The Distances, Julio Cortazar: Summary & Analysis

‘The Distances’ is a short story by the renowned Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar (1914-84), published in his 1951 collection Bestiary. The story delves into the surreal realm as it follows a woman who discovers her doppelgänger in her dreams and subsequently exchanges identities with this mysterious other. Like many of Julio Cortázar's works, 'The Distances' captivates readers with its playful, dense, and enigmatic narrative. Before delving into an analysis of the story's themes and meanings, let's provide a concise summary of the plot.

Plot Summary

The story unfolds through the diary entries of a woman named Alina Reyes, who resides in Buenos Aires with her mother. Engaged to a man named Luis María, Alina eventually marries him towards the tale's conclusion. Early in the diary, Alina reveals a fondness for wordplay, crafting anagrams, and referring to herself in an impersonal manner, as though she is observing herself from afar.

As the diary entries progress, it becomes evident that Alina is preoccupied with an elderly beggar woman residing thousands of miles away in Hungary. Alina's consciousness of this distant woman comes to her through 'the distances.' She longs to send a telegram to the beggar woman, arranging to meet her at a bridge in Budapest.

The Intriguing Connection

During a music concert, Alina's thoughts once again drift to the life of the beggar woman in Budapest, whom she imagines to be subjected to regular beatings. She questions whether this thought is a memory from the past or a premonition of events to come. Now married to Luis María, she persuades him to accompany her to Budapest, hiding the true reason behind her desire to make the trip.

Alina, now married, intends to discontinue her diary, believing that marriage and diary-keeping do not complement each other. She resolves to meet the woman in Budapest and make her 'yield' to her. The narrative then shifts to an omniscient third-person voice, revealing that Alina and her husband were divorced a few months after their Budapest trip.

The Surreal Exchange

During her solo exploration of Budapest, Alina encounters the beggar woman on the bridge, just as she had predicted. The two women embrace, but when they release each other, Alina is horrified to discover that their bodies have swapped. She now occupies the beggar woman's form, while the beggar woman inhabits Alina's youthful body.

This unsettling twist leaves readers with profound questions about identity, reality, and the blurred boundaries between dreams and waking life. Cortázar's masterful storytelling weaves a surreal and thought-provoking tale that challenges conventional perceptions of existence.

Critical Analysis

The Blurred Boundaries of Imagination and Reality

One of the prominent themes in 'The Distances' is the delicate relationship between imagination and objective reality. Julio Cortázar skillfully explores this dynamic as Alina Reyes, the protagonist, develops a vivid imagination about the life experiences of a distant beggar woman in Hungary. Despite the physical distance between them, the beggar woman's existence becomes increasingly real to Alina. Her immersive imagination gives her a sense of physical presence, even when she remains in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

As Alina imagines herself traveling to Budapest and wandering through the plaza, the distinction between her imagined experiences and her actual reality becomes disarmingly blurred. It is as though she has traversed the 'distances,' spanning thousands of miles to connect with this mysterious woman dwelling in Hungary.

A Surreal Exchange of Identities

The culmination of the story occurs when Alina and the beggar woman literally exchange bodies. Cortázar presents a surreal twist where Alina's consciousness swaps with that of the elderly woman, resulting in Alina's mind inhabiting the beggar woman's body, while the beggar woman's mind occupies Alina's youthful form.

This startling turn of events raises intriguing questions about the consequences of this extraordinary exchange. Was Alina, now in the elderly woman's body, able to return to her husband, Luis María? Did Luis María encounter Alina wandering the streets of Budapest, only to find that her mind was no longer the same as before?

A Symbolic Parable of Empathy and Identity

'The Distances' can be interpreted as a symbolic parable about empathy and the human capacity to imagine the lives of others. Cortázar's narrative goes beyond the common phrase of 'walking in someone else's shoes' by manifesting it literally in Alina's life. Through this fantastical experience, Alina effectively becomes the beggar woman, experiencing life from her perspective and embodying her entire existence.

This exploration of empathy and identity prompts readers to consider the transformative power of understanding and identifying with someone else's life, particularly one that is vastly different and potentially more challenging than our own. The narrative opens up the possibility that deep empathy and connection with others can lead to profound transformations within ourselves, blurring the lines between who we are and who we empathize with.

Cortázar's adept storytelling resonates through 'The Distances' and his other works, like 'Axolotl,' where he delves into profound philosophical themes through surreal narratives. By interweaving imagination, empathy, and the human psyche, Cortázar invites readers to explore the intricate connections that define the human experience.

In conclusion, 'The Distances' is a thought-provoking tale that challenges conventional notions of reality and empathy. Through the enigmatic exchange of identities, Cortázar raises profound questions about the boundaries of imagination and reality, the transformative power of empathy, and the fluid nature of identity.

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