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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 519

Nine-tenths of Diary of a Mad Old Man is composed of entries from the protagonist’s diary (from June 16 to November 18, 1960) up to the point at which a series of seizures incapacitate Tokusuke and bring an end to his written autobiographical introspection, in which he has engaged for many years. The work’s remainder is composed of respective extracts from Nurse Sasaki’s report (November 20), Dr. Katsumi’s clinical record (from December 15, 1960, to February 7, 1961), and notes by the protagonist’s widowed elder daughter, Itsuko Shiroyama, which bring the story up to Tokusuke’s recuperation in mid-April, 1961.

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Basically, the novel chronicles Tokusuke’s increasing obsession with Satsuko while his health and his relationships with the rest of his household and family deteriorate. The sexually impotent Tokusuke constantly schemes to be alone with Satsuko, and then, with her encouragement, to obtain a caress or kiss; Satsuko exacts material rewards for these favors: an automobile, an expensive beige suede handbag, and finally a fifteen-carat cat’s-eye ring costing three million yen (roughly $17,000), this last item perhaps symbolizing her feline predacity. Tokusuke’s wife (never named in the diary, suggesting the protagonist’s estrangement), younger daughter, Kugako, and elder daughter are increasingly chagrined by Tokusuke’s preferment of Satsuko and the callousness, spitefulness, and niggardliness he shows to them.

When, three-quarters of the way through the novel, the hope for a quick cure, through spinal injection, to the now-excruciating neuralgia in Tokusuke’s left hand is raised and then thwarted, the episode suggests that life’s problems are not so easily solved, as well as the Tanizakian notion that a novel’s plot cannot be resolved so quickly and neatly—as indeed it is not in this work. The rest of Tokusuke’s diary recounts his trip to Kyoto to arrange for his burial, his surreptitious plan to incorporate Satsuko into his Buddhist monument, revealing the protagonist’s deification of a femme fatale, a theme in many of Jun’ichir Tanizaki’s works. Tokusuke’s quarrels about Satsuko with Itsuko—earlier the most retiring of his children—at the conclusion of the Kyoto trip and back in Tokyo precipitate Tokusuke’s stroke and angina pectoris, the latter emblematic of the heartache the old man feels in his frustrated, impracticable sexual longing. In a shift from the subjectivity of Tokusuke’s diary, the objective third-person accounts in the closing extracts document Tokusuke’s decline and convalescence, from hospital to home, unwittingly pointing to the crucial connection between clinical facts and emotions, desire, and mind. Unbeknown to Itsuko, her concluding matter-of-fact report on the impracticality of the beginning of the excavation of the garden for a swimming pool (since Tokusuke will not be allowed outdoors in the sun) recalls the diary entries of August 12, September 13, and October 23, which all mention the swimming pool and intimate that Tokusuke’s yearning to see Satsuko in her swimsuit is the spark that keeps him alive. The novel’s ending leaves unresolved the questions of whether Tokusuke’s convalescence is completed, whether he lives, whether the swimming pool is finished, and whether he ever sees Satsuko in the pool.

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Themes