Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

by Jamie Ford

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Generational Conflict and Young Love

Henry and Keiko are much like Romeo and Juliet, endeavoring to carry on a romance forbidden by their families in the context of a war with both personal and political stakes. However, the couple is at odds with more than just their families—their relationship is persecuted by the adult American establishment as a whole. While at first Henry is hostile to Keiko, his ability to accept her nationality testifies that the prejudices that dominate members of the older generation, such as his father, have not yet come to dominate him. His later acceptance of Samantha, his son’s white fiancée, demonstrates progress: we can see that one generation has learned from the shortcomings of the previous generation.

Racism Toward and Within Asian American Communities

This novel functions as a reflection on one of America’s most regrettable acts of racism: the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II. In this book, the fact that the possessions of former internees are removed from the basement of a boarded-up hotel is important, suggesting how modern America often chooses to ignore this event in its history, to tuck it away somewhere out of sight. The discrimination both Henry and Keiko face stems not only from their peers but also from the adult society in which they live, despite the fact that Henry has in particular been encouraged by his parents to be as "American" as possible. Henry also faces racial prejudice from his father, who is vehemently opposed to his feelings for Keiko. Henry’s eventual decision to marry a Chinese American girl hints at the ultimate impossibility of his interracial relationship with Keiko in wartime America.

"The Corner of Bitter and Sweet"

The key events of this novel are defined by the balance between positive and negative, a theme that is reflected in the symbol of a corner, a cut-off point, between bitter and sweet. Henry’s first encounters with Keiko, and his subsequent pursuing and profession of feelings for her, are positive experiences for the two young people on a personal level. However, these experiences exist in a hostile external world, which constantly reminds them of its presence. Additionally, while Henry’s parents come across as a negative force in the novel, their commitment to their son’s well-being is unquestionable, though their methods for ensuring it are questionable. Even the deaths in the novel—first of Henry’s father and later of Henry's wife, Ethel—have positive undertones. His father's death, for instance, affords Henry with an understanding of the reason behind Keiko's refusal to respond to his letters. Ethel's death allows Henry to pursue Keiko freely, renewing the relationship that had died with his marrying Ethel.

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