Profound Ordinariness: Natsume Sōseki’s The Gate, Concluded (no spoilers)

Previously, I wrote about the first half of The Gate (1910), where I was introduced to Sōsuke and his wife Oyone. These two protagonists live a mundane, secluded life, where making ends meet is often the subject of conversation. Sōsuke’s brother Koroku introduces a mild conflict as he attempts to find ways to continue his education. Still, there is little that happens in this novel, even in the second half. Instead, the author challenges the reader to look more deeply into the characters, their motivations, and their places in a Japan midway between the old world and the modern.

I was personally very happy that, unlike Steppenwolf, the second half of The Gate was completely consistent with the first—with one exception. Towards the end of the book, there was a big reveal teased which kept me on the edge of my seat. The twist that Sōseki chose to take was (as always) understated but entirely unexpected. It took me aback at first, but after thinking about it more, I liked it a whole lot. It felt like a unique reading experience and masterful writing. I can’t say any more, except that your mileage may vary, and many readers will probably dislike the ending.

Major themes of the novel include: Japan pre-WW1 (and approaching the Taisho Democracy era), woman’s role in society, Zen Buddhism, industrialization, and family ties. Since these make up the meat and potatoes of the novel, I don’t want to recap it here because that could well be a kind of “spoiler.” I would say if you enjoy reading about history, culture, and religion in an organic way then this book is right up your alley. Don’t expect a thriller or even a sweeping romance. There is suspense and love and even humor, but it’s a slow burn.

The depictions of the Japanese natural world are also really lovely. I’ll end with this excerpt which gives you an idea of how Sōseki depicts nature and also how Oyone characteristically makes the most of what she has:

…this area was where the rain poured down from the roof spout, all of which helped the begonias thrive here in the summer. At their peak the foliage was so dense it all but choked off the path, a sight that had alarmed the couple during their first summer in the house. But when Oyone thought of how the begonia roots had survived for years beneath the only recently removed hedge, and how, long after the manor house had been razed, the plants still sent forth their seeds in the proper season, she exclaimed with joy, “They really are lovely!”

The Gate, p. 76 (NYRB)

All in all, this book was a highlight of the year. Something about its sweet and slow psychological drama really appealed to me and kept me fascinated. 4.5 out of 5 stars!

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