Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Rather than focusing merely on discovering the identity of the murderer, as in most mysteries, Rynosuke Akutagawa forces the reader to examine issues involving motive and characterization. The story’s initial question—who committed the murder?—soon yields to the more provocative question of why anyone would confess to a murder he or she did not commit. At least two, and possibly all three, characters are lying. Nor does the story simply address the issue of varying points of view of the same event. These characters are not honestly reporting their distorted perceptions of what transpired. Each presents the story in a way that makes him or her look better, given the values of their respective cultures. The wife professes to value her honor above her life; her greatest guilt comes from her ravishment by Tajomaru and her inability to carry through with her suicide plans, not from having killed her husband. That act, after all, was done in accordance with the Japanese code of honor. The thief speaks from another culture, that of outlaws. He blatantly flaunts his lawlessness; brags about his past crimes, which include other murders; and even proclaims that his life is more honest than that of the establishment, which hypocritically exploits people and ruins lives through the abuse of power and wealth. The husband, whose suicide would be more honorable than being murdered by a thief or a dishonored, disloyal wife, wants to defend his reputation, even after death.

All three characters cite courage as an honored virtue. Tajomaru boasts that he is courageous, both in his criminal exploits and in his fearless acceptance of his fate, which is to be hanged. This latter certainty, he argues, should give his account credibility, as he has no reason to lie. The wife is ashamed that she did not have the courage to kill herself, and Takehiro’s suicide would be the ultimate act of courage.