Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 663
A middle-aged woman, much like the author, the narrator has left her summer home at Karuizawa to go to a nearby town to give a talk to a woman’s group. She returns to Karuizawa on a train that is unexpectedly slow, not only stopping at every single station along the way but also making remarkably long stops.
At one stop the narrator finally gets off the train, partly to relieve her irritation and frustration and partly to learn the cause of the delays. She finds the station attendants loading long bundles into freight cars. At the same time, she encounters a middle-aged woman accompanied by an old man who is clearly mentally deficient. The station attendants are loading bundles of cut chrysanthemums that are being shipped on the overnight train to flower markets in Tokyo. The couple has come to the station because the old man has an obsessive concern about how his flowers are handled.
Returning to her seat on the train, the narrator learns from a local person named Kurokawa something about the odd couple she has met on the platform. He confirms that the old man is retarded and obsessed with growing chrysanthemums; he also informs the narrator that the train is going to be much slower than she had planned but that “you might as well just get used to it and consider it an elegant way to travel.” He then tells the story of the couple, Ichige Masutoshi and his wife, Rie, as it was passed on to him by his father. The Ichiges had once been a wealthy family, although they have since gone bankrupt. The narrator is shocked to learn that when the family was in its heyday, they arranged for Rie, one of their servants, to be a sort of human sacrifice and to marry their retarded son. Kurokawa explains that he, too, was shocked at first, but that during the war, Rie had always shown up for volunteer work, had effectively managed the family garden, and, in short, had won everyone’s respect by working hard and taking good care of her husband. Now that the Ichige family has lost its money, Rie has to work harder than ever to feed her husband. Indeed, Kurokawa’s father saw Rie as supernaturally good, an embodiment of Kannon, the goddess of mercy.
Kurokawa’s story reminds the narrator of yet an earlier occasion when she had heard something about the Ichige family. Many years earlier, while writing a play about a mental patient, the narrator had gotten to know some psychiatric interns from whom she learned another aspect of the Ichige family history. Because their retarded son had excessive sexual drives, the family chose to marry him to one of the maids who could look after all of his physical needs, although they had taken the precaution of having the son sterilized before he was married. At the same time, the family hired interns from the school of psychiatry to take turns standing by each night in a room next to the bedroom of the newlyweds so that they could intervene if the son turned violent. Again, censure is aimed at Rie: How could anyone agree to such a marriage, no matter how much she was being paid? Blame is also heaped on the Ichige family for doing this. Years later, however, one of the former interns, now Dr. Kashimura, confessed to the narrator that he had fallen in love with Rie and had asked her to marry him, but she had refused, saying that she loved her husband.
At last the narrator arrives home at Karuizawa, far later than she had expected. She is still troubled about Rie and her motives for living with her retarded husband. The narrator finds Rie’s devotion to be absurd; her final observation, however, is that she has reached an age when she can accept the motives and behavior of others even when their actions seem beyond comprehension.
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