The House of the Sleeping Beauties

by Yasunari Kawabata

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 539

The House of the Sleeping Beauties focuses on Yoshio Eguchi, aged sixty-seven, who visits an inn at a Japanese hot-spring resort in order to sleep beside one or another beautiful young woman. The establishment caters to elderly gentlemen who have lost their sexual powers, and the rules of the place explicitly forbid a customer to initiate sexual contact. A girl is drugged, stripped naked, and put to bed in a room hung with red velvet curtains before an old man sees her, and she remains asleep until her customer leaves the next morning. The five chapters of Yasunari Kawabata’s novella correspond to Eguchi’s five visits to the inn. They trace his search, through memories prompted by the presence of each of the six girls beside whom he sleeps, for understanding of his own imperfect nature and for acceptance of his eventual death.

Eguchi’s five visits to the inn occur from autumn to midwinter during a single year, reinforcing the metaphysical thrust of the novel. The girls next to whom he sleeps are alive, responsive to stimulus, but so heavily drugged that he cannot awaken them. Eguchi sees them as corpses; he calls their sleep a form of death. Sensitive to the color, texture, and scent of each girl’s body, he finds the experience of lying next to the girls a stimulus to his memory. The patterning of Eguchi’s recollections seems random, prompted by the process of association which causes him to think, for example, of the scent of a nursing mother when he joins the first girl in bed one stormy autumn evening. In fact, Eguchi’s memories run roughly parallel to the stages of human life. His thoughts during his evening with the first girl relate to innocence, new life, and birth. The things Eguchi contemplates during his final evening at the inn,the one time he has two companions, center on death, life’s final experience.

The men patronizing the inn, unlike the girls who work there, are alert throughout their hours in the curtained room. Nevertheless, they too are living corpses, as all men and women are, and it is only a matter of time before one of the inn’s patrons dies in the bed of one of the young women. The body is removed to a neighboring inn, one with no secrets to hide, and the facts are concealed to protect the dead man’s reputation and the feelings of his family. Eguchi’s friend Kiga hears of the death, however, and so Eguchi discusses it with the manager on the evening of his fifth visit. This time, he finds two young women asleep in the curtained room, one of them dark and the other fair, and after Eguchi considers using force to prove his virility on the dark girl, he discovers that she seems to have stopped breathing. The manager removes the girl’s body, denying that she is actually dead, and reminds Eguchi that the fair girl is still in bed. “The covers were as they had been, thrown back in confusion, and the naked form of the fair girl lay in shining beauty.” The reader is not told if Eguchi gets back into bed with her.

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