A Personal Matter Summary
by Kenzaburō Ōe

Start Your Free Trial

A Personal Matter Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Download A Personal Matter Study Guide

Subscribe Now

A Personal Matter was the first of a series of novels whose main character is the young father of a brain-damaged child. Called Bird because of his birdlike appearance, the young father is a frustrated intellectual and unhappy husband who dreams of flying off to Africa. When Bird’s wife gives birth to a baby with a hideously misshapen head, Bird sees the baby as a threat to his dream. Convinced that the baby will not live long, Bird arranges with one of the doctors to dilute the baby’s milk, but miraculously the baby thrives on this potentially lethal diet. Overwhelmed by the infant’s instinctive power to survive, Bird resolves to devote his life to his son regardless of the cost.

The baby is not only the cause of the father’s personal anguish but also the symbol of the anguish of humanity faced with calamity. The connection between personal and universal tragedy is made at the moment when Bird, as he is about to murder the baby, hears a news broadcast announcing the Soviet resumption of nuclear testing. In a flash Bird sees the world’s destiny mirrored in his own. Whether it is one life or a million lives, the act of murder is equally evil.

The moment he perceives the connection between the baby’s fate and the fate of humanity, Bird decides he must take care of the baby. He knows the odds are against him, that he will be creating misery for himself while sustaining a life that means absolutely nothing to the world. Accepting these odds, he says to himself: “It’s for my own good. It’s so I can stop being a man who’s always running away. . . . All I want is to stop being a man who continually runs away from responsibility.” Bird does not ask what is wrong with himself or what he had done to deserve this tragedy. Instead he assumes that his fate has a purpose and that he will come to understand that purpose. With his commitment to the baby, the father embarks on a new life. His happiness will come from nurturing the life, not causing the death, of his son. Near the end of A Personal Matter, Bird gradually begins to identify with his son. At this point, he seems to be emerging from something like a trance, during which he has gained the strength to face a world intolerant of any deviation from the norm. His devotion to the baby has already begun to liberate Bird from the self-indulgence he was prey to when he saw a deformed child as merely an obstacle to his own happiness.

Bird is the first of e’s heroes to reject the central fantasy of life—“pleasure with responsibility”—because he knows that morally he has no choice. In the end he learns to substitute forbearance for hope.


(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

A Personal Matter tells the story of a conflict between duty and desire. At the beginning of the novel, the protagonist, who is known to the reader only by his childhood name, Bird, is waiting for his wife to produce their first child. Bird is less than enthusiastic about the prospect of fatherhood. He fears that it will interfere with the realization of his dream, to travel throughout Africa in order to test his courage and, more practically, to enable him to gather material for a book.

Unfortunately, when the baby is born, it is defective. Diagnosing a brain hernia, the doctors predict that if it does not die, it will be a vegetable. At the suggestion of his wife’s mother, Bird does not tell his wife the extent of the baby’s condition.

Bird’s response to his problem is typical. Just as he dropped out of graduate school for an extended period of drunkenness immediately after he was married, so he again runs away from responsibility when he must deal with his son’s defect. After his sympathetic father-in-law gives him a bottle of whiskey, Bird takes refuge with a former girlfriend, Himiko, with whom he spends a drunken night. Appropriately, Himiko has dropped out of society, spending her time in a messy apartment, where she entertains lovers and broods over her husband’s suicide, and from which she emerges at night for wild rides...

(The entire section is 1,108 words.)