(Great Characters in Literature)

Characters Discussed

An unnamed man

An unnamed man, the former servant of a samurai; he lost his position because of a decline of his master’s prosperity. Wearing a blue kimono and occasionally picking at a pimple on his cheek, the man is waiting out a rainstorm under the Rashmon, a gate to the city of Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. Depressed and with no means of support, he realizes that he cannot make a living honestly, yet he cannot fully decide to become a thief. The Rashmon is a devastated place where murderers dispose of bodies. While the man waits for the rain to stop, he sees an old woman pulling hair out of the head of a corpse. At first, he is horrified and filled with rage at the old woman, and his hatred of evil flares up. After hearing her justification for her act, however, he realizes that anything is permitted if it is done as a means of survival. He tears off the old woman’s clothes, kicks her down the stairs, and runs away to sell her clothes to buy food.

A nameless old woman

A nameless old woman, described as an old hag with no more flesh on her arms than on the shanks of a chicken. The old woman plucks out the hairs of a corpse to make a wig to sell. She is not so much a horrible ghoul, however, as she is simply a poverty-stricken unfortunate. In the longest passage of dialogue in the story, the old woman justifies her actions to the unemployed servant by arguing that the woman whose hair she is pulling used to sell dried snake flesh to the barracks guards as dried fish. The old woman claims that because the dead woman did what she did to keep from starving to death, it was not wrong. Similarly, what she does is not wrong either. She makes her case too well, however; the former servant uses her reasoning as justification to tear off her clothes to sell. After being robbed, she groans and grumbles and crawls away. The story ends with the line, “Beyond this was only darkness . . . unknowing and unknown.”