Study Guide for Mori Ōgai’s “The Dancing Girl” (Maihime; 1890)
*To purchase Richard Bowring’s English translation, click here.
*To read the original, click here.
Mori Ōgai (1862-1922): Born in Shimane-ken to family of physicians to daimyō; received elite education in neo-Confucian classics. In 1872, he moved in with Nishi Amane, began studying German. Graduates from Tokyo Imperial University medical school, becomes a doctor at 19; reads late-Edo gesaku fiction; sent by army to study in Germany from 1884-1888; encounters European literature; publishes Shigarami sōshi, 1889–1894 and his own book of poetry (Omokage, 1889) in anti-realist, German Romantic vein (Ōgai vs. Tsubouchi); institutes modern literary criticism in Japan based on the aesthetic theories of Karl von Hartmann. In 1890, publishes “Maihime.” His own exile to Kyushu; appointed surgeon general in 1907; edits Mezamashi gusa, 1892–1909 while serving in army as surgeon; translates works of Goethe, Schiller, Ibsen, Hans Christian Andersen, and Hauptmann. From 1912–1916: historical stories (rekishi monogatari; e.g. “Sanshō dayu,” “Takasebune”). From 1916-death: shiden (literary biographies; e.g. “Shibue Chūsai”). His literary style is often characterized as Apollonian, rational, stoic, manly, understated.
1. Discuss the narrative structure. Where (temporally/spatially) is the “narrating I”? Why/what is he writing? Is he an example of a “self-conscious narrator”?
2. Describe the narrator (i.e. his position, background, education, motivations/desires, priorities, concerns/struggles, talents, interests, behavior, personality, etc.).
3. What examples of foreshadowing can you find in the work? (Hint: unwritten notebooks; “hidden remorse”; etc.).
4. Make a list of all the cultural/historical references that appear.
5. How does Ōta Toyotarō describe the city scene on his first day in Berlin? Why does he try to keep himself from being moved by the various sights?
6. Describe the “real self” that Ōta feels emerging inside of him. How is this “real self” different from his “former assumed self”? Does this “true nature” prove to be an illusion?
7. How is Ōta regarded/treated by his Japanese peers?
8. Describe Ōta’s view of/relations with women prior to his encounter with Elise.
9. Describe Elise (i.e. her circumstances/background/predicament/behavior/etc.). In what state is she when Ōta discovers her? How does she react to him? Why does the narrator describe dancing as a “disreputable trade”?
10. Do you perceive any hints of anti-Japanese/anti-Asian racism in the work? Explain.
11. At one point the narrator asks himself: “Did she [Elise] know the effect her eyes had on me, or was it unintentional?” What is the answer to this question? In other words, to what extent is Elise’s innocence/naivety feigned/strategic?
12. Why is Ōta’s position terminated? What is the content of the two letters he receives?
13. Describe the evolving stages of Ōta and Elise’s relationship.
14. How does Ōta’s friend Aizawa Kenkichi “help” him?
15. Describe Ōta and Elise’s life when they are living together. How does Ōta change during this period? What new interests/skills does he acquire?
16. How does Ōta’s luck change beginning in the winter of 1888? What are the sources of his anxiety during this period? What advice does he receive from Aizawa Kenkichi after confiding in him? How does Ōta take this advice?
17. Describe Ōta’s trip to Russia. Describe the nature of the letters he receives from Elise while in Russia.
18. Discuss the meaning/significance of the following sentence: “With Aizawa’s help she had not wanted for daily necessities, it was true, but this same benefactor had had spiritually killed her.” (「相沢の助にて日々の生計たつきには窮せざりしが、此恩人は彼を精神的に殺しゝなり。」)
19. Describe Elise’s metamorphosis. What causes it? Is it believable under such circumstances? What are the “ur-texts” for this scene? Who are Elise’s literary models? What was the “something” she was looking for?
20. Discuss the ethical problems/implications of the work. How grave was Ōta’s “crime”? Is Ōta’s behavior/decision/course of action ethically defensible? Was there another more ethical option? If so, what?
21. Discuss the significance of the famous last sentence: “Friends like Aizawa Kenkichi are rare indeed, and yet to this very day there remains a part of me that curses him.” (「嗚呼、相沢謙吉が如き良友は世にまた得がたかるべし。されど我脳裡なうりに一点の彼を憎むこゝろ今日までも残れりけり。」)
1. What is the main conflict of the story? Is this a moral story about the tension between giri and ninjō, as some critics have described it?
2. Why did Ōgai use the pseudo-classical style (gikobun/gabun) rather than the modern colloquial style (genbun itchi) to write this story?
3. Why has the work been read as an autobiography/roman à clef in Japan? What are the advantages/disadvantages of reading the work as autobiography/roman à clef?
4. Discuss the theme/representation of interracial sex in the work. How is this story a reversal of Loti/Belasco/Long/Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1887/1898/1900/1904) story?
5. Is the work a Bildungsroman? Explain.