Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 308

“Swaddling Clothes” explores the barren geography of the alienated human. On one level, the story maps the painful terrain of an empty Japanese marriage, a union characterized by a husband absent emotionally and physically. The wife is ignored and the child tended by a surrogate. The devaluing of human life...

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“Swaddling Clothes” explores the barren geography of the alienated human. On one level, the story maps the painful terrain of an empty Japanese marriage, a union characterized by a husband absent emotionally and physically. The wife is ignored and the child tended by a surrogate. The devaluing of human life is boldly marked by the image of a child alone on the floor, wrapped like trash, degraded. The protagonist, suffering in silence, half mad with loneliness, vulnerable to her own thwarted sensitivity and caring, devalued and disregarded, falls prey to morbid preoccupations, obsessive fantasies, and a powerful pull to self-destruction.

The bastard child that will become the brutal killer of the future is perhaps a projection of Toshiko’s own husband’s domination of her spirit as well as the outward sign of the murderous oppression of her culture’s patriarchy. In this tale women and children are ignored and demeaned by adult males. The bastard child imagined as killer of her own son and assassin of herself is the true offspring of her man’s inhumanity to man.

Also implicit is an indictment of the social order in which Toshiko resides. The doctor, the supposed epitome of compassion and caring, disdains an innocent life, degrades it, dishonors it. The whole society is characterized by willful disregard for human dignity. The locale that Yukio Mishima chooses for the climax of his story suggests that this evil, this menace, is asleep at the very heart of Japanese culture, beside the Imperial Palace at the hub of the ethos of Japanese life. In the enigmatic ending it is the female who is threatened, the silent but sole source of compassion. The grip of the mysterious male hand is a death grip; Toshiko’s fate is to be destroyed by the homeless disfranchised offspring of her own heartless and mercenary society.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1428

Culture Clash: Japanese Tradition vs. Western Modernization
The ‘‘culture clash’’ depicted in ‘‘Swaddling Clothes’’ is unique because it is expressed through the struggle of traditional Japanese morals and ethics sustaining itself under the powerful influence of western modernization. In this story, modernization of Japanese social life is represented primarily as an unwelcome import from the west. As the figure who most readily embraces western, modern influence, Toshiko’s husband is portrayed negatively. Unaffected by the nurse’s loss of moral values, he recounts ‘‘the incident’’ with humor and nonchalance to his nightclub friends, commenting that he was more worried that his ‘‘good rug’’ would be ruined. He wears American clothes that strike Toshiko as ‘‘garish’’ and chooses to live in a western style house. Toshiko reflects: ‘‘she dreaded going back to their house, unhomely with its Western- style furniture and with the bloodstains still showing on the floor.’’

This sentence is revealing because it closely associates a western-influenced lifestyle with an image of violence (‘‘bloodstains’’). The implication is that westernization/modernization is a damaging process that brings violence and bloodshed into private and public Japanese life. As the nurse has scandalously conceived and delivered out of wedlock, she is a symbol of the loss of moral values in modern society. The implication is that western modernization is also responsible for weakening traditional, Japanese moral values. In this context, the birth of the illegitimate boy is represented as a moment of bloodshed. Toshiko comments, ‘‘it was a scene fit for a butchershop.’’ The association of western influence in Japan with violence evokes the literal violence used by American Naval Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 to open Japanese trade ports to the west.

Western induced modernization and the loss of traditional Japanese mores and ethics is symbolized through the images of newspapers, trash, and cherry blossoms. The cherry blossoms that Toshiko sees around her are mostly fake and artificial as she notices that it is ‘‘depressingly obvious’’ that the cherry blossoms decorating an entertainment district theater are ‘‘merely scraps of white paper.’’ At this realization, Toshiko goes into the park to cheer herself up by absorbing herself in the atmosphere of the real cherry blossoms that line the park. But their natural splendor is obscured by the electric light bulbs that have been installed in the trees which ‘‘shone dully beneath the blossoms.’’ Her attention is also drawn to the litter and trash lining the park grounds and the crumpled up newspapers that cover the homeless youth. At first she mistakes the hunched figure for a pile of cherry blossoms and then is reminded of the newspapers in which the doctor had spitefully wrapped the nurse’s baby.

