Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 900

The outlines of the Japanese folktale in this poem are familiar in stories from many cultures. The motif of the “outsider” or the “thrown-away person” recurs throughout many oral traditions and frequently involves an elderly person, one who has no physical utility and who might be thought of as a liability to the village economy. As is also characteristic of traditional tales, this story offers rich possibilities for interpretation.

An initial interpretation might see the woman’s attitude toward the villagers as merely rationalizing their inhospitable behavior. Instead of demanding humane conduct on their part she accepts their rudeness and then offers them the gift of her gratitude. Can the sight of a full moon really make up for and surpass the physical hunger, cold, and discomfort this old woman is forced to endure? This is one of the questions that the ending of the poem poses.

The question underscores the value of the old woman’s wisdom, compared with the creature comforts of the imperceptive villagers. In return for their selfishness the old woman offers the villagers a gift, and indeed her “supplication” may be understood as virtually begging them to accept the gift of her insight. This reading of the poem brings into focus the parallel image contrasts of light and darkness, closeness and openness. The darkness of the village, where only a few lights shine, corresponds with the cramped lives of the villagers, who can open their doors only “a sliver” to respond to the woman’s approach. The physical darkness and confinement figure the mental and spiritual narrowness of the self-centered villagers: Their minds are shut as tightly as their houses.

In contrast with this meanness of the valley-dwellers the fable offers the openness of the hilltop, where the old woman finds a “clearing” to rest in: The physical clearing on the earth parallels the parting of the clouds when the heavens clear to reveal the moon, as well as the subsequent physical and spiritual enlightenment she experiences.

Assigning the highest value to the woman’s insight and her appreciation of the moon’s beauty also subverts the ironic reading of the poem’s ending and finds a moral dimension that transcends simple rationalization. The poem is about selfishness and generosity. The self-centered—or fearful—villagers can only admit a “sliver” of the external world. In contrast, the full moon shines “over the town”: It is a gift that all the villagers might appreciate as the old woman does; however, the villagers by their own possessiveness deny themselves this generous gift of beauty.

The old woman’s characterization of the sight of the full moon as “memorable” suggests another dimension in the story, the association of moral sensitivity and aesthetic appreciation. In the poem the woman’s appreciation of the beauty of the moon parallels her sense of the importance of such qualities as gratitude, kindness, humility, and respect. Significantly, she does not call attention to the moon’s beauty but rather characterizes the moon’s appearance as something important to remember. Beauty may be transitory, but its memory is involved in the formation of character.

The phrase “memorable sight,” which closes the father’s telling of the story, also introduces the idea of the speaker’s memory of the story. Memory is critical to the traditional function of oral tales like this, which are vehicles for the preservation and transmission of all knowledge in a culture without writing. In telling the story, the father becomes, like the old woman, a repository of wisdom engaged in transmitting that insight to an audience that is not entirely appreciative. The speaker, in revealing the story to readers of the poem, in turn takes on the father’s role, offering the reader the same insight that the old woman is prepared to give to the villagers.

Because the poem is framed as the meditation of an adult, the childhood memory and memory in general become relevant to its overall meaning. The poem first appeared in a book titled Camp Notes and Other Poems. The camp of the title was a concentration camp in Idaho in which the author was imprisoned, with other Japanese residents and American citizens of Japanese descent, during World War II. Within that context, the poem is part of the whole collection’s extended critique of injustice and lack of humanity. The experience of the old woman in the folktale, of abandonment, exile, and rejection, recapitulates the experience of internment for the author and her parents. Read in this manner, the poem itself becomes comparable with the old woman’s vision of the moon. The poem, like the folktale that constitutes the bedtime story, is a message of enlightenment and the creation of beauty, and the villagers in the story can be seen as surrogates for the poem’s readers, for whom the poem presents a similar occasion for either narrow-minded rejection or opening to insight.

The speaker cites no specific interpretation of the folktale but raises the question of how the child’s and the adult’s understanding of the story may be different. The child’s frustration with the story’s apparent inconclusiveness may mutate into the adult’s sense of its multivalent potential for meaning. Thus the question at the end of the poem both concludes the story with the traditional formula of “the end” and opens it for continued reinterpretation and possibility.

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