In terms of narrative method, Kafka writes from within the mind of the protagonist, and the introspective protagonist — through whose eyes we see the maze of the burrow — is the author himself. Any number of entries in his diary reveal the affinity of Kafka's existence with that of the animal, and in letters to his fiancée Milena, he even refers to himself as "the wood animal." But this animal is also man alone, man hunted and haunted, man confronted with powers that forever elude his control. And the burrow with its innermost sanctuary, the Castle Keep, is his painfully constructed bastion against the animosity of the world around him.
That the burrow's description so closely resembles that of an actual subterranean animal's hideout enhances its symbolic meaning and illustrates that it is really more complex than its outward appearance indicates. The "unique instrument" of the animal's forehead is a symbol of Kafka's (man's) passionate battle against the encroaching confusion of earthly existence, a battle he fought with "intense intellectual" rather than "physical" prowess. As he was to put it in his merciless, almost masochistic fashion: "I was glad when the blood came, for that was proof that the walls were beginning to harden. I richly paid for my Castle Keep."
What really is the burrow and against which inimical world is it intended? Let us view the animal's attempt to set tip a shelter for itself in terms of a fight between mind and reality — that is, between man's effort to construct a rational world of his own making and the outside world dominated by irrational forces. It is against this incalculable world of irrational forces that he builds the burrow where he alone intends to be in charge. He believes his burrow will be superior to the reality of the outside because it is rational — which to him means perfect and entirely identical with its builder. (Compare this story with "A Hunger Artist" for another of Kafka's representations of the complete detachment of the outside world.) That his complete seclusion from the "real" world above results in an unhealthy preoccupation with it, is also the result of his failure to understand that everybody ultimately takes himself with him wherever he may flee to, thereby contaminating the imagined perfection of his new, artificial realm. For this reason, it is not exaggerated to call the burrow a solipsistic world.
The narrator's obsession with building a perfectly safe realm for himself dulls his mind to the decisive factor that, no matter how hard he tries to set up a self-sustaining world, this world will nevertheless depend on the outside for such basic necessities as air and food. The entrance, however, is not only the point of contact with the outside world supplying air and food: it is also the place where potential enemies can make their way inside. In other words, the impossibility of creating a perfect inner world goes hand in hand with the impossibility of shutting himself off completely. Hence the burrow will remain unsafe in the last analysis. The awareness of this imperfection drives him mad and, as a result, he will go on building and mending corridors as long as he lives. To live is to be afraid, and to be afraid is to be worried about defending oneself. The trouble is, as Kafka put it in one of his well-known aphorisms: "The hunting dogs are playing in the courtyard, but the hare will not escape them, no matter how fast it may be flying already through the woods."
The burrow is "another world" which affords new powers to him who descends into it from the world above. Time and again, it is praised as the sanctuary of tranquility and peace, sometimes even evoking associations of voluntary death. As in so many of Kafka's stories, the theme of hunting and being hunted figures prominently. In "The Hunter Gracchus," for example, this hunt makes the "wood animal" a battlefield of opposing forces — "the assault from above" and "the assault from below." Tranquility and the hunt, peace and annihilation — these are the opposite poles between which the narrator's life and our lives vacillate.
The entire story, it should be said, is dialectic in character. The burrow stands for the assumed safety of the animal's rational faculties, but it also stands for danger where "we will both blindly bare our claws and our teeth" when disaster strikes; the entrance symbolizes hope, but it is also the weak spot of his structure, through which the perils of the outside world threaten to leak in; and in spite of the owner's attempts at making himself independent of the outside world, he wants occasional contact with it because it exerts a certain fascination upon him. Outside "reality" even loses its horror for short periods of time for him, but he soon returns to his burrow, incapable of enjoying the freer mode of existence. Kafka has magnificently expressed the all-pervading law of movement and counter-movement here, a reflection of his own life embroiled in counter currents.
