This story took place about eleven hundred years ago, but the characters were never named, so the hero will be named "Goi," which in Japanese means fifth class court rank. He was homely with a red nose and sloppy in appearance, so his fellow samurai enjoyed making jokes and pranks at his expense.
However, Goi was insensible to their ridicule, always responding only with "Why did you do that?", even when they gossiped about the intimacy between a drunken Buddhist priest and his wife. Although many samurai would have momentary compassion for him, it never lasted long, not including the young samurai from the province of Tamba, who saw him in a different light.
One day, when Goi was traveling on the road, he intervened with a group of boys who were beating a stray dog. But even these young boys spat back in his face, and so he was ashamed for making an unnecessary remark. He was spiritless, except for in one aspect.
Once a year, samurai of all ranks were invited to the Regent's Palace to enjoy a feast. This year, however, when the festival came around, there were a great many guests, and their portions of his favorite dish, yam gruel, were relatively small. He remarked to somebody nearby, "I wonder if I shall ever eat my fill of yam gruel,” which was the instigation for a whole series of events that would change his life.
Toshihito, the son of the Finance Minister, first ridicules him publicly and then drunkenly offers Goi to have his fill if he should like. After much silence and provocation, Goi admits that he would oblige. Toshihito, laughing heartily and consuming more rice wine, says he will invite him some time. Goi cannot eat or drink for the rest of the festival, his mind consumed with thoughts of yam gruel as a stupid smile overtakes his face.
A few days later, Toshihito follows through with his promise and invites Goi to a hot spring near Higashiyama. They ride two gallant steeds with a valet and footman accompanying them several trots behind. Goi asks again where they are headed, but Toshihito gives vague answers and the destination seems to be moving further and further away. Finally he learns that they are going all the way to Tsuruga, a journey that is sure to be riddled with robbers, mountains, and rivers. He nearly regrets coming out at all, but his craving for yam gruel keeps him going.
Toshihito then spotted a "messenger" and whipped up his horse to follow it, so Goi had no choice but to also make haste and follow. Toshihito holds up a fox by the leg and tells it to run to his mansion in Tsuruga to tell them to prepare for their coming. The fox runs off and Goi admires Toshihito's ferocious and heroic qualities. He wonders if his own will is freer under the embrace of his hero's will, to which he is currently sequestered. The narrator cautions the reader to not jump to the conclusion that Goi is just a sycophant though.
The narrator then briefly moves to the fox's point of view, who seems to be able to see the beauty of the setting sun and the horses in the distance.
When they arrive in town, it seems that the fox had actually delivered the message, for they are met with twenty or thirty men from the mansion. But the men quickly explain to Toshihito that his wife had fallen under a feverish spell and told them that she was the fox from Sakamoto and that they needed to meet them here.
Goi spent a sleepless night in the mansion after complimenting Toshihito once again. Nervousness from this sudden change in circumstance squelched his appetite for yam gruel and he hoped that morning wouldn't come too soon. Just then, he heard Toshihito shouting to the servants to collect yams three inches wide and five feet long by 6am. He falls asleep, but the thought of his circumstances once again jolted him awake. He looked outside and saw tremendously large yams stacked as high as the house - enough to feed a whole village.
They cook the yams with sweet arrow root, making the yam gruel, but the more Goi thought about it, the more miserable he felt - half of his appetite had already receded from him. When he sits down with Toshihito and Arihito, the father-in-law, he felt satiated before even tasting it. Arihito encourages him to eat without reserve and they both continue to pressure him to eat his fill.
Fortunately, as his stomach was about to burst, Toshihito called everybody's attention to the eaves where the fox from Sakamoto sat. It jumps down and begins to eat its own fill of yam gruel. Goi remembers the time before coming to Tsuruga fondly. The perspiration dries up on his face, beginning at the tip of the nose. He sneezes into the silver pitcher of yam gruel.
"Yam Gruel" is the longest story in this collection. It ruminates on themes of desire, ugliness, and poverty just like many of the other stories, yet it stands out with its strangely satisfying mis-triumph. Instead of falling into the lap of wealth, happy as a clam, Goi falls into an even more abysmal darkness.
He learns that what comforts him is not the satiation of his desire, but rather the desire itself. When he looks back on his life before coming to Tsuruga, he remembers only what the reader would undoubtedly consider an awful existence: fellow warriors ridiculing and pulling pranks on Goi, young boys shouting at him from the streets, and a lonely figure in faded robes who wanders about like a homeless mongrel. The reader is left to wonder how on earth he can compare the two situations and prioritize the first. Yet when we remember his "stupid smile" back at the festival, it shows that his bashfulness and personal stability despite his circumstances are very strong. In fact, they may not be acting despite his circumstances, but rather as a direct result of them. Indeed, his contemporaries speculated at the beginning of the story that "his face gave the impression that ever since birth he had had his cold-looking red nose" (loc. 326).
Clearly, Akutagawa's employment of physical abnormality and ugliness plays a key role in this story. His red nose and unshapely mustache basically determine his existence, or at least this is what he had always assumed. Until the moment when he enters Tsuruga and is treated like royalty despite his nose, he had no reason to believe that his treatment had not been deserved back home. He seems rather pleased by it at first, but quickly becomes nauseous and nervous after licking the remaining rice wine off his mustache. It reminds him that if what he is witnessing is truly a possibility, then the rest of his life must have been a lie. Unwilling to accept this conjecture, his nose contaminates his treasure, putting him back at ease. His nose achieved in resetting the imbalance in his life.
Just as the festering pimple in "Rashōmon" demonstrates a sense of impending change, we can imagine that Goi's nose is constantly being irritated until finally it erupts in a sneeze, effecting the change it requires, as an autonomous subconscious psychological entity.
Akutagawa's use of alcohol signifies socioeconomic differences between Goi and Toshihito. Whereas Toshihito seems always to be a little tipsy, laughing heartily, when Goi drinks upon his arrival in Tsuruga, his head starts to spin and he must lick the drops from his unshapely mustache, not exactly keeping up regal appearances. Goi laments the fact that the higher-ups know only how to live life through drinking and laughing; for Goi, life is more nuanced. But when he sees Toshihito's command over even the fox, and thus himself, he cannot help but admire him. Something that Goi certainly lacks by leading his stable-but-ugly life is power. This is partly socioeconomic, but also clearly related to physical appearance, confidence, and reactions to alcohol.