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Home » Exploring the Depths of Julio Cortazar’s Final Exam: A Literary Analysis

Exploring the Depths of Julio Cortazar’s Final Exam: A Literary Analysis

Julio Cortazar’s Final Exam is a complex and thought-provoking short story that delves into themes of identity, memory, and the nature of reality. In this literary analysis, we will explore the depths of this enigmatic story, examining its structure, symbolism, and underlying themes to gain a deeper understanding of Cortazar’s unique style and perspective. Through a close reading of the text, we will uncover the hidden meanings and complexities that make Final Exam a truly remarkable work of literature.

Biographical Context

Julio Cortazar was born in Brussels, Belgium in 1914 to Argentine parents. He spent his childhood in Argentina and later moved to Paris, where he lived for most of his adult life. Cortazar was a prolific writer, known for his innovative and experimental style. He was a key figure in the Latin American literary boom of the 1960s and 1970s, alongside writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. Cortazar’s work often explored themes of identity, time, and the nature of reality. He passed away in 1984, leaving behind a legacy as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.

Historical Context

Julio Cortazar’s Final Exam was published in 1950, during a time of political and social upheaval in Argentina. The country was under the rule of Juan Perón, a controversial figure who implemented populist policies that favored the working class but also led to economic instability and political repression. This context is important to understanding the themes and motifs in Cortazar’s work, which often explore the tension between individual freedom and societal constraints. Additionally, Final Exam was part of a larger literary movement known as the “Boom,” which emerged in Latin America in the 1960s and 70s and was characterized by experimentation with form and language. Cortazar’s work was a precursor to this movement, and his influence can be seen in the works of later writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa.

Structural Analysis

One of the most striking aspects of Julio Cortazar’s Final Exam is its complex structure. The novel is divided into three parts, each of which is further divided into multiple chapters. The first part, titled “The Exam,” is written in the second person, placing the reader in the position of the protagonist, a student taking a final exam. The second part, “The Oral,” is written in the first person and takes place during an oral exam. The final part, “The Results,” is written in the third person and follows the aftermath of the exams.

Cortazar’s use of different narrative perspectives and structures creates a sense of disorientation and confusion, mirroring the protagonist’s own experience of being tested and evaluated. The novel also includes various literary devices, such as metafiction and intertextuality, which further complicate the narrative structure.

Overall, the structural complexity of Final Exam adds to its thematic exploration of identity, perception, and the nature of reality.

Symbolism and Imagery

Symbolism and imagery play a significant role in Julio Cortazar’s Final Exam. The author uses various symbols and images to convey his message and create a deeper meaning in the story. One of the most prominent symbols in the story is the exam itself. The exam represents the challenges and obstacles that the protagonist, Juan, must face in his life. It also symbolizes the pressure and expectations that society places on individuals to succeed.

Another symbol that Cortazar uses is the image of the labyrinth. The labyrinth represents the complexity and confusion that Juan experiences as he tries to navigate his way through life. It also symbolizes the idea that life is a journey with many twists and turns, and sometimes it can be difficult to find one’s way.

Cortazar also uses imagery to create a vivid and powerful picture in the reader’s mind. For example, he describes the exam room as a “white, sterile space” with “rows of desks and chairs.” This image creates a sense of emptiness and isolation, which reflects Juan’s feelings of loneliness and alienation.

Overall, the use of symbolism and imagery in Final Exam adds depth and complexity to the story. It allows the reader to explore the themes and ideas presented in the text on a deeper level and gain a greater understanding of the human experience.

Character Analysis

One of the most intriguing characters in Julio Cortazar’s Final Exam is the protagonist, Alejandro. Throughout the story, Alejandro’s character undergoes a transformation as he navigates the surreal and often confusing world of the exam. At the beginning of the story, Alejandro is portrayed as a confident and intelligent young man, but as the exam progresses, his confidence begins to wane, and he becomes increasingly unsure of himself. This transformation is particularly evident in the scene where Alejandro is asked to solve a complex mathematical problem. Initially, Alejandro approaches the problem with confidence, but as he struggles to find a solution, his confidence begins to falter, and he becomes increasingly anxious. This scene is a powerful example of how Cortazar uses character development to explore themes of identity, self-doubt, and the human condition. Overall, Alejandro’s character is a fascinating study in the complexities of the human psyche, and his journey through the exam provides a thought-provoking commentary on the nature of reality and the human experience.

