Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Study Guide: Akutagawa Ryūnosuke’s “The Nose” (Hana; 1916)

Study Guide: Akutagawa Ryūnosuke’s “The Nose” (Hana; 1916)

Original: “Hana,” originally published in Shinshichō, February 1916 (Click here for Aozora Bunko version).
Translation: 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.

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.)

Study Questions

1.      Discuss the significance of the main character’s name: Zenchi Naigū 禅智内供. How does this name contribute to the ironic tone of the work?

2.      Describe Zenchi’s nose. How do people treat him? What is his attitude toward his nose, both in public and in private?

3.      Why do you think Akutagawa made his protagonist a Buddhist priest? How does this add to the irony to the story?

4.      Identify the point of view. How would you describe the narrator’s style? Are there differences in style between the original and translation? Explain.

5.      The story was written in Taishō 5. What year is this in the western (i.e. Gregorian) calendar? How is this historical context relevant to the story? (Hint: the Meiji era is over, Japan has now “caught up” to the West, etc.)

6.      Akutagawa is often regarded as the representative writer of the Taishō era. Name four other prominent Japanese writers who were active during this period. Compare and contrast.

7.      Compare the translation with the original. Can you find any mistakes, omissions, or changes? Does the translation lean more toward literal translation (chokuyaku) or approximate translation (iyaku)? Explain.

8.      What famous writer praised this work? What particularly aspects of the work do you think he admired?

9.      List four other stories by Akutagawa. How do they differ from this story? How are they similar?

10.  Describe the nose-shortening procedure that Zenchi undergoes. Is it successful?

11.  How do people treat Zenchi after the procedure? Is his initial problem resolved through the procedure? Explain.

12.  Discuss the final scene. How/why does this happen? Is there a rational explanation for it, or is it some kind of miracle or divine intervention? Explain Zenchi’s reaction.

13.  Is there a moral lesson to this story? If so, explain it. Can the work be read as an allegory?

Literary Terms

1.      Allegory: an extended metaphor; comprised of structural (rather than textual) symbolism. In an allegory the characters/action/scenery corresponds more or less directly to certain spiritual/political/psychological struggles. For example, in Sōseki’s “Ten Nights of Dreams” (Yume Jūya; 1908), each of the ten dreams are an allegory of modern concerns. According to Seats, this is the first Japanese modern “allegorical text.” Other examples: Gulliver’s Travels, Alice in Wonderland, Kafka’s The Castle, Orwell’s 1984.

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