Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Kawabata Yasunari's "Of Birds and Beasts" (1933)

This just in from Sally Suzuki:
Swarthyface,
I know you're busy, so I made you a study guide for your class tomorrow, in which you will discuss Kawabata Yasunari's "Of Birds and Beasts" 「禽獣」. Here are 35 questions to consider while reading the story.
        General Questions

*The protagonist of this story is a sort of urban hermit. Who are some other notable hermits from the Japanese tradition?

*What magazine was Kawabata associated with in 1920s? And what was the name of the movement with which he was affiliated?

*This story is often referred to as an example of shinkyō shōsetsu 心境小説. What does that mean?

*This story is said to employ both “modernist” and “traditional” literary techniques. What are they?

*The title of the story in Japanese is kinjū 禽獣. The Japanese word has two meanings. What are they? How is the second meaning significant to the story?

*Eugenics was big in the 1920s and 1930s, especially in fascist countries like Japan, UK, and Nazi Germany. Think about this theme of eugenics, and how it is presented in the story.

*Do you consider this work to be auto-biographical (or, at least, to be representative of the I-novel mode)?

*This work is often described as an allegory. What is it an allegory of? (Hint: Protagonist is to his pets as Artist is to his materials/creation, etc… .)

*An implied message in the story is that to love something is to inflict pain/damage upon it. What does this mean? How is this “message” conveyed in the story?

          The Characters

*What kind of man is the protagonist? Would you like to befriend him? Be his lover?

*Why does the protagonist prefer the company of animals to that of humans?

*Why does he avoid human contact (with the exception of prostitutes/maids/dancers/etc), and withdraw into his house filled with pets?

*How does the protagonist's attitude toward women resemble his attitude toward his pet animals? Does he regard them as one as the same?

*When he first visits Chikako in the dressing room before her performance, he grabs her breast. This time, however, he does not grab her breast. Why is this?

*The protagonist tells us that keeping/raising pets gives one a sense of “sad purity” and “godlike newness.” What does this mean?

*In the eyes of the protagonist, how are young women similar to dogs?

*Is the protagonist a sad figure? Should we pity him? Envy him? Or despise him?

*Is he a feminist?

*In a very important flashback scene, we learn why the protagonist remains so drawn to Chikako. Why is this?

*What is this “joy of emptiness” to which the protagonist refers?

*The expression on the dog’s face after having its first litter reminds the protagonist of Chikako’s face when he first purchases her. What does this fact (that a dog's expression reminds him of a former lover) tell us about the mental/emotional state of the protagonist?

*Why does he dislike all men, and male animals in general?

*What is it that he seeks/desires?

*Why does he scold Chikako when he meets her shortly after she has her first child?

*What is his attitude toward mongrels? Miscegenation? Is his attitude typical for this time period?

*The protagonist has been described by critics as “vampirish.” What is “vampirish” about him?

            Narration/Style

*The story is told in from what point of view?

*Whose thoughts/feelings is the narrative voice closest to?

*Kawabata's style of prose is often described as "disjointed," "fragmentary," and "haiku-like." What is disjointed and haiku-like about the narration in this story?

*How does the narrative progress? According to what logic?

*How do flashbacks function in the story?

*There is much bizarre and even grotesque imagery in the work. Identify some of these passages.

*What are some examples of the associative leaps in the story? Give an example of how one image/scent/observation triggers a flashback, or how something within the flashback can suddenly bring us back to the present.

*Though the protagonist almost obsessively pursues/worships life/vitality (生命), the story begins and ends with images of death (in the beginning, a funeral procession; in the end, the image of Chikako’s death-like face). What does this suggest about death’s inevitability and the allure it holds for the protagonist?

4 comments:

『Behold My Swarthy Face。』 said...

Thank you for telling me what I will discuss in tomorrow's class, Sally.

Ian Hogarth said...

I think the correct number of questions is 34.

Mother said...

Is this the story Kawabata is said to have written during a period of intense self-loathing?

Ian Hogarth said...

I don't think there's any need to invoke Kamo no Chomei's Hojoki and Yoshida Kenko's Tsuzuregusa here. The modern alienation depicted in Kawabata's story has nothing to do with the pre-modern ascetic tradition/religious training associated with the yamabushi/inton/etc.