This progression of images that assault Toshiko’s line of vision—fake cherry blossoms, gaudy light bulbs, trash, newspapers—implies that Japanese society has been so degraded by westernization/ modernization that real cherry blossoms no longer adorn the Japanese landscape; they have either been replaced by artificial ones or obscured by garish modern decoration or waste. As a long cherished and popular flower of Asian cultures, cherry blossoms ‘‘in all their purity’’ represent both the purity and delicacy of Japanese traditional culture and their degradation symbolizes the decay of this culture. Mishima uses cherry blossoms in particular— a flower that is only in full bloom once a year and whose blossoms are swiftly washed away after the first spring rain—because they represent the vulnerable and delicate project of maintaining tradition. The implication here is that with the ubiquity of litter and trash in the modern environment, real cherry blossoms may not have the opportunity to bloom again. This inauspicious vision of Japan’s so-called modern ‘‘progress’’ is expressed in Toshiko’s thoughts: ‘‘thoughts of the future made Toshiko feel cold and miserable.’’

Sex and Gender Roles
‘‘Swaddling Clothes’’ casts a negative light on female reproduction and sexuality, or at least that which is outside of the proper domain of marriage. In addition, Toshiko’s husband describes the birth through images of animalistic ‘‘squatting’’ and ‘‘groaning’’ and even likens the nurse to a cow and a ‘‘stuck pig,’’ invoked for the mocking pleasure of his friends. The nurse is generally characterized in two ways: as a scandalous woman who gave birth without a husband and as the butt of a joke. In this way, while the negative portrayal of the nurse offers a critique of the loss of morals in a modernizing society, not only has she expressed her sexuality outside of marriage but she is not particularly ashamed of herself (she deceitfully laughs off her swollen stomach as ‘‘gastric dilation’’), the burden of maintaining traditional values falls on the women in the story. When women fail to do so, they are stripped of any modicum of respect and subjected to public ridicule like the nurse. Having no voice in this story, the nurse is not given a chance to defend her situation.

Toshiko is also criticized and even punished for her impropriety, although more indirectly. For the most part, Toshiko is an obedient representative of conservatism and tradition as the bulk of the story focuses on her disenchantment with the modernization around her. Nonetheless, Toshiko is inspired to get out of the taxi and wander around the park grounds, fully aware of the impropriety of this action but momentarily in desperate need to break out of such boundaries. Yet Toshiko’s impropriety not only fails to ameliorate her confusion, it also results in her assault and/or murder. The ‘‘moral’’ here is reminiscent of that of the popular fairy tale Bluebeard. Like Bluebeard’s wife, Toshiko is violently punished for stepping out of conventional boundaries and attempting to satisfy her curiosity. ‘‘Swaddling Clothes’’ concludes on this note: ‘‘[S]uddenly [she] had an overmastering desire to get a glimpse of [the homeless youth] . . . But Toshiko had approached too close. In the silent night the newspaper bedding rustled, and abruptly the man opened his eyes. Seeing the young woman standing directly beside him, he raised himself with a jerk, and his eyes lit up. A second later a powerful hand reached out and seized Toshiko by her slender wrist.’’ Again, the burden of upholding propriety and tradition falls on women and they are punished when they fail to do so. In contrast, Toshiko’s husband, like the nurse, is also a figure that has embraced decadent, modern values, but he suffers little for his behavior. On the contrary, he appears complacent as well as economically and socially successful.

Class Conflict
Despite the modernization and change that Toshiko bemoans in this story, one ‘‘traditional’’ structure that remains intact is the rigid class system of Japan. As a feudal country before the rise of the western-influenced Meiji government (1868), Japanese society was unequivocally demarcated by class, with the military samurai on top and their agricultural vassals on bottom. Mishima tended to romanticize this social structure, ignoring the often harsh and exploitative treatment of the vassals by the ruling class, envisioning it as a harmonious system where each Imperial subject knew his/her class position and dutifully fulfilled its requirements. Though Toshiko is in some regards a ‘‘progressive’’ figure (she is uneasy with the role assigned to her as a refined, upper-class housewife and mother) she is primarily the story’s main proponent of holding on to tradition, evidenced by her gloomy thoughts on the transformation of Japanese society.

Though she feels sympathy for the illegitimate child and even makes an attempt to help him by replacing the ignominious newspaper ‘‘swaddling clothes’’ with a piece of her own cloth, she holds on to the belief that the child can never break out of his low class standing. She perceives his future as hopeless because of the ignoble conditions of his birth: ‘‘He will be living a desolate, hopeless, poverty-stricken existence—a lonely rat. What else could happen to a baby who has had such a birth?’’ Furthermore, she envisions the meeting of her ‘‘fine, carefully educated’’ son with the nurse’s baby as a violent struggle: ‘‘Say twenty years from now . . . one day by a quirk of fate [my son] meets the other boy, who then will also have turned twenty. And say that the other boy, who has been sinned against, savagely stabs him with a knife . . . ’’ In this way, Toshiko does not question or challenge the still existing rigid class structure of Japanese society, though somewhat modified since feudal times, and even supports the strict separation and division of classes as evidenced by her frightful vision of the struggle that would inevitably ensue from their interaction.

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