Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The central point of The House of the Sleeping Beauties is Eguchi’s acceptance of his aging body and eventual death. The memories he reviews suggest that, despite his pleasure in sexual activity with many women, he has not made his partners happy or himself achieved satisfaction. With the helping presence of the six sleeping beauties, he learns to accept the loss of this world’s pleasures. The focus of the novel is profoundly moral, despite the details of Eguchi’s erotic history. This emphasis emerges from Kawabata’s typical rendering of action in terms of images and symbolic clues. The central motifs of the novel come together in the final chapter, when Eguchi dreams of the death of his tubercular mother. The details of this scene echo the images he uses to describe his various mistresses. Eguchi recalls the pale skin and dark hair of his dying mother, her cold hands, the redness of the blood she hemorrhages on the bedding, and the withered breasts he massages to relieve the pressure in her lungs. The dream verifies that the woman who brought Eguchi into this world is the most important one in his life, the woman he has always loved, and the one his other women must always fail to replace.

The red curtained chamber at the inn is a womb to which Eguchi retreats to achieve rebirth. The sea and wind he hears outside are the sounds of the body of the primal mother. When the dark girl dies, so does Eguchi’s attachment to the world of passion. His association with the fair girl suggests spiritual transcendence. This reading, however, fails to do justice to Kawabata’s skill as a writer. The imagery is highly allusive, and the interconnection of the sexual and spiritual dimensions of the motifs is handled more delicately than any paraphrase can suggest. Nevertheless, one theme running throughout nearly all Kawabata’s fiction is the contention that life’s value and meaning come clear when existence is examined from the perspective of a dying man. In this case, Eguchi’s capacity to see truly comes from his use of the sleeping beauties as surrogates for the dying mother in his memory.