The Commoner

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

As the title suggests, John Burnham Schwartz’s The Commoner is set in a society where there are sharp distinctions between ordinary people and those of noble or royal ancestry. Though the novel is part an indictment of social stratification based on birth, its primary theme is the conflict between ancient customs and new ideas.

The Commoner is narrated in the first person by Haruko Endo, the title character. Haruko is the only child of Tsuneyasu Endo, a prosperous Japanese businessman, and his wife, a conventional homemaker. Haruko begins her story with a description of an idyllic childhood. From the time of her birth in 1934, Haruko is petted and protected, not only because she is her parents’ only child but also because only a young woman with an unspotted reputation can expect to make a suitable marriage. The walled garden where she spends so much of her time symbolizes her existence: She is kept in a beautiful, safe place, where she can do whatever she likes. Haruko has no desire to escape, nor is she interested in what is going on beyond the wall. An economic depression passes almost without her noticing it. When the war comes, Haruko is aware of food shortages, and when her family is evacuated from Tokyo, she knows that they are fleeing from the bombings. However, her father’s business survives, and two years after the end of the war, the Endos move back to Tokyo and settle down in their new house, which is much like the one that had been destroyed. Though she cannot ignore the devastation all around her, Haruko is soon preoccupied with her schoolwork at the Sacred Heart Convent School. She later muses that it was there, under the strict rule of the nuns, that she acquired the habit of silence and the capacity for self-control that later became so important to her. Her best friend, Miko Kuroda, is less submissive. Unfortunately, after they graduate, Miko’s father, a diplomat, takes his family with him to his post in Washington, D.C., and Miko enrolls in an American college. Later she marries an American. Thus Haruko loses her only confidante.

Meanwhile, the Endos have begun to spend their summers in Karuizawa, a picturesque country village. There Haruko catches her first glimpse of Shige, the crown prince of Japan. Though after the war Shige’s father, the emperor, has declared himself to be a human being instead of a god, his people still hold him in awe and even repeat farfetched stories about his miraculous powers. They extend the same attitude toward his heir.

By the time she is a senior at Sacred Heart University, Haruko is attracting suitors, but she insists that she is not interested in marriage. She would rather be a teacher, she tells her father, like many of her ancestors; he blasts that dream by pointing out that all of those she mentioned were men. It is clear that her only option is to become a wife and mother. However, though her parents bring one promising young man after another to meet their daughter, Haruko does not like any of them. Her parents are puzzled by her attitude, but they are not tyrants; they do not intend to force their only child into marriage with a man she does not like. Meanwhile, Haruko is perfectly happy, especially when she is perfecting her considerable skill at tennis.

Ironically, it is a game of tennis that brings Haruko into contact with a young man who does appeal to her. Because he is the crown prince of Japan, she assumes that they will never be more than acquaintances. However, he seems to like the fact that, to the horror of onlookers, she does not let him win the game. Shige is obviously attracted to Haruko. As the months pass, he manages to see her frequently; meanwhile, he rejects one after another of the young women suggested to him by the committee entrusted with choosing his consort. Finally, the prince’s tutor, Dr. Takeshi Watanabe, comes to Endo on Shige’s behalf, requesting Haruko’s hand in marriage. He is amazed when her father refuses the offer and begs that she be eliminated from consideration. Endo’s reasoning is that because Haruko is a commoner, she would never be accepted at court, and that as a result her life would be miserable. He proves to be right.

Although Endo promptly sends his daughter to Europe, hoping to end the matter, Shige is determined to make Haruko his wife. After her return, since the presence of the press has made casual encounters...

(The entire section is 1801 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Book World 38 (February 10, 2008): 11.

Booklist 104, no. 8 (December 15, 2007): 23.

The Christian Science Monitor, January 22, 2008, p. 13.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 21 (November 1, 2007): 1125-1126.

Library Journal 132, no. 19 (November 15, 2007): 51-52.

The New York Times Book Review 157 (February 24, 2008): 27.

The New Yorker 84, no. 2 (February 25, 2008): 74.

People 69, no. 3 (January 28, 2008): 58.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 42 (October 22, 2007): 33.

USA Today, January 31, 2008, p. 5D.

The Wall Street Journal 251, no. 21 (January 26, 2008): W8.