Themes and Meanings
“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.