Study Guide: Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (1892-1927) “Green Onions” (Negi; 1920)
*Translated by Jay Rubin; included in his Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories (Penguin Classics, 2006). To purchase Rubin’s translation of the story, click here.
*To read the Aozora Bunko version of the original, click here.
Akutagawa Ryūnosuke 芥川龍之介 (1892-1927): Novelist. Born in Tokyo. He published “Hana” (The Nose) in 1916 while studying at the Tokyo Imperial University and the start of his literary career was highly regarded by Natsume Sōseki. After graduation, he taught English as a part-time instructor at the Naval Engineering College and published “Imogayu” (Yam Gruel) (1916), “Hōkyōnin no shi” (Death of a Christian) (1918), and “Rashōmon” (1917), his first short story. After resigning from the Naval Engineering College in 1919, he went full-time into literary activity as a staff writer for the Osaka Mainichi Shimbun. In 1927, he committed suicide at the age of 36. He was the father of Hiroshi Akutagawa and Yasushi Akutagawa. (National Diet Library). (Click here for Aozora Bunko texts.)
*Realism: To represent life in literature. Realistic fiction is often opposed to romantic fiction: the romance is said to present life as we would have it be, more picturesque, more adventurous, more heroic than the actual; realism, to present an accurate imitation of life as it is. . . . The realist sets out to write a fiction which will give the illusion that it reflects life as it seems to the common reader. To achieve this effect he prefers as protagonist an ordinary citizen of Middletown, living on Main Street, perhaps, and engaged in the real estate business. The realist, in other words, is deliberately selective in his material and prefers the average, the commonplace, and the everyday over the rarer aspects of the contemporary scene. His characters, therefore, are usually of the middle class or the working class—people without highly exceptional endowments, who live through ordinary experiences of childhood, adolescence, love, marriage, parenthood, infidelity, and death; who find life rather dull and often unhappy, though it may be brightened by touches of beauty and joy. (Abrams. A Glossary of Literary Terms, pp. 152-153)
*The Three Worlds of Narrative: Last week I talked about two narrative worlds: A) story (storyworld) (inaccessible), B) narrative discourse (plot/mythos) (accessible). But there is also a third world: C) world of production (e.g. in film, when the camera/director are seen, etc.). In “Negi”:
A) story about O-kimi, O-matsu, Tanaka, etc—the storyworld they inhabit
B) events as related by semi-omniscient flying-ghost-like “I”
C) “I” of first paragraph; last paragraph
More Terms Related to This…
*Self-conscious narrator: a narrator who shows that he is aware that he is composing a work of fiction; who discusses the various problems involved in constructing his fictional narrative; who thematizes the discrepancies between artifice and reality; etc.
*Narrative metalepsis: when borders between 3 worlds are broken. Examples in this story: narrator-author talking about deadlines; referring to “my own works”; not making it clear whether O-kimi really exists or is fictional; reference to O-kimi’s future/well-being at end—as if she were real (is she?).
*Roman à clef (key novel; 実話小説): novel describing real life behind a façade of fiction. Eg. Here’s a little story I made up about a girl named … (actually true). The key is the mapping of characters to real-life models.
*Metafiction: fiction that self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction, exposing the fictional illusion. “Green Onions” story does this, only it turns this process around: the narrator here acts as if his story is fictional; but we slowly realize/come to suspect that it is real.
*Breaking the fourth wall: the “fourth wall” is imaginary wall separating audience from reader; it is broken in this story (the narrator directly addresses audience, claims that his story is fictional, etc.).
*Narcissistic Narratives: Linda Hutcheon’s term. A narrative that represents the process of narration; mimesis of process rather than product; dramatic presentation of the diegetic (narrative) act; mimesis of the diegetic.
1. Find passages that show the narrator to be a “self-conscious narrator.” Discuss the effect of these passages on the story/your interpretation.
2. Make a list of facts about the narrator. Who is he? What is his social standing? How does he tell the story?
3. What elements of the story reflect Romanticism? What elements reflect Realism? Discuss how Realism and Romanticism intersect in this story.
4. Discuss O-Kimi (her life, her job, her personality, her proclivities, her tastes, her environment, her dreams, etc.). What do her reading habits tell us about her? What does the interior decoration of her room reveal about her? Her clothes/her hairstyle/etc?
5. Why does O-kimi look down on O-matsu?
6. Discuss Tanaka (his personality, motivations, tastes, status, etc.). What male type/archetype/stock character is he an example of? Discuss his role in the story.
7. Make a list of all cultural/historical references that appear in the work (i.e. historical figures, books, artists, actresses, works of art, place names, etc.).
Further Discussion Questions
1. In the world of the narrator, do O-kimi and Tanaka really exist? Or are they the products of the narrator’s imagination? (Note: this is the crux question of work; our interpretation of the work will vary depending on how we answer this question.) If the characters are purely fictional products of the narrator’s imagination, how can we explain the narrator’s obvious vested interest in the characters (particularly O-kimi)?
2. Assuming O-kimi does really exist in the narrator’s world, how does the narrator know so much about her, her room, her life, her activities, her longings, etc?
3. Discuss the significance of the final paragraph:
I did it! I finished the story! The sun should be coming up any minute now. I hear the chill-sounding crow of the rooster outside, but why do I feel depressed even though I've managed to finish writing this? O-kimi made it back unscathed to her room over the beauty parlor that night, but unless she stops waiting on tables at the cafe, there's no saying she won't go out with Tanaka alone again. And when I think of what might happen then—no, what happens then will happen then. No amount of worrying on my part now is going to change anything. All right, that's it, I’m going to stop writing. Goodbye, O-kimi. Step out again tonight as you did last night—gaily, bravely—to be vanquished by the critics! (Rubin, 129)
Is the last line the narrator’s admission that O-kimi is simply his fictional creation?
4. Discuss how the work thematizes the relation between fantasy/fiction and reality. How does fantasy/fiction inform our perception of reality?
5. What symbols/metaphors/similes can you identify in the work? Explain their function/significance.
6. Is my theory plausible?
1. Arrange the following movements in the order that they occurred in Europe: realism, enlightenment, modernism, symbolism, romanticism.
2. All narratives are comprised of two components. What are they? (Hint: narrative discourse/events/action/ fabula/sjuzet/plot/story).
3. Identify and describe at least four characteristics of Romanticism.