(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Setting Sun details the difficulty of a formerly aristocratic family in coming to terms with the new morality and economic reality of postwar Japan. Each member of the family copes with the problems of integrating past and present in a different way; only Kazuko, the narrator, is able to survive. The novel presents in diary fashion her reaction to events as they occur and her reflections on the family’s past: The plot consists more of impressions and flashbacks than of connected events. The narrator also includes part of her brother’s journal and his long, meditative suicide note, in which he despairs over his artistic and romantic failure.

The novel opens with an evocative description of Kazuko’s mother eating soup in a ladylike way; aristocratic behavior, the narrator reflects, does not mean exaggerated manners but an effortless grace—even the mother’s urinating in the family garden suggests to Kazuko a genteel innocence that has been replaced by a more formal and rigid code of behavior. Shortly after the end of the war, Kazuko’s Uncle Wada tells her and her mother that they can no longer afford to live in Tokyo and must move to a more rustic house in Izu. The mother and daughter attempt to reconcile themselves to the less elegant surroundings, but both are disappointed, and the mother becomes ill with a high fever. Eventually she recovers, and the pair begin to accustom themselves to the simple rural life-style.

One day Kazuko burns some snake eggs, thinking them to be from a viper. When she learns that the snakes would not have been harmful, she feels remorse for the needless destruction, and her mother, witnessing the burning, also suffers from Kazuko’s action. Ten days later, Kazuko through carelessness sets fire to the woodpile, and the fire almost sets the entire village ablaze. Greatly ashamed of her carelessness, Kazuko goes from house to house begging forgiveness. Shortly afterward, the mother receives word that her son Naoji will return from military service and that he has become an opium addict. The harshness of her...

(The entire section is 849 words.)