22 January 2010

Halfway through Mon (Natsume Sōseki)

I'm halfway through Natsume Sōseki's novel Mon (The Gate), translated from Japanese by Francis Mathy. I left it hanging last year, having been distracted by other books. It's not that this book did not interest me; on the contrary, if it proceeds as beautifully as it started, it is bound to become one of my favorite reads this year. The book is slow and meditative, and I do not regret leaving it midway. The prospect of dipping into it again is enough assurance for me that beauty is not lost and I can always go back and continue my journey to Sōseki's inner landscapes. And now, I'm planning to pick it up again. So I have to consult my notes and review what transpired in my previous reading. Reading my notes allows me to channel back to the Sōsekian universe wherein characters walk and talk as if stricken by their mere existences, their hearts and minds contemplating the deafening silences.

Spoilers? Certainly. Contemplation of past events will spoil our present and future, but they are only spoilers up to the middle of the book.

Characters of the novel (up to Chapter X): Like Sōseki's other book Kokoro, Mon contains only a handful characters.

Sosuke – husband

Oyone – wife

Koroku – Sosuke’s brother

Mr Saeki – uncle

Mrs Saeki – aunt

Yasunosuke (Yasu) – son of the Saekis

Kiyo – servant/helper

Sakai – landlord

antique dealer

Plot synopsis of each chapter:

Chapter I: Sosuke hesitating to post a letter to her Aunt Saeki.

Chapter II: Letter posted. Sosuke’s half-day off on a Sunday was spent leisurely walking about Tokyo. He did not buy anything, for him or for his wife. A man who lost his interest in material things, a man who lost his drive for living? He went home in time for dinner.

Chapter III: The two brothers Sosuke and Koroku going on a public bath; evening meal; talk of politics (Ito Hirobumi being assassinated)

Chapter IV: Reply was given by aunt; flashback to the younger days of the two brothers and family situation; death of their father; Sosuke’s entrusting their late father’s estate to their uncle, Saeki; the struggles of the couple (Sosuke and Oyone) while living in two cities, Hiroshima and Fukuoka, before finally transferring to Tokyo with the help of Sosuke’s friend. The issue of the estate’s proceeds had still not been brought up with Sosuke’s uncle, even until the uncle’s death; the issue brought only to the surface when the aunt decided to stop paying for the education of Koroku. With the death of the uncle, the Saekis were now in dire straits as their son, Yasunosuke, also needed financial help for his work and for his marriage. Sosuke and Oyone’s plan to shoulder partly Koroku’s future (his board and lodging) and to propose to the Saekis that they shoulder another part (Koroku’s expenses) was written down in a letter by Sosuke and finally sent to the aunt after much dithering. Aunt’s reply: to wait for Yasunosuke who was in Kobe at the time the letter arrived.

This chapter is the most revealing so far in presenting the character of Sosuke in times of conflict. It also highlights the major conflict in the novel. Sosuke's stoicism is evident in that he takes everything inside him, even after his trust has been betrayed by his relatives. Outwardly, he did not feel wronged; inwardly he must be imploding from injustice done to him by his relatives.

Chapter V: Aunt finally visited while Sosuke went for a dental checkup of a clamped tooth, which was a fitting metaphor for his lack of resolve. Like what the dentist said to him: “I’m afraid that if it [the tooth] gives like this, it’ll be impossible to make it as firm again as it was before. The core seems to be dead…. Necrosis has set in…. It’s as if the core of the tooth were rotten.”

Aunt’s reply was that she and Yasu cannot shoulder part of Koroku’s college education. Before bedtime, Sosuke read Confucius’ Analects.

Chapter VI: Koroku was invited to the house but he dithered. The future inconvenience of having Koroku live with them was also felt by the couple. Oyone feeling somewhat ill. Long hard days of rain. Oyone and Sosuke debated on whether to sell the folding screen painted by Hoitsu, an heirloom from Sosuke’s father which was the only remaining unsold (unsquandered) property given back by Aunt Saeki.

Bargaining with the second-hand dealer for the folding screen. After four visits from the dealer, the price offered went up from seven yen to thirty-five yen. The couple then decided to sell the heirloom.

Chapter VII: Cold winter set in. Description of neighbors and landlord. Thief in the night woke up Oyone. The thief apparently carried the mailbox and the gold watch of their neighbor and landlord Sakai. The mailbox was dumped in Sosuke’s yard while the thief escaped. In the morning, Sosuke brought the mailbox to Sakai’s house. They had a conversation. Sosuke returned home and while talking with his wife, reflected on the life of his wealthy landlord. He assumed that Sakai took things easy because of his wealth.

Chapter VIII: Koroku finally moved to his brother’s house. Impelled by his cousin Yasunosuke’s promise of help, he filed a temporary leave of absence in school. In this chapter we find him helping Oyone set up the shoji (a sort of sliding window made of paper). The awkwardness between the two is heightened by the cold weather which affected Sosuke’s labor and by Oyone’s headache which prohibited her from communicating well. Koroku's curtness was due to the coldness he felt from the weather, but Oyone mistakenly thought it was due to her brother-in-law's contempt for her. During lunch they sat facing each other, which all the more made Oyone uncomfortable. In the afternoon, they continued their wallpapering.

Chapter IX: Sosuke became close friends with Sakai. Accidentally meeting Sakai in the antique dealer shop. Suspecting that the wallpaper sold to Sakai was the same one bought by the dealer from him. Later he called on Sakai’s house. Envying Sakai’s many children. Learning that the folding wallpaper Sakai bought from the dealer (for 80 yen!) was the one he sold earlier.

Chapter X: Koroku started drinking. His friends start to loathe him. He started to get along with Oyone. He began to suspect that Yasunosuke (whose planned wedding was postponed) couldn’t really assist him in his studies.


The first half of the novel already brings into focus the complex character of Sosuke. One is surprised at the passivity with which he accepted his aunt’s explanation of the way her husband squandered Sosuke’s family properties.

Sosuke goes through the motions of life as if he is only alive in body, but dead in spirit, not unlike Sensei’s enigmatic attitude in Kokoro. Is his indifference absolute or feigned? At the surface of the pond it is calm and uneventful, and below it is raging tsunamis?

What is lacking? What drives Sosuke to complacency? To a deadened existence? Almost like a zombie.

Disappointments eat at his soul, gnawing his innards, and leaving him without reason to expect anything from his life. What is the cause of his disappointment? Living a hard married life? His lack of children? His inability to support his brother's studies? Modernity? Living in the city? Life in suburbia? The curse to live in the routine of day to day? The lack of riches? Maybe all of these.

As with Kokoro, the conflict is introduced by immediate relatives who are entrusted with the family fortunes. They are supposed to take care of the orphan brothers, but instead they squandered the inheritance. Money, as always, is the corrupting factor that strains family relationships.


  1. I had forgotten the money comparison with 'Kokoro' - Soseki's men are certainly very lax in financial matters...

  2. I think I read this one after Kokoro so I was able to directly observe money/materialism as a bane of Soseki's protagonists. It was also there in Nowaki and Grass on the Wayside.