Style and Language

Julio Cortazar’s Final Exam is a literary masterpiece that showcases the author’s unique style and language. Cortazar’s writing is characterized by his use of surrealism, magical realism, and stream of consciousness narrative. His language is poetic, rich in imagery, and often employs wordplay and puns.

Cortazar’s style is evident in Final Exam, where he creates a dreamlike atmosphere that blurs the lines between reality and fantasy. The story is filled with unexpected twists and turns, and the reader is constantly kept on their toes. Cortazar’s use of magical realism adds to the surreal nature of the story, where the impossible becomes possible.

The author’s language is equally impressive, with his use of metaphors and similes painting vivid pictures in the reader’s mind. His writing is often described as musical, with a rhythm and flow that is both captivating and hypnotic. Cortazar’s wordplay and puns add a layer of complexity to his writing, making it both challenging and rewarding for the reader.

Overall, Cortazar’s style and language are integral to the success of Final Exam. His unique approach to storytelling and his mastery of language make this a must-read for anyone interested in literature.

Themes and Motifs

One of the prominent themes in Julio Cortazar’s Final Exam is the concept of time and its fluidity. The story is set in a dreamlike state where time seems to be non-linear and characters move back and forth between different moments in their lives. This is exemplified through the use of flashbacks and the repetition of certain events, creating a sense of deja vu for the reader. Another recurring motif is the idea of mirrors and reflections, which symbolize the characters’ inner selves and their struggle with identity. The use of mirrors also adds to the surreal atmosphere of the story, blurring the lines between reality and fantasy. Overall, these themes and motifs contribute to the complex and thought-provoking nature of Cortazar’s Final Exam.

Critical Reception

Julio Cortazar’s Final Exam has received mixed reviews from literary critics. Some have praised the novel for its complex narrative structure and exploration of philosophical themes, while others have criticized it for being overly convoluted and difficult to follow.

One of the most common criticisms of Final Exam is that it is too abstract and lacks a clear plot. Some readers have found the novel’s nonlinear structure and frequent shifts in perspective to be confusing and disorienting. Others have argued that the novel’s philosophical musings are too esoteric and detached from the real world.

Despite these criticisms, many critics have praised Final Exam for its innovative approach to storytelling and its exploration of complex philosophical ideas. Some have compared the novel to the works of Jorge Luis Borges and other Latin American writers who have pushed the boundaries of traditional narrative forms.

Overall, the critical reception of Final Exam has been mixed, with some readers finding it to be a challenging and rewarding read, while others have struggled to connect with its abstract style and philosophical themes.

Comparative Analysis

In order to fully understand the complexities of Julio Cortazar’s Final Exam, it is important to conduct a comparative analysis with other works of literature. One such comparison can be made with Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Both works explore the theme of transformation, but while Kafka’s protagonist Gregor Samsa physically transforms into a bug, Cortazar’s protagonist Juan and his classmates undergo a psychological transformation as they navigate the surreal and unsettling world of their final exam. Additionally, both works use symbolism and metaphor to convey deeper meanings and commentary on society. By examining these similarities and differences, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the unique qualities of Cortazar’s work and its place in the literary canon.

Philosophical Implications

The philosophical implications of Julio Cortazar’s Final Exam are vast and thought-provoking. The novel delves into the concept of reality and how it can be perceived differently by different individuals. It also explores the idea of free will and the consequences of our choices. The characters in the novel are constantly questioning their own existence and the purpose of their lives. This leads to a deeper understanding of the human condition and the complexities of our emotions and desires. Cortazar’s Final Exam challenges readers to question their own beliefs and perceptions of reality, making it a truly philosophical work of literature.


Intertextuality is a key element in Julio Cortazar’s Final Exam. The novel is filled with references to other literary works, including Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Cervantes’ Don Quixote. These references not only add depth to the story, but also serve to highlight the themes and motifs that Cortazar is exploring. For example, the character of Horacio Oliveira is often compared to Hamlet, as both are struggling with existential questions and a sense of disillusionment with the world around them. Similarly, the character of La Maga can be seen as a modern-day Dulcinea, as she embodies the ideal of beauty and purity that Don Quixote seeks. By drawing on these literary traditions, Cortazar is able to create a rich and complex narrative that speaks to the human experience in a profound way.

