A Personal Matter

by Kenzaburō Ōe

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Themes and Meanings

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The title A Personal Matter suggests the central theme of the novel: that the choice among life’s options is one which must be made by every individual. To a child, all things are possible. To Bird, whose childish nickname suggests his nature, both marriage and freedom have seemed possible, and like a child, he strikes out at another human being, his own helpless son, when life interferes with his plans.

Bird’s name also suggests the childish response to unpleasantness, flight. When his friend Kikuhiko showed fear, Bird deserted him, as if to fly from another’s fear would prevent one’s own fearfulness. Later, Bird ran from life to alcohol. Such flights are both negations of the self, as is the ultimate negation, suicide, an important motif in the novel. It is significant that Bird’s own father committed suicide after the child questioned him about death. Himiko, whose husband killed himself, and whose own sexual life is more destructive than creative, points out that Bird, too, has a predisposition toward suicide.

The theme of negation is supported by the literary allusions in the novel. Remembering Tom Sawyer’s experience in the cave, Bird says that he is looking for an exit from his own cave; at the end of the story, he has rejected that search, understanding that the only exit from life is death. References to Ernest Hemingway, particularly to his novel The Sun Also Rises (1926), also underline the theme of negation.

When Bird accepts life and its responsibilities, he is able to accept himself. The epilogue makes it clear that in giving, Bird has found meaning. The baby’s successful operation has demanded Bird’s sacrifice of his own blood. Knowing that the baby may need further medical care, Bird is willing to sacrifice the money which he had saved for a trip to Africa. Even what Bird believed was freedom, time to loaf and to dissipate, has been sacrificed for his new family, whom Bird will now work to support. At the end of the novel, it is clear that Bird can accept and respect himself because of the choice he has made among life’s options.

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