The Human, the Animal, and Kafka

It is not unreasonable to claim that Franz Kafka is invested in the idea of a distinction between animals and humans. In fact, this may very well be a non-statement as one could say that most people are invested in this distinction. The difference between animals and humans is often at the heart of what is commonly referred to as civilization. What is more “human” is considered “civilized,” conversely what is more “animal” is considered “savage” or “uncivilized.” Our societies are shaped in part by these distinctions. But it is Kafka that first systematizes then dissolves the differences between animals and humans.

For the sake of mapping how Kafka systematizes then blurs the animal and the human in A Country Doctor I would like to first reference another work by Kafka which allows us to more simply see the scheme. In The Metamorphosis the main character, Gregor Samsa, wakes up to find himself transformed into an insect. From the first sentence of the text we see a dissolving of the boundary between animal and human. It is implied that Samsa was formerly human, but now he is an insect. Where the boundary between human and animal is more extremely dissolved is in the fact that Samsa retains some of his humanity in his insect form, he can think and perceive like a human. In this sense Gregor Samsa literally embodies what Gilles Delleuze might refer to as a Becoming-Animal, the point at which the animal characteristics of a human are so exemplified or exaggerated as to present the figure as more animal than human. The transformation into an insect is therefore not complete. However, Samsa begins to lose the perceptive abilities of the human and accepts his insect-ness, passing through the barrier between animal and human into purely animal and when this occurs he is soon exterminated. In essence we see three states delineated: human, animal, and hybrid. From this simple example we can now approach the more complex schemes present in A Country Doctor.

The story of A Country Doctor concerns a doctor requested by a family to treat a wound on their son’s side only for the situation to collapse into a surreal attempt at diagnosis and treatment in which the doctor is stripped naked by the people of the town and forced to lay in bed with the young boy, after which the doctor makes his escape back to his place of residence. The main story itself has little to do with animals but they function throughout its length. When the doctor is alerted to the boy’s illness he prepares himself to venture to the house immediately only to find that his horse is missing. The doctor sends his servant girl, named Rosa, out to the town to see if someone could lend him one and only after she returns do they discover two horses in the doctor’s pig sty named Brother and Sister along with a groom only identified as the groom. The horses appear quite normal but the groom crawls about on all fours. When the groom sees the doctor’s servant girl he immediately attacks her and either bites or sucks upon her face, leaving a red mark. Rosa wisely escapes into the house.

The groom is identified as a human, he can talk, follow commands, and perform tasks, but his means of locomotion and inability to contain his base level urges situates him into the space between animal and human. The groom is inhuman while retaining his status as a human. Because the groom is so animal-like in his pursuit of sexual fulfillment the doctor worries about whether or not the groom will attack Rosa throughout the story. As has been pointed out by Margaret Church in KAFKA, A Country Doctor feels as though he has sacrificed Rosa to the “demonic groom” because “Those who would do good must often, ironically enough, utilize evil in order to accomplish their ends.” Here I would replace “demonic” with “animalistic.” As is commonly interpreted with works by Kafka, we can see a theme of guilt and self-revulsion running throughout the text in the character of the doctor.

When the doctor sets off for the family’s house in the carriage dragged by Brother and Sister he finds that they arrive almost instantly. This can be due to two possibilities: Either the doctor had completely forgotten how close the family’s house was or the horses are in possession of a kind of supernatural ability. There may be evidence for both which will be addressed later.

Throughout the examination of the young man the horses somehow escape from the apparatus that joins them to the carriage and insert their heads through windows in the patient’s room, examining the situation. The doctor seems to assign a kind of knowing agency to the horses. “‘I’ll go back right away,’ I think, as if the horses were ordering me to journey back.” While no one seems to find the presence of the horses unusual—and in fact no one aside from the doctor even seems to notice the horses—their presence seems almost imbued with a telepathic quality along with an inhuman ability to perceive.

The doctor initially finds nothing wrong with the allegedly sick young man and recommends he be pushed out of bed “with a shove,” but upon closer examination, aided by the whinnying of the two horses through the window, the doctor finds the wound that ails the young man. The doctor describes the whinnying of the horses and the ensuing discovery of the illness as “probably supposed to come from higher region in order to illuminate my examination—and now I found out that, yes indeed, the young man is ill.” Here the horses certainly exceed the limitations of the animal, yet they do not traverse the barrier between the animal and the human into the hybrid, rather they seem to veer off into their own region in which the animal seems to possess omniscience. The horses, Brother and Sister, seem to have an awareness of a system of knowledge that extends beyond human understanding, more interesting still they choose to impart this understanding to the doctor for the seemingly benevolent reasons.

