The Last Samurai depicts characters in a unique way, by always describing both the character’s superior abilities and faults. Ludo is portrayed as a boy who could master multiple languages and rapidly learn many scientific tasks, but is also portrayed as a socially deficient boy who never interacted with his contemporaries. Meanwhile, Sibylla is portrayed as a genius in language arts but shown as incapable of parenting a child properly; to an extent that she thinks that movie characters can replace a father. Even the side characters are described in this way. For example, Sorabji is a Nobel-prize winner and a philanthropist, but is also a man who cannot control his anger.
This dual portrayal of characters focuses on an important issue, mainly the following question: “What is considered intelligent in a society?” None of these characters are perfect as they have significant flaws. While some of these characters, such as Sibylla and Sorabji, are considered as the genius by a society despite their flaws, Ludo is only seen by public as a socially deprived person despite his superior intellect, even to the point where even Sibylla describes his intellect as merely memorizing simple facts. These issues are continuously expressed in the novel.
Although hidden under rationality of narrators and informative writing style of the writer, The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt thoroughly explores human desire and different kinds of it. There are two different kinds of desire in the novel in which each character indulges: ambition towards vertical achievement, and longing for horizontal expansion in experience. Desire that is vertical in nature can be seen in people who constantly try to be the best in an area. On the other hand, desire that is horizontal is seen in people who enjoys to contemplate their choice, to wonder the life they couldn’t live, and to expand their experience. They would often throw questions such as: ‘What would my life have looked like if I had made a different decision at that moment?’ They always open the possibility of living a different life and long to experience the other side of their life. Imagining these two distinctive aspirations in terms of direction, one runs vertically forward and the other looks around to expand their experience.
Linda, the mother of Sibylla, indulges in the first type of desire. Her goal is to attend the best music school and become the best of the area, if she is going to become a musician at all. On the other hand, Sibylla’s father, the atheist as the novel refers him, obsesses over the life he was about to, but couldn’t live. He believes his life is ruined by one decision that his dad and he made: going to a seminary instead of Harvard University. Due to this experience, he becomes obsessive over the concept of chance. These two aspirations varying in direction are introduced in the prelude and interlude of the novel, respectively. Also throughout the novel readers witness that the directional quality of Ludo’s desire, reason for learning, transforms from a vertical ambition to the horizontal expansion of experience throughout the novel.