A man sometimes devotes his life to a desire which he is not sure will ever be fulfilled. Those who laugh at this folly are, after all, no more than mere spectators of life.
Goi's resolve to fulfill his desire is both noble and yet silly. At the end of the story, it is Goi's abnormal nose that does him in - a trait that he cannot control and that controls him completely. He can devote his entire life to fulfilling his desire, but his own inseparable physical being is a barrier that cannot be overcome. The narrator of "Yam Gruel" frequently takes this ironic position, describing the characters interior motives through tone, but establishing an antithetical reality at the same time. Moments like this are a proposal for the reader to either root for Goi, or observe his inevitable demise.
I have heard unsavory rumors about you and the umbrella-maker's daughter.
As the highest-ranking person in the church, Father Superior's suspicion of Lorenzo carries special weight and delivers the worst psychological punishment. Akutagawa establishes the fallibility of even the most respected earthly Christians, but also, by creating a false history for this story in the endnotes, a "lesson learned" by the Early Christians, who were frequently stoned by heathens. Like many Akutagawa quotes, it is both easily understandable, but immensely meaningful and open to interpretation.
If we look at the umbrella as a symbol, it is meant to protect a person from the elements, but also prevents a person from seeing clearly. So it is true that the umbrella-maker's daughter suffers an inability to see Lorenzo as the martyr she truly is and instead protects her own feelings, as though holding an umbrella from Lorenzo's shining example.
Quietly folding his arms, he looked at me and said, "What will you do with [Masago]? Kill her or save her? You have only to nod. Kill her?" For these words alone I would like to pardon his crime.
A bond develops between two men who have grown to despise the beautiful woman that has corrupted both of them. Akutagawa's depiction of women in general is not very favorable, which scholars have softly indicated as a connection to his complicated relationships with the motherly figures in his own life, but here especially, we see that Masago's beauty develops a disturbing character in Takehiko's side of the story. Takehiko wants to pardon Tajomaru of his attempt to steal Masago because of Masago's malicious desire to kill off Takehiko.
...in [the servant's] eyes, pulling out the hair of the dead in the Rashōmon on this stormy night was an unpardonable crime. Of course it never entered his mind that a little while ago he had thought of becoming a thief.
The servant looks at the ghoulish woman pulling hair out of the dead woman's scalp and cannot help but feel antipathy toward her evil. He does not know what her motive is, but his instinct takes over his actions. This deep insight into the servant's flipping psyche is a signature of Akutagawa's writing style. This quotation is particularly important because of its self-awareness. It demonstrates that the servant's behavior and thinking are justified by a moral code that is no longer valid, but which he can't disregard completely. In the end, he develops a new moral code that both excuses and punishes her behavior through a will to power.
Human speech was not made by a simple process. So sometimes they failed to make themselves understood by him. Then they seemed to attribute their failure to defects in his own understanding. Whenever they could not make themselves understood, they would glare at him as if it were his fault.
This passage demonstrates a stylistic that Akutagawa uses specifically in "Yam Gruel" to develop sympathy for Goi, the protagonist. Although he is an easy target for his contemporaries, for the reader, the narrator develops a special point of view that is not quite Goi's own, but implies that it is consistent with his worldview. Whereas this passage clearly communicates Goi's slowness in conversation, it also shows why he should think that it's an inaccurate depiction of what transpires. Even in his own story, he cannot assert that what he thinks is correct. This use of various styles for different stories in the same collection is a key characteristic of modernism, frequently employed by authors such as James Joyce.
Time and tide wait for no man. A year passed like a snowflake that falls into the river, a moment white and then gone forever.
Akutagawa's poetic sensibilities come out in full force in "The Martyr." This short story begins with poetic quotations from Christian scholars, giving the entire work an oceanic and spiritual style that is all but forgotten in the other stories. The language throughout the story emphasizes the warm and disarming attitude of the protagonist against the abusive reactions of her peers. It evokes the old biblical adage, "turn the other cheek," in contrast to his other stories in which the protagonists blame their own characteristics for their demise. Akutagawa offers no consistent moral code throughout his stories, and even sometimes revels in the paradoxes he puts forward.
My heart would not be so wrung with pain if I were to kill an enemy I hate, but tonight I have to kill a man whom I do not hate.
The theme of restoring honor in extramarital affairs comes through in many of Akutagawa's stories, but in this case, a critical eye is placed on this action for the first time. Although Morito does not genuinely consider any other options, it is clear by the end of the story that there is a possibility that he will kill Kesa instead of Wataru (the husband). His ambivalent feelings stem from his jealousy of Wataru for being such a kind-hearted and loving husband. Clearly, he has interrupted a good relationship and is following through with his evil deed strictly out of societal pressure to right a wrong.
Tomorrow will not fail to shed its cold light on my headless body.
Kesa seems sure of Morito's imminent mistake in his plan to kill her instead of her husband. She knows that they can never be happy together, but that he must kill somebody to restore honor, since she has now had relations with two different men. Of course, this is not her fault, as she was violated, but her insecurities about her appearance and viability as a wife have waned since she saw her ugliness mirrored in Morito's eyes. Although he tried to hide it with his words, she saw through him. This is much like the words that Akutagawa gives us; except, in Akutagawa’s case, he does not hide the ugliness. He provides it as an undercurrent for the psyches of every character, which appear on the surface to be quite simple, but which, underneath the surface, are desperately complex.
The old woman, who had always been convinced that a priest never lied, was astounded out of her wits, and said, "I see. Now that you mention it, the color of the water over there does look suspicious."
"The Dragon" is a massive departure from "The Martyr" when it comes to tone and practical implications for the plot. Whereas Lorenzo is extremely reverent and reflective, the Buddhist priest does not hesitate to lie to the face of a believer. Although his prank was intended only to be the post, he has to back it up face-to-face. While the old potter who tells this tale asserts that these pranks were common in that time, one cannot help but wonder why Akutagawa portrays the figures involved with the institutions of religion so poorly, along such real spiritual entities like the dragon that ascends from the pond and Lorenzo, the martyr.
At that instant Hanazō's eyes caught a blurred vision of a black dragon more than one hundred feet long ascending straight into the sky, with its golden talons flashing. But this happened in a twinkling.
Akutagawa uses the phrase "in a twinkling" in "Rashōmon" to show how quickly the servant rushes off with the woman's clothing, in "The Martyr" to show that Lorenzo immediately rushed into the burning house to save the baby, and several times in "The Dragon." The first time refers to when a man's foot-steps had apparently scared away the dragon in the pond; the second time was when a torrent of rain poured down on the spectators around the pond on March 3rd; and then at last with this quotation. It seems that the twinklings always accompany unbelievable actions and the abrupt entrance into surrealism. Sometimes he writes "in the twinkling of an eye" as well. Overall, and especially in this passage, it indicates the possible fallibility of the senses as well - a detachment to reality that represents Akutagawa's reaction against the naturalist movement that had overtaken Japanese literature at the time.
Rashomon Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Rashomon is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.