Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Wild Geese, by Ogai Mori

Set in 1880 but written at the end of the Meiji Era (1913), The Wild Geese is narrated by an unnamed medical student who lives in a boarding house with a handsome and admirable fellow named Okada. On his walks around Tokyo, Okada has developed a nodding acquaintance with a lovely young woman named Otama. The narrator fills us in on her background (which he says he did not know at the time of the events in the story but learned later). Otama was deceived into marrying a policeman who it turned out already had a wife. Thus "ruined," she had few options. To help her father, she agreed to become the mistress of a man named Suezo; again, she was deceived, as Suezo pretended to be a widower and did not reveal that he was a usurer--a profession that was poorly regarded in Meiji Japan. Otama is horrified, but she swallows her anger and entertains Suezo when he visits her--all the time imagining Okada in his place.When an opportunity arises for her to deepen her acquaintance with Okada--perhaps even to escape to freedom with him--circumstances conspire against them, and he leaves the city the next day for an important new job. Meanwhile, the narrator hints mysteriously at his own future relationship with Otama.

Although the novel is only about 100 pages long, Ogai presents an array of female characters, all with severely limited life choices--geisha, mistress, sewing student, maid, unhappy wife of a man with a mistress. The attitudes of the male characters reinforce the picture of a society with little room for women to find happiness. Okada is fascinated by a woman who makes "beauty her sole aim in life" while Suezo is convinced that his wife's efforts to "keep him near her with sulky looks and resistance" are signs that she wants to be beaten. For the twenty-first century feminist reader, the romantic aspects of the story seem like little more than the escapist dreams of a trapped woman. While the specifics are grounded entirely in
Japanese culture, the basic story could be set anywhere.

Favorite passage:
As a safeguard against obscene thoughts, educators warn young people not to remain awake after going to bed and to get up as soon as they awaken, for in the vigors of youth kept warm in bed, an image like the flower of a poisonous plant blooming in fire is apt to be engendered.

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