Wounded and captured by an expedition, a formerly "free" ape found himself aboard a boat headed for Europe. Confined in a tight cage, he realized for the first time that escape was impossible. Thus he decided to opt for something less than animal freedom — in fact, he didn't even require freedom. He simply wanted "a way out." For him, a "way out" required taking on as much as possible of the human world around him. This he did.
He succeeded in overcoming his animal existence to an astounding degree and, today, he is not really unhappy. Everything he learned he could not have achieved had he chosen to remain an ape, but: "One learns when one needs a way out." The seamy side of this statement is that the memories of his former life are becoming increasingly vaguer as the ape becomes adjusted to the world of man. As be takes on more characteristics of his human environment, he has trouble even comprehending the freedom of his past. It eludes his comprehension and even his power of description: the "direction" from where he came is really all he can tell his learned audience.
Yet, no matter how comfortable he may feel in the human world, the "gentle puff of air" tickling his heels reminds him, as it does every human being, of his lost freedom. (Cool breezes in Kafka's stories usually stand for freedom sometimes too much freedom, causing man to lose his orientation.) The trouble is, however, that any regaining of this freedom could only come about at the expense of being a human being. To the narrator, the idea of being human and being free are mutually exclusive; maintaining a measure of each is therefore tantamount to being caught in the middle of two modes of existence.
This is exactly what has happened to him. He willingly shows his wound — this symbol of animal turned human — to visitors because "when the plain truth is in question, great minds discard the niceties of refinement." His development toward "humanness" is something he has aimed for, and yet it is a "forced career" he has never really wanted. His situation between two worlds is particularly tragic because he is actively involved in the human world during the day, in variety shows and lectures; by night, he sleeps with his half-trained chimpanzee mate. He cannot bear to see the chimpanzee by day, "because she has that insane look of the bewildered half-broken animal in her eye." He chose to turn human and has visible wounds and painful memories of a lost freedom, but she — still one hundred percent animal — is bound to go crazy among humans.
The narrator's position may be described as being between a past world in which he represented something he does not represent any more and a present world in which he represents something he knows he is not. This is why he begins his account with the words "I belong to the Gold Coast." His report deals almost solely with what he has experienced as a human being which he is only in a more or less superficial way. His self-awareness was nonexistent when he was captured, and so he has to "depend on the evidence of others" when it comes to telling his audience about that part of his life. He apologizes for being in no position to supply any meaningful data on his former condition as an ape; his return to "apeishness" becomes more difficult proportionate to his development toward "humanness."
The language of this report bears the unmistakable marks of something artificially acquired. The enormous discrepancy between man and ape, as well as his attitude as an ape rather than that of a human being are quite evident, as, for example, when he casually boasts of having "emptied many a bottle of good red wine with the expedition leader" and when he jeers at such ridiculous human demonstrations of freedom as that acted out and applauded in the course of a circus trapeze act. Having achieved his goal to the degree which would guarantee his survival, he has learned how to participate in human society, even to be a great success in his performances. At the same time, it is important to realize that he remains a curiosity unable to bridge the gap between his two natures. Symbolic of his in-between situation, he thinks "with his belly." He belongs nowhere.
At no point in the ape's development in the direction of a human being is there any hint of a change for the superior. In fact, the story ends on a clear note of resignation that stands in sharp contrast to any belief in progress. There can be no advances without concomitant payments of freedom and life: "Even if my prowess and determination would be enough to get me back . . . I would have to peel every piece of skin from my body to squeeze through."
The story abounds in satire that sometimes borders on sarcasm, such as the description of the drunken ape accidentally gurgling "Hallo." The view is often held that Kafka permitted his ape to be raised to a level of "humanness" — a distorted one, to be sure — only to reveal the beast in man or, at least, the fact that man cannot attain his potential humanity in freedom. While not altogether wrong, this view does not do justice to Kafka, whose transformation stories are essentially parables of spiritual disorientation. In all of them, whether in "The Metamorphosis" or "Investigations of a Dog," the protagonist has not merely lost his sense of identity, but he has actually lost this identity itself. Whether the change is from man to animal or the other way around is beside the point: they all wind up in in-between situations. In all these instances, Kafka gives expression to this deepest of all human predicaments by using the essential "otherness" of man and animal.