Narrative Techniques

One of the most striking narrative techniques used by Julio Cortazar in his novel Final Exam is the use of multiple perspectives. The story is told from the point of view of several different characters, each with their own unique voice and perspective on the events that unfold. This technique allows the reader to see the story from multiple angles, gaining a deeper understanding of the complex relationships and motivations at play. Additionally, Cortazar employs a nonlinear narrative structure, jumping back and forth in time and weaving together different threads of the story. This creates a sense of disorientation and uncertainty, mirroring the confusion and anxiety felt by the characters as they navigate the challenges of their lives. Overall, Cortazar’s use of narrative techniques in Final Exam is masterful, drawing the reader in and immersing them in a rich and complex world of human experience.

Genre Analysis

Julio Cortazar’s Final Exam is a complex and multi-layered work that defies easy categorization. However, it is generally considered to be a work of magical realism, a genre that combines elements of the fantastic with the real world. Magical realism is often associated with Latin American literature, and Cortazar is one of its most prominent practitioners. Final Exam is a prime example of the genre, as it features surreal and dreamlike elements that are seamlessly integrated into the narrative. The story also explores themes of identity, memory, and the nature of reality, which are common themes in magical realism. Overall, Final Exam is a fascinating and thought-provoking work that showcases Cortazar’s mastery of the magical realist genre.

Setting and Atmosphere

The setting and atmosphere of Julio Cortazar’s Final Exam play a crucial role in the overall impact of the story. The narrative takes place in a classroom, where a group of students is taking a final exam. The atmosphere is tense and claustrophobic, with the students feeling the pressure of the exam and the oppressive heat of the day. Cortazar masterfully creates a sense of unease and discomfort, as the students struggle to concentrate and the tension builds. The setting of the classroom is also significant, as it represents the rigid structure and expectations of the educational system. The students are trapped within this system, unable to escape the demands placed upon them. Overall, the setting and atmosphere of Final Exam contribute to the story’s themes of conformity, oppression, and the struggle for individuality.

Social Commentary

Julio Cortazar’s Final Exam is a literary masterpiece that delves into the complexities of human relationships and the societal norms that govern them. Through his characters, Cortazar offers a scathing critique of the rigid structures that define our lives and the limitations they impose on our ability to connect with others. The novel is a powerful commentary on the human condition, and it challenges readers to question the status quo and to explore the depths of their own emotions and desires. With its vivid imagery, complex characters, and thought-provoking themes, Final Exam is a must-read for anyone interested in the intersection of literature and social commentary.

Political Allegory

Julio Cortazar’s Final Exam is a literary masterpiece that delves into the complexities of human nature and the political allegories that shape our society. The novel is a reflection of the author’s own political beliefs and his views on the world around him. Through the use of allegory, Cortazar is able to convey his message in a way that is both powerful and thought-provoking. The political allegories in Final Exam are numerous and varied, ranging from the struggle for power and control to the fight for freedom and equality. The novel is a testament to the power of literature to challenge our beliefs and inspire us to take action.

Gender and Sexuality

Julio Cortazar’s Final Exam is a novel that explores various themes, including gender and sexuality. The novel challenges traditional gender roles and societal expectations, presenting characters who defy these norms. The protagonist, Oliveira, is a complex character who struggles with his own sexuality and identity. He is attracted to both men and women, and his relationships with them are often complicated and fraught with tension. Cortazar’s portrayal of Oliveira’s sexuality is nuanced and thought-provoking, highlighting the fluidity and complexity of human desire. The novel also features strong female characters who challenge patriarchal norms and assert their independence. Overall, Final Exam is a powerful exploration of gender and sexuality that challenges readers to question their own assumptions and biases.

Religious and Mythological References

Throughout Julio Cortazar’s Final Exam, there are numerous religious and mythological references that add depth and complexity to the story. One of the most prominent references is to the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. In the myth, Orpheus travels to the underworld to rescue his wife Eurydice, but ultimately fails when he looks back at her before they reach the surface. This myth is echoed in Final Exam when the protagonist, Oliveira, descends into the depths of the university to find his lost love, La Maga. Like Orpheus, Oliveira is unable to save his beloved and is left with only memories of her.

Another religious reference in the novel is to the Catholic concept of purgatory. Throughout the story, Oliveira is haunted by the idea that he is in a state of purgatory, where he must atone for his sins before he can move on to heaven. This idea is reinforced by the presence of the mysterious professor, who seems to be a kind of purgatorial figure, guiding Oliveira through his trials and helping him to confront his past mistakes.

Overall, the religious and mythological references in Final Exam add a layer of symbolism and depth to the story, inviting readers to explore the themes of love, loss, and redemption in a more profound way.