Confessions of a Mask Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Confessions of a Mask has been compared to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-1915, serial; 1916, book) and D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913). Like those novels, Mishima’s work is a bildungsroman, the story of a young man’s growth to maturity. Yet while Joyce and Lawrence emphasize the struggle of a boy to achieve a conventional, heterosexual manhood, Mishima emphasizes the seemingly aberrant desires of his young protagonist, whose struggle is to face his feelings honestly and openly.

The confession begins with the narrator’s earliest memories, almost all of them connected with either sex or death. Almost dying at the age of four of autointoxication (Mishima himself suffered from this chronic illness), he remembers at the same time the image of a young man carrying buckets of excrement and becomes strangely aroused by his handsome face and close-fitting trousers. The image associates sex and filth, just as the boy’s later arousal by marching soldiers combines beauty and death. These dualities occur throughout the novel, as do masks and false appearances. Captivated by a picture-book illustration of a knight holding a sword aloft on a white horse, the boy is later shocked to find out that it is the picture of a woman, Joan of Arc, not of a man. Like the boy, the knight’s sex is masked and is not what it appears to be. A later book illustration, that of Saint Sebastian, whose body was pierced by arrows, arouses him even...

(The entire section is 614 words.)

Confessions of a Mask Summary (Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Confessions of a Mask is a first-person narrative about a Japanese youth growing up from infancy to young manhood in and around Tokyo, Japan, from 1925 to about 1947. The narrator-protagonist is psychologically burdened by a sexual inversion, making him a latent homosexual. The novel deals with the manifestations of this latent homosexuality, the protagonist’s growing awareness of it, and his struggle to live with it in Japanese society. These elements are presented in four chapters of unequal length, and these chapters in turn informally comprise two halves, the first dealing chiefly with the narrator’s epiphanic moments of self-discovery and encounters with males (especially school friends) and the other half describing his encounters with women (especially Sonoko, whom he almost marries).

The novel begins with the narrator-protagonist’s precocious claim that he saw and remembered events at his own birth, especially his first bath. Born in 1925, into an upper-middle-class family that has seen better days, the narrator is reared by his sickly, strong-willed grandmother, who snatches him from his parents. At the age of one, the narrator, nicknamed Kochan, falls down a stairway and grievously injures his forehead. At the age of four, he suffers monthly attacks of autointoxication in which he undergoes the symptoms of death for some hours, then revives with a urination.

These precocious or anomalous incidents precede several moments of illumination. The first is a chance view of a night-soil collector who crosses Kochan’s homeward path. Kochan is fascinated by the handsome physique, robust health, and thigh-hugging trousers of this menial, who balances buckets of excrement from a shoulder yoke. It is an epiphanic moment: For Kochan, the excremental and the beautiful have become inextricable. A second such moment occurs when he lovingly admires the picture of a knight in armor and then imagines an even more beautiful picture of the knight dead. He is strangely disappointed, however, when told that the knight is really a woman, Joan of Arc. Here Kochan discovers that he cannot find beauty in woman and that transvestism can mask sexual identity. Not surprisingly, when Kochan plays at dressing up, he likes to impersonate powerful women such as Tenkatsu (a female magician) and Cleopatra, roles of which his elders disapprove. In Kochan’s games with his girl cousins, he senses that he is expected to play the role of male and warrior, and he tries his best to act out this societally imposed masquerade, though doing so runs counter to his nature. Chapter 1 closes on a symbolic scene depicting the conflict between order and chaos, outer mask and inner nature. During a summer festival, the orderly processional bearers of a portable shrine (which encloses or masks a pocket of inner darkness beneath the outer blaze of noonday sun) suddenly lose all restraint and create chaos in Kochan’s garden by trampling its flowers. As Kochan watches the scene, he dimly realizes that, like the rioting bearers, there is in his character a lack of restraint that attracts him to males, to the lower classes, and to an obscene disorder which culminates in death, whereas his society dictates that he find beauty in females, in the aristocratic, and in a life-enhancing orderliness.

Chapter 2 deals with Kochan’s early teen years. With the advent of puberty, Kochan’s aesthetic sense becomes more physical and more sexual.Significantly, his first masturbatory ejaculation is inspired by a reproduction of Guido Reni’s...

(The entire section is 1447 words.)