When the doctor is stripped of his clothes to  the singing of a school children’s choir and placed naked in the bed with the sick young man the horses’ heads are said to “sway like shadows” in the windows. Here the horses appear weightless and spectral in the midst of the schism from what we would call “standard” Western medical practice. They make no sound and do not seem to telepathically transmit information to the doctor, but their movements could be a sign of anxiety. The swaying and shadow-like quality of the horses’ heads may also indicate a sort of fraying of reality as the story becomes increasingly hallucinatory, causing the horses’ corporeal beings to fade.

The horses, however, do not fade away. As the doctor decides to escape the increasingly bizarre visit the horses are found waiting patiently in the window. Again, as if to read the doctor’s mind one horse, who is not identified, steps aside from the window so that he may throw his things from the window to the carriage. The doctor jumps into the carriage, still nude, and orders the horses, who are now curiously reattached to the carriage, home. The doctor expects that the journey will be as fast as it previously was yet finds that the horses move slowly through the snow. In A Problem in Analysis: Franz Kafka’s “A Country Doctor” Louis H. Leiter asserts that the horses are stripped of their virility as the doctor is stripped of their clothes, causing the carriage to move more slowly. It is here, with the horses stripped of virility and the doctor stripped nude that the story ends, with the doctor in despair, waiting to arrive at his home.

What the doctor expects to find when he arrives is nothing short of the antithesis of the horses and their actions. Throughout his examination the doctor lamented leaving the groom alone with the Rosa, imagining her as “his victim” most likely implying the act of rape. The groom, whose consciousness seems solely rooted in the bodily as opposed to the otherworldliness of the horses, is assumed by the doctor to have lost what little control he possessed over his lust for the Rosa, assaulting her with sexual violence. While we do not know if this is absolutely true, the doctor seems utterly convinced and the evidence from the only scene containing the groom would support his assumption.

Beyond the animal, the hybrid, and the human, a new center is established. The human becomes repositioned as the center of the scheme, the horses further away from the hybrid than the human, and the groom in between the human and the animal, the doctor, along with his fellow townspeople, somewhere in between, both confused and animal-like yet autonomous and thinking. The doctor can make guesses and even attempt to see far away into his home, yet it is the horses who supersede him in perceptive capabilities. On the other end of the spectrum, the doctor seems often unsure, confused, and not totally in control of himself or his situation, yet he is capable of operating in the world more coherently than the groom, who seems to behave almost slavishly to his sexual desires.

Regarding the sexual in relation to the doctor and the groom we again see major distinctions. The servant girl, who would seem ripe for sexual fantasy for a servant-owning man of the time, is regarded affectionately yet asexually by the doctor, as though she were more of a daughter figure than the object of any sexual interest. As stated before, the groom is the antithesis of the doctor in this way, the groom almost seems driven by his sexual desire to act in certain ways. For Kafka a feverish need to reproduce appears revolting and dehumanizing, bodily without consideration for the mind, base. The groom moves about on all fours seemingly in search of a sexual victim to attack. The groom’s inability to resist his sexual thirst combined with his locomotion secures his position between the animal and the human. The horses also escape the gravitational pull of sexual desire, their coupling is that of siblings, and while a case of incest are not entirely out of the question the subject seems too complicated for an already complex text. Kafka could have portrayed the doubled horses as a mating pair but chose siblings, perhaps to further entrench an asexual quality to the horses which would further lend to their otherworldly qualities.

Kafka stresses the difference between the animal, the human, and the hybrid in The Metamorphosis, Jackals and Arabs, and other works, yet we occasionally see subversions of this compartmentalization. While most of the characters in A Country Doctor remain more or less static in their compartments the horses seem to move from the animal beyond the scheme into the supernatural; to the telepathic and omniscient. This fracturing of the scheme implies a system of existence that exists beyond the doctor’s—and by extension our—understanding.


Kafka, Franz. A Country Doctor. Translated by Ian Johnston, Rosings Digital Publications, 2003.

Deleuze, Gilles. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

Church, Margaret. KAFKA, A Country Doctor. Explicator, Vol. 16, 1957.

Leiter, Louis H. A Problem in Analysis: Franz Kafka’s ‘A Country Doctor.’  Journal of
Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 16, pp.337-347. 1958