On Ape-Men and Wolf-Girls

A few quick thoughts at the end of the semester:

I taught Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy” in my “Literature and Science Since Darwin” classes this semester; it’s one of my favorite short stories to teach. We read it after a couple of weeks of discussing Darwin and studying H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, so our context for it is as an evolutionary fable. Red Peter, born an ape, learns to become human by adapting to human customs. His journey symbolically captures the evolutionary path from ape to human. As he tells his interlocutors, “Your life as apes, gentlemen, insofar as something of that kind lies behind you, cannot be farther removed from you than mine is from me. Yet everyone on earth feels a tickling at the heels; the small chimpanzee and the great Achilles alike.”

After the students have read “A Report to an Academy,” but before we begin discussing it, I usually ask them to brainstorm a list of things that distinguish humans from other animals. They list things like language, morality, and self-consciousness. The science majors will often add things like bipedalism, opposable thumbs, and tool use. Almost inevitably, arguments break out over each proposed distinction. Someone will argue that elephants have a sense of morality, or that whales have language, or I show them a video of chimpanzees using tools. It’s one of my favorite exercises for making visible the threat that Darwinism poses to traditional humanism; suddenly, all the distinctions that make humans human are up for debate.

Then I’ll ask the students how Kafka defines the human. What does Red Peter have to learn in order to become human? Now, the students make a very different list. Red Peter first learns to spit, to smoke, and to drink, as he adapts to the habits of the sailors around him. Later, he learns to wear clothes, to read, and even to speak to the “Academy.” It is a story of harsh discipline, and it soon becomes apparent that Kafka is portraying Red Peter’s journey not as progress, but as loss. He trades in his ape freedom for a painful apprenticeship in human culture. “One learns when one has to,” Red Peter says. “One stands over oneself with a whip; one flays oneself at the slightest opposition.”

By the time we read “A Report to an Academy,” we have already encountered one challenge to the notion that evolution means progress, or the idea that humans are the pinnacle of evolution, in the form of The Time Machine with its degenerate Eloi and Morlocks. “A Report to an Academy” seems, similarly, to challenge the March of Progress narrative, implying that human life is no better than ape life and, in some important respects, is worse. Here, though, students begin to intuit that something else is going on in Kafka’s story, some other kind of allegory. Occasionally, a student will suggest that the story allegorically represents the Middle Passage, Red Peter symbolizing the African people who were captured, labelled as savages, and forced to adapt to life in a white supremacist society that did not live up to its promises of progress and enlightenment.

I tell students at this point in the discussion that Kafka was Jewish, and that “A Report to an Academy” is often interpreted as a critique of the pressure for Jews to assimilate in European society. Red Peter’s ape-ness might reflect the anti-Semitic dehumanization of Jews, and Kafka’s unflattering portrayal of the human species might be a seething denunciation of European culture, which prided itself on being the peak of civilization yet masked cruelties far more savage than those Red Peter encountered in the jungle. Why should Red Peter have to change himself to assimilate to the people who caged him? readers may ask.

Several weeks after my classes read “A Report to an Academy,” I taught Karen Russell’s short story “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” in my first-year writing class, where the course theme is coming of age stories. The story is about a boarding school for the daughters of werewolves, girls with human bodies but wolfish minds. At St. Lucy’s Home, the nuns aim to train the girls in human ways, with varying levels of success. “At first,” the narrator shares, “our pack was all hair and snarl and floor-thumping joy.” They topple dressers and dig holes and pee on the beds. After a few months, however, they are beginning to renounce their wolfish ways. They learn to ride bikes, dance the Sausalito, and practice “Unit 7: Party Dialogue” in preparation for the dance with the boys from the Home for Man-Boys Raised by Wolves.

All except Mirabella, the youngest of the wolf-girls. Mirabella continues to scratch and bite, to chase raccoons, to growl. She disappoints the nuns time and time again. She never adapts to human life. After pouncing on Claudette, the narrator, at the dance, Mirabella is expelled and disappears from St. Lucy’s. The girls believe that she has been sent “back to the woods.” But they never see her again.

When Claudette returns to the woods herself, to visit her parents, she is shocked by how small and strange the family cave looks. It is here that she experiences her final, Joycean epiphany: “‘So,’ I said, telling my first human lie. ‘I’m home.'”

“St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” is, of course, a coming of age story in the form of a fairy tale. Becoming human is a metaphor for growing up, for learning to control the id and to behave in socially respectable ways. And it is also an allegory for immigration and assimilation. Claudette will never lose her growly wolf-accent, but she will also never feel at home again in the cave she grew up in. She and her wolf sisters live in limbo between wolf and human culture, wondering what they have lost via their successful assimilation. Readers, meanwhile, question whether life at St. Lucy’s is really less savage and more sophisticated than life in the woods.

I see the story as a retelling of “A Report to an Academy,” and I hope to teach the two stories together in a future class. I think the juxtaposition lets us see “A Report to an Academy” as itself a kind of coming of age story, and it lets us see “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” as a politically inflected allegory about the broken promises of assimilationist ideology.

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