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Book Review: Kokoro by Natsume Soseki

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Published in 1914, Kokoro is considered to be Natsume Soseki’s finest novel, and as is, it is a very good book, albeit perhaps not as perfect from start to finish as some of the works by the more recent Japanese writers I’ve read. In fairness, Soseki came before them, so they had his work to play off of, but having said that, Kokoro is still a very good book, one well worth the read. Told in three parts, the first two parts are a bit more complex and interesting than the last third of the book, which is a bit of a disappointment only by comparison.

The book opens with the section “Sensei and I,” where the narrator is a young student digressing on his friendship with an older mentor of his, one he refers to as “Sensei.” This first section does an excellent job dissecting the aspects of human closeness and isolation, and how both are related to loneliness. The student wishes he could be closer to his mentor, but Sensei is distant and feels a disdain for humanity. Sensei also is aware of the “idolization” the youth has for him, and warns him not to feel these things, for they will only lead to disappointment. At one point Sensei says: “You are like a man in fever. When that fever passes, your enthusiasm will turn to disgust. Your present opinion of me makes me unhappy enough. But when I think of the disillusionment that is to come, I feel even greater sorrow.”

There are moments of good philosophical exchanges, revealing that Sensei perhaps doesn’t think too highly of himself after all (and readers will come to learn why) yet his student admits to trusting Sensei’s opinions more than he does his own professors. The role of academia as authority is greater explored in the second section, titled “My Parents and I,” when the narrator challenges his dying father’s opinions as far as the weight of academia in one’s life. The father is happy he’s managed to live to see his son graduate from college, although his son tells him that graduation from college is no big deal, since schools crank out hundreds of graduates each year. The dialogue exchanges are tender and realistic, creating a touching and empathetic portrait of the father, while at the same time, powerfully revealing the relationship between father and son. Later, the father admits to both the advantages and disadvantages in educating one’s children, in that, once children are educated, they “go away and never come home.” The father goes even further to state: “Why, you can almost say that education is a means of separating children from their parents.”

Part two is the strongest of the three parts, for it has the intricacy of the first to play off of, and the mystery pertaining Sensei in the third has yet to be revealed. While home, a letter from Sensei arrives, though the student feels he must wait to read it, for his father’s illness is demanding too much of his attention. There are some excellent observations made via way of the narrator, about the physicality of his father’s illness, how his glasses remain unused in their case, and how his father can no longer muster the strength to hold the newspaper. These observations go beyond mere bland description — they give insights into the characters as well noting interesting things, such as the degree to which an illness can impose on all areas in one’s life, not just on one’s body. Or in other words, life and death are not just the body alone, but something that goes beyond it.

Part three is told from Sensei’s point of view, and is titled, “Sensei and His Testament.” In this section we learn what motivates Sensei and how he wishes to portray himself. He digresses on the betrayal he felt towards his uncle for cheating him out of his fortune and also the love triangle that occurs between him, a girl he lives with, and his childhood friend, K. K is very much a cold fish — he is unemotive and refuses to allow people to get too close. He is, by comparison, similar to what Sensei has become in his later years. Eventually, K commits suicide, and Sensei plots the same fate for himself, for reasons that have to do with the ongoing changes in Japan, such as the Emperor’s death and the suicide of General Nogi. Add to that Sensei’s depression, and these are a few of the factors contributing to his decision. Sensei wishes to die, though he does not want his wife to know of his plans because he does not wish to give her a “greater shock than is necessary.” The book then ends when his letter ends — before his suicide, or rather, we don’t actually know if he’s gone through with it yet in real time, since we are experiencing Sensei’s letter just as his student is.

Many readers have commented on the political importance of the third section, which is meant to reveal the ongoing changes between old and new in the culture during that time, which are also mirrored in the friendship between the old Sensei and the young student, and the young student with that of his aging parents. But section three is not as strong as section two, and the saddest part of the book is not learning of Sensei’s desire to die, but the narrator learning that his idol is pretty much a loser. The strongest elements of the book, in fact, are those involving the narrator and his relationship with his father. I was instantly put in mind of Robert Hayden’s famous sonnet, “Those Winter Sundays,” where a man is reflecting back on his youth and how he used to “speak indifferently” to his father. While the narrator does nurse his father in his dying moments, not uncommon with most kids, he thinks his father “doesn’t get it,” whereas the all-wise Sensei does. Meanwhile, Sensei has a disdain for humanity, is lonely, isolated, depressed and suicidal, while the student’s father has managed to live a full life until he is overtaken by illness. His father admits to feeling pride for his son, and yet the son does not appreciate it. This does not make the son bad, just merely like most kids who don’t realize the importance their parents had in their lives until they are gone.

The book does end well, however, because readers are then left to imbue the narrator’s reaction. Will he think the same of Sensei after reading his testimony? I am inclined to think not, and with age, his admiration will likely grow dimmer, while the admiration for his father will likely grow fonder. That’s assuming, of course, that the narrator accepts maturity. Kokoro is a very good read, one that offers introspection over standard, plot-driven narration. Ultimately this is a work that will leave one questioning: something that all works of quality inevitably do.

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About Jessica Schneider

  • http://jaschneider.blogspot.com/ Jessica Schneider

    Yen:

    Thanks for the FYI.

  • Jared

    I believe that the narrator still respects Sensei after reading the letter, for he still refers to him by the title “Sensei” when writing the story for others (we must presume that it was written after the death of Shizu, for Sensei did not wish her to know of his past).

  • Aaron

    I think the student has written his testament before Shizu has died because in chapter 12 he writes, “To this day she knows nothing of it.” So he does not published it near the time of writing it. The question then is, does the student tell Shizu Sensei’s past before she dies? I am convinced it is possible, looking back at the student’s compassion toward Shizu in comforting her in her sadness and feelings of guilt during the night Sensei is socializing. In Sensei’s testament he writes that “she would have wept tears of joy and forgiven all” if he had just confessed. Both being bolder and more straightforward than Sensei characteristically, I think a similar kind of conversation could arise in later years between Shizu and the student.
    It would be a little tough because he would be contradicting the first quote I mentioned in his testament. But like in chapter 19 his natural response would be “responding from his heart and not his mind”, so would it in the moment matter to him?