Mon or The Gate is the third book in Natsume Soseki’s trilogy, with his first two books including Sanshiro and And Then. I place Mon as the second strongest book within this series, with Sanshiro being the strongest and And Then as the weakest. While Mon is the most psychologically complex of the novels (the lead of And Then is a bit of a whiny, self-indulgent brat) Sanshiro, with its humor and criticisms of academia and so-called intellectuals, is probably the better book. It is tough to argue, for on one hand, Sanshiro has a bad translator and Mon is probably the most depressing novel I’ve ever read. It’s not depressing in the sense that I was left crying, but it was a very dour and isolating experience, and while that’s not so much of a critical assessment as it is emotional, I still believe that Soseki is at his best when he laces humor within his narratives. When he tries to do straight drama, it’s not that the works are without merits, but he actually evokes more pathos when he is funny, believe it or not.
Mon tells the story of a married couple who spend years together in isolation. They have no children and they suffer financial troubles. Sosuke lives with his wife, Oyone, and their financial troubles cause them to suffer with regards to certain comforts and amount of grooming (Sosuke’s teeth are causing him pain and he can’t afford decent shoes). The couple believes bad luck has fallen upon them, and that they are meant to live their lives in miserable isolation. Eventually, Sosuke seeks answers via a Buddhist Temple that ultimately bears no fruit. He tries to seek answers, in other words, but as result, nothing in their lives really changes, and they go on as they’ve been. In a sense, reading Mon is like reading a giant epilogue to someone’s life, where the story has never been, and the characters have chosen to allow any story to pass them by. So instead, it seems as though their lives are over and they’re just going through the motions of survival, without any real purpose or pride.
For these reasons, I found Mon a highly disparaging and deflating novel, and the couple are people I have no desire to be like. It is also frustrating, too, to see individuals notice their misery and at least be somewhat aware of their circumstances, but because of stubbornness, they refuse to change or take reasonable action to remedy it. It’s thus difficult to feel sorry for people who probably, in their own way, enjoy their misery. For that reason, they’re perfect for one another.
As far as the writing, Soseki is always consistent and the book has a brevity which benefits it. It could have used a bit more insight and psychological probing, rather than just describing, for the book has the dourness of a Bergman film without the intellectual intensity. So for these reasons, I don’t rank Mon in the top slot, but it takes the second, following Sanshiro. And Then has some good moments, but suffers from repetition and a dull, whiny protagonist.
The Ending of Mon, however, is excellent and put me in mind of Ozu’s Tokyo Story. There is an exchange between the husband and wife, which not only expresses their current situation and how it will continue, but the exchange perfectly reflects their personalities. Because Sosuke sought help outside their marriage, he is the more hopeful character. He at least, tries. Oyone, who unfortunately suffers from acute illness, becomes entirely dependent upon her husband if not just physically, but existentially. He is the only one with the means to try to better them, and ultimately his attempt results in failure. Yet, the ironic thing is that their final exchange contradicts this. When Sosuke returns home and relays his tale of what occurred while visiting the bath, she remarks, cheerfully, while looking out the window at the sun: “It’s a good thing, isn’t it. Spring is finally here.”
Sosuke, who is involved within the monotony of clipping his fingernails, remarks with downcast eyes: “But it will soon be winter again.”