255.

[127] Franz Kafka, The Complete Stories (New York: Schocken Books, 1995) 183.