Study Guide for Kōda Rohan’s “Encounter With Skull” (1890)
You can read the original here:
I. 10 Terms to Know
1. Allegory: “The word derives from the Greek allegoria ("speaking otherwise"). The term loosely describes any writing in verse or prose that has a double meaning. This narrative acts as an extended metaphor in which persons, abstract ideas, or events represent not only themselves on the literal level, but they also stand for something else on the symbolic level. An allegorical reading usually involves moral or spiritual concepts that may be more significant than the actual, literal events described in a narrative. Typically, an allegory involves the interaction of multiple symbols, which together create a moral, spiritual, or even political meaning. The act of interpreting a story as if each object in it had an allegorical meaning is called allegoresis.” (L. Kip Wheeler, Literary Terms).
2. Allusion: Direct reference in a literary work to a person, place, or thing in history or another work of literature.
3. Archetype: a universal symbol or type, based on Carl Jung’s idea that there are “primordial and universal images that make up the contents of the collective consciousness.” Categories of archetypes include recurring symbolic situations, recurring themes, recurring characters, symbolic colors, and recurring images.
4. Didactic literature: Literature written with the expressed intent to teach something, usual something ethical in nature.
5. Aestheticism: Art for art’s sake (l’art pour l’art) literature; a sensibility or philosophy that regards the creation of aesthetic pleasure as the ultimate or proper aim of art.
6. Free Indirect Discourse: Third-person narration in which a character’s thoughts or expressions are presented in the character’s voice without being set off by quotation marks or the usual addition of phrases like “he thought” or “she said,” and without shifting into grammatical first-person discourse. For example: “It was a hot day. What on earth was she doing lugging stones on a day like this?” Her words, cast in third person, are conveyed directly, without any phrase such as “she said” or “she thought.” (Example on page 102-103).
Note: Compare this narrative technique with direct discourse (e.g. “She said/wondered, “why is it so hot?” and indirect discourse (e.g. She wondered why it was so hot).
7. Genbun itchi 言文一致 : Modern colloquial style. First advocated in the 1880s; became the dominant mode of writing after 1895. By 1910, the style had become so widespread that the term was no longer used.
8. Gazoku setchū-tai 雅俗折衷体 : The “refined-colloquial mixed” style. This written style first emerged during the Edo period. From 1890-1895, there was a brief return to this style in the literary world, but this all ended with the anti-Chinese sentiment that reached fever pitch during the Sino-Japanese War in 1895.
9. Bunmei kaika 文明開化 : Civilization and Enlightenment; the chief slogan of the Meiji period. By leaving the city (i.e. the hub of modern “civilization and enlightenment”) the character Rohan seems to be searching for something that is not offered by any of these new Enlightenment ideals. What he seeks is something more fundamental, more primal, more urgent, more spiritual.
10. Risshin shusse 立身出世 : the Meiji-era ethos of personal advancement, which came about after the abolition of the 士農工商 official class system. The character Rohan in this story seems to have little interest in “getting ahead” in this new competitive capitalist world of Meiji Japan.
II. 19 Study Questions
1. Briefly look at the original. Is it written in the genbun itchi style or the gazoku setchū style?
2. What is the point of view of the story? How would you describe the narrator? Is he a “reliable narrator”? Should we trust him?
3. The narrator says that he has “made [himself] a companion of the dew” (90). What does he mean by this? And furthermore, how does this character type of an aimless drifter or wanderer fit into the literary tradition? (Hint: some precedents for this type might include Matsuo Bashō, the Taoist sage Zhuangzi, the medieval wandering priest Saigyō, Romantic poets such as Wordsworth, etc.).
4. Brief point: This story should make it clear that even when the author and the narrator share a same name—as is the case here—the work should be read as a fictionalized narrative. In short, avoid the 私小説 mode of reading that conflates author and narrator.
5. Is the road a metaphor for something? How does the road relate to the narrator’s situation after he recuperates from an illness (90-1)?
6. Identify instances of foreshadowing in the work.
7. How does Tae convince him to come into bed with her? What is Rohan’s moral dilemma once he does so? How does he cope with it? What does Rohan’s reaction tell us about Buddhist ideas about woman, desire, lust, etc.?
8. Why is it important that the events take place in the countryside? How is the country juxtaposed with the city? What are the associations of each?
Parts II and III
9. Why is Rohan so adamant in resisting her advances? Why is he chanting Buddhist scriptures (“Elimination of Desire”) while a half-naked beautiful woman lies beside him? Is this intended to be comical? Why doesn’t he just leave?
10. Identify the three types of love that appear in the work. How is Rohan’s Buddhist-influenced view of woman/desire/love different from the young lord’s Meiji-era chivalrous conception of love? How is Tae’s view of love different from these two?
11. How are usual gender roles reversed in this story? What does this reversal suggest? What is Rohan’s initial reaction to this reversal? What is his second reaction?
12. Who is more mature/experienced/wise, Tae or Rohan? Who seems closer to a state of enlightenment? Explain.
13. Does Tae think that men should be trusted? What kind of men does Tae despise? Where does she learn to despise them?
14. Why does Tae’s suitor fall so in love with her? What is ironic about this?
15. Why does she refuse the advances of her suitor? Why is she so persistent in her refusal? How does she react to his death? Does she feel any pity, remorse, or guilt?
16. Discuss the ending. What is the significance of the grotesque description of Tae? What happened to her? What is the author trying to tell us about the nature of physical beauty, desire, and death?
17. What was the Mother’s dying wish, after all? What was Tae’s hereditary curse?
18. For millennia, philosophers and critics have argued over whether the primary goal of literature (or art in general) is to teach or to please. Should art instruct, or should it simply provide pleasure to its audience? Kōda Rohan believed that literature’s primary goal was to instruct. He was a firm believer in literature’s ability to liberate souls from ignorance and bondage. Although much admired by later “aestheticist” writers such as Tanizaki Jun’ichirō, Kōda Rohan was definitely not in their camp. Question: How might “Encounter with a Skull” be considered a didactic work of literature? Describe the essence of its message.
19. Discuss the theme of the conflict between giri (moral obligations) and ninjō (human passions) as it appears in the work, and Tae’s response to this conflict/dialectic.
III. Some Particularities of Culture to Look Up
Hōrai mountain (Mount Penglai); Chūzenji; Liu Hsia-hui; Matsuo Bashō poem and anecdote after turning down a prostitute (103): Kochira muke/ Ware mo sabishiki/ Aki no kure; Mt. Ara; Mt. Shirane; the legend of Courtesan Tae (aka Eguchi no kimi) and Saigyō; the three spheres of hell; Arhat; Fujōkan不浄観 : contemplation of nine stages of decaying corpse; Bodhisattva; rōnin; the various sutras mentioned; Nikkō; Genji monogatari, Ise monogatari, etc.; many other allusions and references.