Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Saturated with humdrum events and bourgeois life, The Makioka Sisters could well be misread as simply a realistic chronicle of family fortunes, but its original title, Sasame-yuki, means “delicate snow,” and this poetic symbol points to a more aesthetic purpose. There is a direct poetry in the novel—through verse and song—and there is also an indirect poetry of psychological yearning, unhappiness, and exaltation. Events accumulate, but their effects wane—as do the delicate snows of yesteryear. There are flood, typhoon, sex scandal, illness, death, family dishonor, but all these things pass in the flow of time and human purpose. Characters remember old geishas (with blackened teeth and green lipstick), great kabuki actors, and sushi experts. Yet these are ghosts seen, as it were, by candlelight—evanescent presences that leave memories of sensuous beauty.

The four Makiokas cherish beauty in different ways and degrees. As the world rolls toward the madness of war, the sisters look back fondly at the past when life was less rushed, anxious, or embarrassing. In an attempt to preserve some continuity of the old honorable way of life, the sisters participate in firefly hunts, dance exhibitions, cherry-blossom viewings, and pilgrimages to Nara in springtime. Beauty is much sought after, and assaults upon it are resisted. The beautiful, whole world of the past is cracking—Adolf Hitler and Dunkirk haunt the background, and Japan is falling behind the West in science and art—so the Makiokas stick to their individual concepts of what is beautiful, true, and whole.