Critical Context

The male protagonists of many of Kawabata’s other novels come to perceive the nothingness at the core of creation; like Shimamura, many of them come to this recognition through the agency of one or another woman. Such characters are found in Kawabata’s Meijin (1954; The Master of Go, 1972), Yama no oto (1954; The Sound of the Mountain, 1970), and Nemureru bijo (1961; The House of the Sleeping Beauties, 1969). While Snow Country is not the first of his novels to deal with the subject, it is perhaps his most famous treatment of the essential emptiness to be found in the pursuit of beauty. It is the novel for which Kawabata is best known.

Snow Country is not, however, the easiest of Kawabata’s novels. It lacks the economy of construction of The House of the Sleeping Beauties, for example, or the explicitness of the characterizations in Utsukushisa to kanashimi to (1965; Beauty and Sadness, 1975). The novel also lacks the allusions to Buddhist doctrine that make both these books more coherent statements about the human condition. Because Snow Country is an early work, Kawabata is feeling his way toward philosophical positions that come clear in his later fiction. Because the book was written serially over a long period, the novel appears to shift its focus from Shimamura to Komako. If the novel had stopped at the end of the first half of Snow Country, the part dealing with Shimamura’s visits to Komako in May and December, it would have been the story of a cynical man’s affair with a hot-spring geisha. The second half of the novel, however, the material dealing with Shimamura’s autumn visit in the following year, clarifies the factors inducing the irrational behavior that Shimamura observes in both Yoko and Komako. This part of the book makes sense of their suffering, indicates its psychological and economic foundations, and gives it cosmic significance.