Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 195

“Seventeen Syllables” is story that involves a haiku, a type of Japanese poem that has that number of syllabus. The dominant theme is the complexity of the Japanese American experience. Coming of age and inter-generational family dynamics are related themes. Regarding the poem specifically, the importance of culture and creativity,...

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“Seventeen Syllables” is story that involves a haiku, a type of Japanese poem that has that number of syllabus. The dominant theme is the complexity of the Japanese American experience. Coming of age and inter-generational family dynamics are related themes. Regarding the poem specifically, the importance of culture and creativity, especially for women, is a prominent theme.

As the story centers on Rosie, the teenage daughter in the Hayashi family, the focus is on differences between her and Tome, her Japanese immigrant mother. The family dynamics also come into play in a conflict between mother and father, also a Japan-born immigrant. Rosie’s nascent adolescent sexuality and her friendship, which is turning into romance, with a Mexican American boy help develop the theme of generational differences for the US-born children. A visit with another Japanese American family helps develop the theme of differences within a single generation.

Tome’s involvement in writing poetry, which leads to her winning a prize, is apparently a sore spot in her relationship with her husband. As the family lives on a farm, the challenge of fitting a creative inner life with daily routine duties is highlighted in this conflict.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 390

Focusing on the relationship between Rosie and her mother, the story illustrates the gap between Japanese immigrants and their American-born children. The gap is rooted not only in generations, but also in linguistic and cultural differences. As the title suggests, the linguistic difference is most evident in the story and is given a symbolic role. The gap between Rosie and her mother is compounded by cultural differences, as shown by the fact that Rosie fails to understand that her mother’s behaviors were acquired in a Japanese cultural context.

Mrs. Hayashi apparently is not satisfied with her present situation and has sought to release her emotions by becoming a poet. She uses a pseudonym when she writes, and Rosie feels as if her mother is two different people. The motivation of the mother’s writing is not explicitly discussed, however, indicating Rosie’s disinterest in her mother’s inner world.

Mrs. Hayashi’s urge to write is born out of her suppression, which is primarily caused by her linguistic handicap in the immigrant land. Another major factor in her suppression is the submissiveness of women to men, embedded in the traditional Japanese culture. She seems to accept her role as a wife, although she tries to acquire her own world by indulging herself in writing poetry.

Her husband has the power to determine the welfare of the other members of the family, and his disapproval cuts off Mrs. Hayashi’s creativity. When she is talking about poetry at the Hayanos’ residence, her husband decides to leave for home without consulting her. Although his self-centered action upsets Rosie, Mrs. Hayashi remains calm and her frustration is not revealed. She does not get sympathy but only contempt from Rosie for her reaction. Mrs. Hayashi remains reserved, even when her husband’s irritation has grown into outrage and he breaks the prize for her haiku poem.

The distance between Rosie and Mrs. Hayashi is inevitable, and no solution is suggested in the story. Rosie is unable to perceive her mother’s deep feelings, especially when the mother kneels down to beg her not to marry. At the end of the story, their gap is confirmed with the perception of the mother’s consoling hands. When Mrs. Hayashi consoles her crying daughter, Rosie feels that the mother’s timing is a little too late.

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