Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The theme of alienation, which characterizes Yasunari Kawabata’s work, resonates throughout this story. The narrator, the boy, and the girl are all intensely united in a brief but highly affecting encounter. Ironically, it is the narrator—that is, the observer and stranger—who, from his perspective of time and distance, feels the full impact of the moment. He is the most sensitive to the sorrow over the transience of things and, consequently, the betrayal of expectations. The story, therefore, becomes a meditation not only on love, loneliness, and loss but also on the nature of time itself, expressing the traditional Japanese sense of aware that links beauty with sadness. A feeling of incompleteness pervades life, and the narrator’s resigned sadness comes from an acceptance of human helplessness before the flow of time.

The singing insects of the title contribute to the meaning of the story in a multilayered way: The music they produce not only is suggestive of the beauty of nature but also signals the approach of autumn. In the context of Japanese classical literature, which Kawabata acknowledged as an influence, autumn connotes sadness, that is, the sadness of aware. The beauty of nature, which is especially evanescent, serves as a metaphor for the transitoriness of life and the elusiveness of human contact. Significantly, singing insects do not live long once they are put in cages.

It is generally agreed in Japan that crickets are better singers than grasshoppers, and the suzumushi, the particular type of cricket in the story, is considered among the best music makers. Fujio’s chagrin, therefore, at being mistaken is intensified by the implication of his lack of discernment. Eager to impress Kiyoko, he is instead humiliated. He becomes more painfully aware of her unattainability.

Fujio is bound by his own feelings and perceptions. The narrator, however, is able to identify a connection between the boy and girl of which both appear to be unaware. Perhaps it is their innocence that makes them so; perhaps it is the fate of human beings not truly to appreciate the bonds that unite them. Those immersed in an experience may never be able to comprehend it fully. Apparently, the alienation that people sense from one another is compounded by their alienation from their own lives.