“If one were only an Indian, instantly alert, and on a racing horse, leaning against the wind, kept on quivering jerkily over the quivering ground, until one shed one’s spurs, for there needed no spurs, threw away the reins, for there needed no reins, and hardly saw that the land before one was smoothly shorn heath when horse’s neck and head would be already gone.”
— Franz Kafka
In just one long sentence, Kafka manages to write another story that is loaded with complex ideas in its simplicity. Though Kafka doesn’t purposely write specific allegorical works, his stories are simple and odd enough to give readers space for multiple allegorical interpretations; he incorporates enough ideas and concepts for readers to chew on, but never enough information to make our interpretations conclusive. Kafka’s The Wish to Be a Red Indian, though short, is revolutionary in the way the author portrays how limiting language really is when it comes to expression of abstract concepts and meaning.
In Kafka’s The Wish to Be a Red Indian, there seems to be a kind of wanting or yearning for something; the romanticism of the Red Indian helps to portray that feeling. The title itself gives this away, as the story is primarily about the wish to be one. The very first part of the sentence gives a description of an Indian, “instantly alert, and on a racing horse, leaning against the wind, kept on quivering jerkily over the quivering ground” (Kafka 390). The alertness of the Indian implies an awakening of the mind or clarity of consciousness, while the racing horse would represent the power, wildness and untamed freedom that civilized society has forsaken. The Indian character him/herself, represents one who is free and pure in the sense that the Indian is molded by the wild, natural world; the depiction of the Indian represents the natural, untainted state of human beings before the rise of civilization and industrialism. Here, Thomas Aquinas’s idea of civilization corrupting man can be applied, and the idea also stays within the context of the romantic genre in which the retreat to nature is believed to purify mankind.
Another important detail that adds significance to the allegory of the story is in the latter half of the sentence when Kafka begins stripping away material elements of the story itself. The author gives us the Indian, the racing horse and the “quivering ground” that is the landscape, and just as quickly omits the spurs, reins, the land, and then the horse. All that is left of the moving image is virtually nothing but the Indian; but even the Indian is only an idea that we cannot refer to because there is no description of the actual Indian. The Indian is an essential part of the wish itself, and he is only an idea. Indian is not real. Kafka takes away these elements of the image, including the spurs and the reins, which are images symbolizing an imposed state of control over that which is natural. Kafka tries to whittle down the story to having only the wish. The significant part of this interpretation is that the author is showing us a major point about language—like the wish, there are many things that language, especially literature, cannot show. Kafka’s attempt to isolate the wish from the story only results in a virtual absence or nothingness, just like the rest of his stories.
This short story, though only one sentence, reveals the truth and paradox of language: it can say everything, but not really. Kafka writes this story with elements of reality, and then immediately erases attributes of the Indian rider. This poses an emphasis on the actual wish itself. But what exactly is the wish? Reading the story with an allegorical eye, there is much symbolism and context to work off for meaning. The romanticism of the Indian, for example, would be a representation of the freedom and certainty and purity of humanity that originally emerged from nature; Indian represents the purity of the human soul before rules and restrictions that written language uses to control us. Kafka is writing, in part, about how meaning cannot be captured in words because meaning is something that transcends language.
Moreover, the author also seems to be making an even bigger statement about the act of writing and the occupation of being a writer. Generally, Kafka spent much of his time just writing all of his stories. As a writer, he is in a prime position to note the frustrations of writing, and also to admit his yearning to stop writing altogether. Who better to renounce his trade as a writer than the writer himself? This yearning and wishing may stem from the writer’s wanting to stop, or to no longer know written language. Writing literature requires much structure, and Kafka is portraying a writer’s wish to be rid of the spurs and the reins that tame our natural insights. To know written language is to have limitations—in this sense, structure is really a kind of trap. Words only exist because of our need to capture meaning; but once we have the meaning, the words need not be remembered.
This entire story and message can only have been interpreted using allegoresis; allegory is the only way that we can understand something that cannot otherwise be said or written. As is the case with the Red Indian, Kafka successfully showed us that though language helps guide us towards the meaning, we no longer need to be caught up in the linguistics of the words that made the story.
Written for Dr. Brenda Machosky’s ENG 331A: Topics in British Literature Pre-1700