Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The sea is an appropriate image of the timeless reality that Tomoko comes to perceive behind the surface of her comfortable, middle-class life. The essence of that reality is the fact of death’s constant threat. Yukio Mishima shows Kiyoo and Keiko, shortly before the accident, aware of the power of death but too young to recognize it. It is significant that Tomoko is asleep when the accident occurs, for she too is innocent about death. Mishima’s description of her sleeping form stresses its youthful, girlish quality; unlike Sleeping Beauty, however, she is not awakened to reality by a loving Prince but through the agency of the sea that takes both her children. It is important to Mishima’s thematic point that Tomoko not be present during the accident and that Yasue experience death as her surrogate. Tomoko both participates in the children’s deaths and is removed from them, and she thereby becomes aware of the universal fact of human mortality.

Initially, Tomoko has no such awareness. She reacts to the accident in purely personal and social terms by worrying about how she can face Masaru and his parents. Her husband has similar reactions: He responds to the telegram from Tomoko by making sure that he is carrying enough money to deal with the expenses of the emergency. He takes on himself the organization of the funeral and arrangements for the burials in Tama Cemetery. For Masaru, the deaths of Kiyoo, Keiko, and Yasue present him with largely practical problems. Mishima concedes that he feels genuine grief but claims that his emotions are more sentimental than Tomoko’s and more easily survived. Tomoko’s feelings, initially centered on herself as the victim of fate, change over the course of the story. Her understanding of life at the end of “Death in Midsummer” is deeper, and more frightening, than Masaru’s.

Despite the emotional growth Mishima attributes to her, Tomoko is not an easy character to like. The treatment of her feelings is too uncompromisingly honest for that. Mishima requires that the reader acknowledge that her self-centered reaction to the deaths of her children is true to human nature.