The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The narrative of Mitsuye Yamada’s “A Bedtime Story” tells a story within a story. In the frame story an adult recalls a folktale that had been told as a bedtime story. The main part of the poem consists of that story, a Japanese legend about an elderly woman seeking shelter in rural villages. According to the tale, the old woman is refused entry at every household she approaches. Finally, growing exhausted, she lies down to rest in a clearing on a hilltop. All is dark in the sleeping village below, except for a few scattered lights. As the old woman is catching her breath, the moon appears between parted clouds. Upon seeing it, the woman addresses the sleeping villagers.

The final stanza returns to the frame story, as the speaker recollects the story-telling occasion. The speaker pictures the comfortable family home on a hillside in Seattle and remembers the father pausing right at the point in the story when the old woman thanks the villagers for refusing to give her hospitality, since being forced to stay outdoors has enabled her the privilege of seeing the full moon, a “memorable sight.” Finally, the child’s incredulous question ends the poem: Was that all there was?

A Bedtime Story Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem fuses lyric and meditative modes. The two stories that the speaker remembers—the frame story of recollection and the inner folktale—carry the statement to the moment of insight characteristic of the meditative mode. In keeping with the folktale at the heart of this poem, the language and form are austere and restrained. In forty-five short lines of free verse the speaker narrates the father’s story without ornamentation or explanation. The poem’s only figure of speech is the simile at its center comparing the lights of the sleeping village with the stars overhead.

The speaker opens with the traditional English folktale formula “Once upon a time,” thus weaving the frame story within the legend. The language is detached, in keeping with the folktale emphasis. The villagers are implied in metonymy: Doors open themselves; the town sleeps. Only in the old woman’s speech do “people/ of the village” enter the text. Subtle irony enters the poem at this point. The woman is said to have called out “in supplication”; however, her supplication for shelter was refused earlier, and her actual words are not suppliant but thankful.

More irony surfaces in her characterization of the villagers’ rejection as “kindness” and continues with her reference to her “humble” eyes. The polite formula of humble eyes emphasizes that the old woman can see what the villagers cannot see and is therefore superior, both physically on the hilltop and morally in her insight, to the obtuse community. The poem’s closing also invokes folklore formula. The English folktale traditionally closes with the formula “The end.” In “A Bedtime Story,” however, the phrase “the end” that concludes the poem is posed by the child as a question that is not explicitly answered. Thus, in spite of the poem’s apparent simplicity and transparency, it is suffused with ambiguity and uncertainty.