October 21, 1994

From Gerald R. Lucas

Cortázar: “A Letter to a Young Woman in Paris”

“A Letter to a Young Woman in Paris” is an example of a “typical” story by Julio Cortázar. The story contains an imposition of an “imaginary” world upon the “real” world, the double, a collapse between space and time, and a dubious narrator. The former aspect is the most central of all, and therefore branches out into the others. An examination of the latter characteristics will yield a discussion of the former.

The narrator in “Letter” has made the ultimate sacrifice by taking care of a young woman’s apartment while she is in Paris, i.e., death. Before his death, the narrator sacrifices his sanity, and, no matter how the bunnies are interpreted, order to chaos before making the final leap. These bunnies can represent a double of the narrator; he did give birth to them. They are cute and playful at first, though as they get bigger they get more hirsute and odious. If the bunnies are interpreted as an imagined projection of the narrator, his own neurotic “double” is his downfall; since there are no bunnies in physicality, then the narrator has caused the story’s events and his own death. Other stories contain these kind of doubles: the brother and sister in “House Taken Over” experience an imposition that may or may not be themselves projected; Isabel’s animosity against the Kid, while obviously having a physical manifestation, could be seen as taking on the form of the tiger. Other stories contain actual doubles: “The Night Face Up” portrays the double life of a man in his dreams, unfortunately the least desirable ends up being the actual. “A Yellow Flower” finds a disturbed narrator that claims to be the last mortal man because his double “died,” and “The Distances” sees the actual switching of identities and awareness between the interchanged doubles. All of these doubles are ambiguous in the fact that they can be interpreted as figments of the narrators’ imaginations[1] or as an actual “reality” imposing itself upon their quotidian worlds. Yet, there remain instances (e.g. in “The Distances,” where Cortázar ends in the third person) where the reader has no choice but to believe the unbelievable.[2]

This supplies the transition to another common feature of Cortázar’s stories, namely the dubious narrator. Much like many of Poe’s narrators, Cortázar’s are rational and convincing as reliable much like his predecessor’s. Compare the narrator of “Letter” to Poe’s narrator in “The Black Cat” or “The Tell-Tale Heart” and it can be gleaned that all of these narrators appear rational, lucid, and sane. However, by the stories’ ends both Poe’s narrators have theatrically undone themselves and Cortázar’s narrator has taken a dive off of the balcony. Just these endings alone should scream there was something wrong with this chap! and make the reader reexamine that story and/or why we hold so much respect for those who are (or appear) rational. Similarly, the narrator in “House Taken Over,” who seems very composed and almost too mundane, eventually usurps himself and his sister from there house for no apparent reason other than ostensibly what is in his head. Throughout the story the reader is convinced of the validity of what the narrator relates: he seems logical and well-read, why not trust what he relates? Yet, there is never any indication in the “actual” world that what he thinks is happening is really taking place at all; even his sister is no indication because she is not much more than a knitting vegetable. In “Blow-Up” the narrator is ambiguous at best. His language makes sense at times, but also seems to be translated from “another world” of blue skies and streaks of passing clouds. The narrator’s state of mind is obviously meant to be ambiguous: if he is, in actually, in another reality, then how can a reader in this reality judge his mental culpability? Finally, in “The Gates of Heaven,” the narrator has proof from another that what he witnessed did take place, or does he? The narrator believes that he saw Celina in her heaven, yet his proof, Mauro, believes that he saw someone in the dance hall that remarkably resembled Celina, his dead wife. The latter searches vainly for her, but, as the narrator is assured, he did not find her. This narrator, Dr. Rational of the Files, provides the reader with the most believable narrator to be glimpsed in Cortázar. All of these narrator’s prove that it is difficult to shatter one’s own mold, i.e. to break the bonds that make up our own, ordered reality. Therefore, when the “unreal,” or fantastic intrudes, they (very much like Poe’s narrators, esp. in “The Raven”) either make the adjustment to allow for this possibility, or go insane.[3]

Poe coined the phrase “Out of Space—out of TIME” in his poem “Dream-Land” to stand for the inexplicable which seems to have no place in real time. This theme is perhaps more relevant in the works of Borges, but it is also found in Cortázar. The narration of “Letter” is just that: epistolary form. When the reader begins the story, the action has already taken place: now becomes ambiguous, or as the narrator in “Blow-Up” calls it, “a dumb lie” (118). The narration is also disjunct: he is called away from it by his bunnies and while he is at work. The bunnies, being “out of space,” also have their own “day” separate from the narrator’s, confusing matters still more and giving the narration more of a sense of being “out of time.” Finally, the reader realizes that the narrator was dead even before he/she began experiencing the story; this succeeds in further distancing the narration and the reader. “Blow-Up” is similar is this respect, for the narrator states that he is dead at the beginning of the story; yet how can he be dead and still relay the story? The story’s events, as they unfold, make the reader aware that they are taking place out of space and time: intrusion of clouds, narrative ambiguities (e.g. the comment about “now”), and the conclusion where the narrator and the picture seem to switch places. “Axolotl,” where atavistic forces work to merge the narrator and the axolotls, “House Taken Over,” where things out of space and time begin to drive the couple out, “Continuity of Parks,” where a man is reading about his own murder, and others show that Poe’s “Out of Space—out of TIME” is a common theme in Cortázar.

Reality, finally, is the ultimate question in Cortázar’s fiction; not just epistemological questions, but, more importantly, ontological questions. What if the bunnies actually existed? What if Celina’s heaven was that dance floor? What if there were murmurings that drove brother and sister into the street? What if we are immortal? What if pictures can come alive? What if we can become axolotls? The last question would seem particularly apropos to the poet and seems to be the crux of Cortázar’s fiction: it is all in how we perceive, or translate, our milieu, or reality. If the artist wants to write about something he/she must empathize as much as possible with that thing, be it rock, tree, or axolotl. This, as Cortázar illustrates, is dangerous, for the thing could devour the human, become the human, or show that there is really no difference between the two that our rational minds suggest.


  1. Perhaps with the exception of “The Bestiary.” While the tiger itself may not have a grounding in the actual, there is something that causes the death of the Kid. One could speculate that if the latter is true, then Isabel has definitely made the transition into adulthood by arranging the Kid’s murder.
  2. A final, almost incontrovertible example of the fantastic double is the man in “Continuity of Parks.” The reader is reading about a man who is reading about himself getting murdered. Cortázar brilliantly leaves him untouched on the point of oblivion, just to cajole and tease it seems or to keep up the interpretable ambiguity.
  3. This makes the reaction of the Doctor in “Heaven” a bit of an enigma. Is he so removed from what is going on around him, for we see that he rarely participates in lieu of watching, that he can absorb anything with impartiality and acquiescence? The story’s ending shows him to have understood and accepted his vision of Celina, yet is this just another reference for his files? Like Hawthorne’s perpetrator of the “Unpardonable Sin,” is this narrator guilty, and will his trial be yet to come? Perhaps an interesting paper topic related to the theme of the rôle taking of the artist?