Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 433
The novel centers on the title character, a young man from Tokyo who goes to teach on a distant island. Set in Japan in the 1890s, it encapsulates the challenges that Japan faced as the old imperial system adapted to modern times. With Botchan as a kind of modern Candide,...
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The novel centers on the title character, a young man from Tokyo who goes to teach on a distant island. Set in Japan in the 1890s, it encapsulates the challenges that Japan faced as the old imperial system adapted to modern times. With Botchan as a kind of modern Candide, the novel showcases his misadventures and naïve misinterpretations of the island’s environment. Among the issues the author explores are the snobbery and pretentiousness of Tokyo, which lead the young man to treat his rural colleagues in a condescending way. Failing to understand the social pressures against urban newcomers, Botchan makes himself unwelcome and must ultimately retreat. At the same time, however, the author portrays the island’s residents in an unflattering light. The petty power struggles that are amplified in the tiny community seem to provide a microcosm for Japan’s larger political problems.
The descriptions of Botchan’s early years, as a troubled and disobedient child, lend little support for the idea of his being an effective teacher. However, reversals in family fortunes compel him to earn a living, and since teaching posts in the remote provinces are apparently hard to fill, he must settle for a job that he sees as beneath him. Botchan’s clinging to his social class despite his lack of income is accentuated by his relationship with an older woman who is the family servant. Although she works for them, she offers him financial support; his sense of entitlement is so thorough that he literally drops money into the toilet.
In his teaching post, Botchan’s superior attitude earns him few friends, and the nicknames he bestows on the other teachers seem more indicative of the author’s stereotypical characterizations. The forward-thinking mentality of teachers of humbler origins who try to use their lowly posts as steps for ascending the social ladder seems equally as foolish as Botchan’s adherence to an antiquated social structure.
In addition, the overall atmosphere is almost entirely male. The few female characters are virtually irrelevant to the plot, except for one young woman who is the object of two men’s desires. Society is portrayed as a contest among males and the author implies that the wily conniver will become the Darwinian survivor only if he can back up his brainpower with brawn. Botchan escapes the school and the island only after both outsmarting and physically assaulting his nemesis. His masculinity is further reconfirmed when he decides to work as a mechanic; although he will be back in the city, he has apparently renounced the idea of class-based birthright.