Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The central topic of The Three-Cornered World is the role of the artist in turn-of-the-century Japan. Sseki explores this topic in the philosophical essays with which the narrator’s account of his journey and fragile would-be romance is interspersed. In these thoughtful excursions, the novel becomes less conventional and plot-centered, to the point of completely abandoning fiction and allowing the emergence of serious, contemporary demands at a crucial point in the cultural history of Japan.

The Three-Cornered World is structured around the great dichotomy between the Oriental and Western civilizations, a fact of life for Japan after her forced opening to the West after 1868. Sseki insists on artistic independence and defends the idea that one must paint Japan in her own colors, without reference to the now-fashionable Western techniques and styles. At the same time, however, the narrator does paint in the Western style and indirectly defends this method by refusing to submit it to a hopeless test by Daitetsu, who wants to adorn Japanese sliding doors with “a Western style picture.”

In the struggle for objective detachment versus (Western) overindulgence in subjectivism and human interest, the narrator finds himself opposed to Western novels with their prosaic worldliness and undue concern with a passion-filled plot. Against this, the protagonist sets the experience of the classical Japanese No drama; indeed, The Three-Cornered World can be seen as Sseki’s literal application of the principle of No—to have “three-tenths real emotion, and seven-tenths technique.”

Finally, modern technology is seen as destroying nature’s most powerful quality, that of inducing in the observer an absolute feeling of assimilation and loss of human concern. Whereas the narrator is able happily to reconcile himself with the existence of a vulgar barber because the latter is too insignificant to disturb the grand serenity of spring, the railway train which is to carry Kyuichi and “hundreds of people crammed together in one box” is seen as an “unsympathetic and heartless contraption...typical of twentieth century civilization.” It not only destroys individuality but also marks its presence with such stench and noise that its impact can no longer be absorbed by nature.