What does silence symbolize in the novel?
Silence primarily refers to the silence of God amidst great suffering of his Christian followers. Silence symbolizes Rodrigues's fear that God may not exist. It is frequently displayed in examples from nature: of birds continuing to sing, the waves of the ocean continuing to break, etc, while the world around Rodrigues falls apart with violence and fear.
What makes Rodrigues begin to doubt the existence of God?
He sees many Japanese Christians die as martyrs for their faith without any sign from the heavens that God is aware of their suffering. Though Rodrigues believes in a heavenly afterlife for the martyrs, he is shocked by the banality of their deaths and the indifference of the world. He finds it hard to reconcile their horrible deaths with a God that exists.
What role does the ocean play in Silence?
The ocean serves as an ever-present symbol of the natural world. Rodrigues finds it especially troubling that the ocean looks the save as ever when he sees various martyrdoms occurring. The ocean is ever-present, since Rodrigues is usually in coastal Japan, and its placid similarity day after day changes from a comforting image to one of despair, since the waves beat on after martyrs have died for a silent God. Water also influences Rodrigues's thoughts: he frequently describes things using water imagery.
What role does the fumie play in Rodrigues's inability to apostatize?
Since he was a boy, the face of Christ has been an especially potent religious symbol to Rodrigues. He fell in love with the face of Christ long ago, and imagines it in his head to keep himself calm and obedient to God at all times. It is the most precious face in the world to him. In Silence, Christians are made to apostatize by trampling on a fumie, a crudely rendered face of Christ. This makes apostasy especially upsetting for Rodrigues.
How does Rodrigues's definition of what constitutes sin change throughout the novel?
At first he cleaves to Scripture, believes sin to be only that which is explicitly written in the Bible. As he begins to question his faith, however, he realizes that a great deal of sin is hidden in the everyday actions of man that have no celestial moral bearing (like cheating or stealing). Rather, something as banal as being able to laugh while another person suffers is also a sin.
What role does tree imagery play in Rodrigues's quest and ultimate failure as a missionary?
Inoue says that Christianity cannot take root in Japan because Japanese society is fundamentally inhospitable to the beliefs of Christianity. It cannot take root, he says, because the soil cannot support it. Rodrigues tries to counter by saying that perhaps the soil has not had proper fertilizer. Shusaku Endo often uses language that describes Japan as a swamp in which Christianity cannot take root.
What role does "bad timing" (i.e., practicing their belief decades after its heyday, and now in an era of persecution) play in the lives of the Japanese Christians and missionaries?
Kichijiro says that in another time more accepting of Christians, he might have been a good Christian, but as he is a weak man he will succumb to badness in a time of persecution. Rodrigues backs this up in his thoughts, realizing that many men are weak-willed but in times when their will is not tested, they would have lived good faithful lives and been rewarded in heaven. Rodrigues also applies this to himself: he feels bad about praying to God to help him, and always complaining to God, while he should have been praising God instead. Yet only a few decades previously, Christianity was lauded and widely accepted in Japan, and missionaries enjoyed lives of leisure. Under those circumstances, Rodrigues's relationship with God could have been all one of praise and not one of resentment and questioning.
How is truth shown to be subjective in the novel?
Rodrigues has always taken Christian doctrine to be an absolute truth, but Inoue argues that some truths only apply to certain environments. Rodrigues argues that this means it was never truthful in the first place, for all truths are universal. This challenges Rodrigues's beliefs, especially when he learns that the form of Christianity practiced in Japan was never the beliefs taught by the missionaries, since the Japanese could not conceive of a Christ that was not a man.
What does the idea of God not existing imply for Rodrigues?
If God does not exist, Rodrigues believes that his whole life will have meant nothing. His long journey to Japan will have been in pursuit of something that does not even exist. His entire existence will have been absurd. More than that, the sufferings of many Japanese Christian martyrs will also have been in vain. If God does not exist, Rodrigues is stunned to think how much of what he has witnesses is for no higher purpose, and a life of suffering on earth is all the Christians of Japan will ever experience.
What effects do the various perspectives of the book have on its effectiveness as a piece of historical fiction?
They lend authenticity to the tale. There is both an historical explanation of the author's for the context of the novel, then a half of the book told in epistolary form from Rodrigues's point of view, then a half told as from an omniscient historian, and finally the records of the clerk. All of this situates the novel in its historical perspective, showing various ways in which history might be interpreted: facts, hearsay, tidbits, records, all of which point at some version of the truth. It mirrors the world that Rodrigues experiences, one in which he is never entirely certain what happened to the missionaries in Japan who came before him.