Alan Chalmers

‘Four Hands Good, Two Hands Bad’: the Simian Point of View in the fiction of Franz Kafka and Ian McEwan

By, Alan Chalmers, Professor of English and Department Chair at Wofford College


The paper I am proposing to present is a part of a larger study of literary representations of our closest non-human relatives, and presupposes that such representations, in serious writing, prompt important questions—formal/aesthetic, ethical, and ecological. This touches on these broader questions by focusing specifically on the discomfiting if sometimes hilarious depictions of intimate human-ape relations in two fictional works: ‘Reflections of a kept Ape,’ (1978), a short story by Ian McEwan, and an earlier work that influenced McEwan, Franz Kafka’s similarly short piece, ‘Report to an Academy’ (1917). In their descriptions of trans-species unions these authors court the charge of decadence, applying as they do sophisticated literary artistry to potentially grotesque, transgressive fantasies. But my interest in them is rather in the complex effects of the voices of these stories, told as they are by the ape-protagonists themselves—narrators who in the most humanly erudite way describe their inescapably simian situations. It’s as if Kafka and McEwan, grasping the (seriously) comic potential inherent in the gap between our two primate species, determine upon closing that gap in the most audacious way possible. The stories play subversively with an idea expressed by Georges Bataille, that “nothing, as a matter of fact, is more closed to us than this animal life from which we are descended”; or, shifting terms slightly, they acknowledge ironically Wittgenstein’s contention about animals, that “…if a lion could talk we could not understand him.” Teazing out our connections to our primate relatives, Kafka and McEwan both assert the closeness of those relations, but assert them paradoxically by confusing them, by estranging mind from body, by insisting on intractable distinctions, or as Kafka’s domesticated narrator puts it: “Of course what I then felt, in ape fashion, I can now only represent in human terms, and misrepresent it therefore.”

Underlying these stories is a sensitive awareness of the enigma of animal consciousness, and of the plight of the non-human creature in a world controlled by the human—a plight made more perilous by the absence of a common language. They affirm what our scientists and our senses tell us—that we are much, much more like our ape cousins than our customary treatment of them suggests; but they affirm our affinities, paradoxically, by exaggerating them in disorienting ways.


I received my Ph.D from the University of Southern California and my B.A. Honors, also in English, from the University of Sheffield, England. Before taking up my position here at Wofford in 2005 I taught at a regional campus of the University of South Carolina, and before that at the University of Oregon. I teach C18th. British literature, Contemporary British literature, and Introductory courses in literary theory. My publications include essays and reviews on eighteenth-century literature, and a book, Jonathan Swift and the Burden of the Future (Associated University Presses), 1995.