The description of the unknown and yet steadily approaching noise ranks among the most brilliant passages Kafka ever wrote. There are few pieces in which he caught the nightmare of his own anxiety-ridden existence in such fearfully dense diction. Comprising almost half of the story, beginning with his being awakened by an "inaudible whistling noise (the twilight zone of consciousness following sleep is most important in Kafka's stories), these passages are an ever-mounting frenzy of self-doubt, bottomless fear, and exhausted resignation. They seem to be one long scream, reflecting his own seismographic sensitivity to the tremendous, though partly still latent, upheavals of our age. At first, the builder of the burrow only talks about certain "small fry" that have dug their way into his domain, and what bothers him most at this point is that they have succeeded without his noticing them. Soon, however, the noise grows louder and keeps him on a steady alert. From everywhere within his burrow he can hear the whistling coming nearer and — this enervating thought completely overwhelms him — it may come "from some animal unknown to me." Battling his overwrought imagination, he begins to calm himself by imagining a swarm of harmless little animals. Once anxiety has made inroads into his badly shaken self, however, his agony is intensified. Reeling with visions of horror, he cannot keep the sound of the blood pounding through his veins distinct from the ubiquitous whistling any longer. Unable and even unwilling to trust his observations, he jumps to conclusions which he discards before he has even set out to carry them through. In a maddening escalation of frenzy, the invisible pursuers are holding ever more sway over him, alternately scaring him to death and lulling him into short respites of exhaustion. As everywhere in Kafka's world, it is precisely the elements of the unknown that cause his anxiety. (In fact, the psychological term anxiety (Angst in German) is generally used to describe feelings of being threatened that lack concrete, known reasons.) As sheer horror approaches, invisible and yet more and more audible, "the growing — louder is like a coming — nearer." Now he does not think of the source of his anxiety as a swarm of little animals any longer; it now begins to assume the looming proportions of "a single great beast." He goes into frantic last-minute attempts at fortifying his maze but, at the same time, he suffers from nagging self-incrimination because he has neglected to take defensive steps while there was still time. In fact, there had been plenty of time, for he was still young when he first heard the noise for the first time; as it happened, the danger subsided and, instead of taking this as a warning, he went on building his burrow as if nothing had happened. He begins to realize that rather than making him feel more secure, the burrow has weakened his ability to meet an assault successfully.
The most tragic realization in this story is that not even the best possible entrance or the best possible bulwark can save him, that "in all probability it would . . . rather betray" him. There is no direct correlation between the safety one desires, the efforts to achieve it that one goes through, and the realization of this safety. Or, expressed in terms of the story's main theme: in the face of advancing irrationality, man — relying on his rational powers — is doomed to failure. It is not enough to register the scratching" of the enemy's claws, — for whenever that happens already you are lost." The irony is that there may be no objective threat at all, that the noise may be nothing but a projection of the dweller's own anxiety. He may have created a nightmare for himself, which of course does not make his agony any less harrowing. When we look at the story in this way, we realize that the whistling may well have been delusion, the result of his pathological preoccupation with himself
On several occasions, Kafka referred to tuberculosis as being his "beast," and we may safely read the story on this level. Primarily, of course, it is a reflection of his own lifelong quest for security and salvation, as well as a sensitive diagnosis of an age which, while still deeming itself healthy and safe, was rapidly falling victim to the barbarities of twentieth-century political ideologies. "In the Penal Colony" comes to mind immediately, a nearly perfect portrayal of this "evil beast" at work. Quite in keeping with the intensity of its truthfulness to life, "The Burrow" has no end to indicate the termination of the drama described. Everything remains open and the battle rages on.
Whenever the hero of a Kafka story is also its narrator, we are faced with the question of who it is that he is actually telling the story to. To whom is it, for instance, that the dog in "Investigations of a Dog" tells about the research he has conducted all by himself and in which nobody else is interested? Or to whom is it that the ape talks in "A Report to an Academy"? This is part of Kafka's genius. The wide use of interior monologue designed to record the internal emotional experience of the animal on several levels of consciousness is most effective. Hence, also, the experience on the part of the reader as if the author did not exist, as if he were overhearing the animal's articulations of thought and feeling directly.