The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks Themes
The main themes in The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks are kindness and selflessness, grief and corruption, and beauty and ugliness.
- Kindness and selflessness: Yasuko and Shozo’s kindness is repaid by the kindness of the imperial messengers, who are implied to be the two ducks.
- Greed and corruption: The lord’s wish to own the drake’s beauty is symbolic of selfish and greedy desires.
- Beauty and ugliness: Beauty, the story implies, is not only based on appearance. Compassion and love are shown to be the most beautiful qualities.
Last Updated on April 21, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 539
Kindness and Selflessness
Because Yasuko sees the drake suffering in captivity, she frees him. She knows it is the right thing to do, even though she also knows there is a risk of getting into trouble with the lord. Shozo, in turn, takes the blame for Yasuko’s deed: he supports her actions and wants to prevent her needless suffering. These characters act with kindness even at their own peril. They are the opposite of the lord, who always acts selfishly and with no regard for the well-being of others.
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Ultimately, these characters are rewarded for their compassion: Yasuko and Shozo’s brave act of freeing the drake does not go unanswered. The imperial messengers who arrive to rescue them act in response to Yasuko and Shozo’s compassion for the ducks. They free Yasuko and Shozo from the threat of death and guide them safely through the woods to the hut in the forest clearing. Though the story does not state this, it seems that the imperial messengers might be the ducks themselves, transformed to help those who had helped them.
Greed and Corruption
The character of the lord exemplifies the qualities of corruption and greed in the story. He is wealthy and powerful, but he is not content with his riches. He seeks to acquire even more beautiful things for himself, regardless of the cost to others of doing so. Even when Shozo cautions him against capturing the drake because it would harm the bird, the lord ignores Shozo due to his own greed and indifference to the pain of others. The lord also abuses his position of power to punish Shozo and Yasuko unjustly. He is quick to anger, and when he is displeased, he takes out his frustration on those who do not have the power to defend themselves.
Beauty and Ugliness
The drake is known for his beautiful plumage, and this is why the lord wants to capture him and show him off. The lord is obsessed with beauty, wanting not to enjoy it but rather to possess all the beautiful things that he can, as a display of his power and riches. He despises Shozo because he feels that Shozo, having only one eye, is ugly to look at. Later, the imperial messengers are identifiable by their beautiful clothing. The female duck’s plumage is notable for being plain, in contrast with the eye-catching plumage of the drake. The story’s resolution links beauty not to possession, as the lord is interested in, but to compassion and love for others.
Freedom and the Natural World
The drake is meant to be kept not in a cage but with his mate in the wild, and as a result, he becomes ill and unhappy in captivity. He and his mate are both beautiful in their own ways—the drake colorful and the female duck earth-toned—because they’re wild animals who belong to the natural world. Similarly, when Yasuko and Shozo escape the lord’s manor, they live happily in the hut in the forest clearing, showing that they too belong in nature. Both couples escape their confinement to find freedom in nature: the drake from the lord’s cage, and Shozo and Yasuko from subservience to the lord.