One Christmas night, a destitute young boy is found in front of the Church of Santa Lucia in Nagasaki. They call him Lorenzo and he's brought up in the church under the Jesuit missionaries. He seems to evade their questions about his past with a disarming smile and references to heaven and God. He wears a blue rosary on his wrist and reminds the brothers of a cherub for being so pious. Simeon, a Herculean brother who fended the heathens off many times, took a particular liking to Lorenzo and they became good friends.
But when Lorenzo was to celebrate his coming into manhood, an unsavory rumor was spread that he had become intimate with the umbrella-maker's daughter, who lived nearby. She never took her eyes from Lorenzo and admired him deeply. When the Father Superior confronted Lorenzo on this issue, he tearfully denied the rumors calling them "quite unfounded" (loc. 591). The Father believed him. Not much later, a love letter arrived in the back garden of the church and when Simeon found it, he used it to threaten and interrogate Lorenzo about the licentious matter. Lorenzo responded that he had heard of her admiration, but had never even spoken to her. Simeon pressed on, feeling the weight of the town's opinion -- he had to be sure. But Lorenzo simply asked if he looked like a liar and left the room. Simeon was ashamed, so Lorenzo came back to comfort him. However, his comforting phraseology got him into trouble. Lorenzo said he was wrong and begged forgiveness, but Simeon did not know whether to attribute the wrongness to Lorenzo's affair or to his rude behavior. Once again, he was unsure of Lorenzo's relationship to the umbrella-maker's daughter.
When the umbrella-maker's daughter became pregnant, the fathers and brothers of the church made haste to excommunicate Lorenzo, albeit with tears in their eyes. Simeon struck him in the face, embarrassed at his having been deceived. Lorenzo prays for the lord to forgive the congregation, for they knew not what they had done.
Lorenzo was reduced to a homeless mongrel, caned, stoned, and cut at with swords frequently. When a fever seized the town, he writhed in pain for seven days and nights before being saved by God with mountain berries, fish, and shellfish (loc. 621). Lorenzo went to pray near the church at night, as it was the only time he would not be caught.
Eventually even the Fathers lost pity for Lorenzo and their tears dried up. Simeon however, could not forget Lorenzo's face and when the umbrella-maker's daughter gave birth, he would often visit them in hopes of recalling Lorenzo in the form of the baby. The mother was chagrined that Lorenzo never visited.
A year later, a calamitous fire broke out in Nagasaki and the umbrella-maker's house caught fire. The fire raged ferociously and by the time they realized they had forgotten the baby who was sleeping in another room, it was too late. Simeon attempted to retrieve the babe, but had hardly gone in by the time he gave up. Suddenly, Lorenzo showed up in shadowy form and rushed into the burning house. More unsavory remarks followed suit, but when Lorenzo was struck by the fall of a burning beam, the crowd was stunned. He tossed the child with his last strength and it landed safely at its mother's feet.
The congregation sent praise to Jesus Christ for saving the child, but meanwhile, Simeon went to save Lorenzo from death. The umbrella-maker's daughter, choked with tears, unexpectedly confessed that the child was not Lorenzo's and that she had had relations with a heathen. She continued by praising Lorenzo's faith, which made her jealous, so much so that she bore a grudge against him. Instead of hating her for this, Lorenzo had rescued her child, and she thought she ought to be terribly punished for her sin.
The crowd started to cry "Martyr!" and the Father Superior delivered a blessing of admiration over Lorenzo, when suddenly as he began to cry, they noticed under Lorenzo's tattered shirt "two soft, pure breasts" (loc. 693). Lorenzo was not a boy, but a girl! The congregation hung their heads as the Father began solemnly chanting the scriptures as Lorenzo looked up into "glory of Heaven far beyond the dark night" (loc. 704).
Nothing else is known of Lorenzo's life, but the narrator believes that those who know her last moments "know the whole of her life" (loc. 714).
"The Martyr" is the most removed from Akutagawa's usual writing style of all the short stories in this collection. He employs an archaic register, a righteous protagonist, and authority figures that are absent from all the other stories. The historical setting of the Early Christian period in Nagasaki suggests that there may have been a Church of Santa Lucia there in the 17th century, however, many scholars have debated the existence of the text that Akutagawa purports to have in the postscript. It was not up for debate long, because Akutagawa admitted to the illegitimacy of this text within his short lifetime. But this is not necessarily a negative feature of the story.
"The Martyr" describes far less psychological turmoil than any of the other short stories, which successfully reminds the reader of archaic texts. This tactic elevates the text to a level of absolute truth that Akutagawa is otherwise unable to achieve as a modernist writer. However, when scholars unveiled Akutagawa's fabrication, the reader is left to wonder whether it is an important detail at all. Considering authorial intent, it seems that he was trying to share a heart-warming story about a spiritual and religious awakening surrounding the martyrdom of a cherub-like figure with a mysterious past. The legitimacy that he loses with the scholarly discovery does not change this intent, but does show the lengths that he had to go in order to write such a story. Other authors who have employed this tactic such as Johann Wolfgang van Goethe and Horace Walpole have used it in the service of portraying different cultures in a digestible format and criticizing the idea of genre fiction, which are both possible
The righteous protagonist, Lorenzo, can be looked at as a modern-day Jesus Christ, as is denoted directly in the text by the Father Superior. Religious figures in the other short stories are mostly affiliated with Buddhism and lack any true spiritual connection to the gods. In fact, more often than not, they are called out for their folly - they are used as bait for a criticism against hypocrisy, another common theme for Akutagawa. For Lorenzo though, there is no such baiting. She turns the other cheek constantly and wins everybody's affection for her strict adherence to Christian values in the end.
By including faulty authority, Akutagawa also raises the theme of the story above human endeavors. By having Father Superior and Simeon reduce Lorenzo to a liar, they are effectively losing their righteousness. They no longer do the right thing for the sake of rightness, but rather respond to human pressures, like any other religious figures in these short stories.
Overall, this piece both increases the breadth and application of Akutagawa's most important themes from an entirely new point of attack, making it an invaluable part of the collection.