The Last Samurai


Helen Dewitt plays with the language used and the visual effects created by the structure of the letters, making the novel feel more conversational rather than formal, and thus forcing the readers to sense with Sibylla’s perception and feelings. The story starts out with Sibylla trying to decipher a line of German, to which she translates to “It is truly something and something which the something with the something of this something....”(17). Repetition is a common literary device used to put emphasis on phrases and/or ideas; however, since Dewitt repeats the word “something” over and over again, specifically eleven times, this sentence feels rather unconventional. It still serves the original purpose: it emphasizes that Sibylla has forgotten much of German; but this replacing words one doesn’t recognize with “something”s is much more relatable than more formal novels. This repetition also presents itself in Ludo and Sibylla’s conversations: “Why are they fighting?WHY ARE THEY FIGHTING? WHY ARE THEY FIGHTING?”(26-7). This emphasizes that Ludo is a very curious child and often won’t stop asking until he gets an answer. In fact, Dewitt even uses capitalization to convey an eager tone. It’s as if Ludo is screaming at the readers for the answer, and compels the readers to imagine themselves in Sibylla’s position. In the same conversation, a very interesting repetition appears:”I know that” versus two lines later”I know THAT” and versus a few lines after that, “I KNOW that”(27). The phrases are identical, yet the capitalization emphasis puts different tones on them. They are all basically Ludo asking Sibylla for a different answer, yet the first one is just informative, second one is slightly impolite, and the third one conveys annoyance. In a later conversation, Dewitt adds another element to this play on language-the visual effects of the structure of words on a page. It is Ludo again asking his questions: “HOW MUCH MORE? HOW MUCH MORE? HOW, MUCH, MORE?”(34), and Dewitt this time uses italicization, bolding, commas, and a font size change, in addition to the all caps. First of, these three lines are right there when one turns the page from the previous one, and it creates a quite shocking impression. This shocking effect again relates to how Sibylla at the moment must’ve felt. Second, it emphasis even further how crazy and obsessive Ludo can get if he doesn’t get his questions answers, thus illustrating his curiosity at such a young age. Dewitt’s play with language and the visual structure of the words is definitely different from a typical novel with typical literary devices such as metaphors and such. Through using more relatable language and creating shocking images, she is able to not only do what typical literary devices could do, which is emphasis the important ideas, but also force the readers to experience with Sibylla and follow her feelings through the story. Her style of writing is very unconventional, yet very interesting, as new surprises, just like the huge “HOW, MUCH, MORE?”, unravel, as readers follow through the book.


From the beginning of the novel, young Ludo has shown extreme interest in learning how to read and comprehend various languages from his mother, who seems to be capable of understanding a vast number of tongues. When introducing the concept of Penguin Japanese as what English translators translate into, the narrator breaks down the sentence “Tada kassen ni wa zuibun deta ga, tada” into to its main constituents and explains each part in English (32). The most direct way to incorporate a language other than English would be to either simply present it in the foreign form and leave the reader in the unknown or translate it completely into English with the implication that it is meant to be in Japanese and move on. While it may seem redundant or unnecessary, DeWitt deviates from this by breaking down the phrase in order to provide the reader an opportunity to learn bits of the languages alongside Ludo while reading the book. On its own, this book teaches little more than a few words in different languages, but what is important is that it elevates the reading experience into a learning one in a way that would not have happened otherwise. This idea is extended in Sibylla’s belief that being restricted to only one language in works of literature limits the potential of what can be conveyed. She hopes to see languages being used in the same way colors or notes are merged so that “gradually [writers] would approach the level of the other branches of the arts which are so much further developed,” implying that there is much potential in intermixing several languages that has yet to be explored (63). While it's common for an array of colors and notes to be used in paintings and music, most pieces of writing use single language. The obvious choice of color for a sun would be yellow, but often artists move beyond that in works of art. Just as meaning and depth may be enhanced by deviation from the expected colors in a work of art, shifting between languages may unlock a whole new world of possibilities. By incorporating several languages within the book, DeWitt forms The Last Samurai into an attempt towards this so-called higher level of artistic development. This distinct presentation of language challenges the reader to approach this book differently by seizing each opportunity the author presents to learn something new.

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