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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 859

In The Three-Cornered World , an artist, the novel’s first-person narrator, tells about his journey into the Japanese countryside, where he hopes to find the natural environment necessary for his artistic powers to unfold. Sseki Natsume’s novel is unconventional in its minimalist approach to its characters, but its silence here...

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In The Three-Cornered World, an artist, the novel’s first-person narrator, tells about his journey into the Japanese countryside, where he hopes to find the natural environment necessary for his artistic powers to unfold. Sseki Natsume’s novel is unconventional in its minimalist approach to its characters, but its silence here is counterbalanced by presentation of philosophical ideas, haiku, and graphic description of natural scenery, all of which are integrated into the overall structure of the narrator’s excursion.

The novel begins a few miles from the hot springs of Nakoi, where the springtime countryside invites the narrator “to rise above emotions, to view things dispassionately.” Ironically, however, a heavy spring rain modifies his abstract ideas and brings home to him the “vulgar” in human existence: Completely drenched, the young artist finds refuge in a roadside teahouse.

There, an old woman waits on him until Gembei, a packhorse driver from Nakoi, stops over. In conversation with him, the old woman casually brings up the story of Shioda’s unfortunate daughter. After her studies at Kyoto, where she fell in love, O-Nami Shioda was married to another man to suit her father’s finances; what arouses the narrator’s interest is that O-Nami divorced her husband upon his sudden bankruptcy and returned to Shioda’s hotel.

Arriving late at night and resting in his room, the artist observes a female figure singing under an aronia tree in the moonlit garden. The young woman vanishes at his approach, only to reappear shortly afterward, searching the room’s cupboard while the narrator feigns sleep. In the morning, the artist meets his night visitor—Shioda’s daughter, in whose room he is lodging—and finds “absolutely no consistency in her expression”: Beneath a snooty surface is real need. Discovering that the haiku poems about the sad singer he composed that night have been jokingly amended by their subject, the narrator begins to feel “a thin thread” being spun between them by fate. Nevertheless, O-Nami rejects his sketch of an ideal landscape for her as being too “cramped and uncomfortable” and representing a two-dimensional world.

The local barber insists to the narrator that O-Nami is mad and dangerous; as he returns to his room, he observes the young woman dancing on the opposite veranda, clad in her bridal gown and oblivious of the onset of a spring rain. Soaking in a hot tub, the artist dreams of painting William Shakespeare’s Ophelia drowning herself with an expression of gentle relaxation; suddenly, half shrouded in the mist of the bathhouse, O-Nami stands naked before him and disappears before her visionlike quality is lost by a further advance.

After tea with Abbot Daitetsu, O-Nami’s confessor at the local Kankaiji temple, and old Shioda, the artist tries to explain to O-Nami how a Western romance novel can be subject to a “non-human, objective approach” when it is read in portions picked at random. In a delicate maneuver, the narrator relates this method to the possibility of his falling in love with O-Nami without their ever marrying. His female counterpart, however, shocks him with her sudden request to be painted while drowning herself.

Visiting Kagami pond, the artist decides that he cannot successfully paint such a picture because of the absence of compassion in O-Nami’s countenance. Joined at the pond by Gembei, he learns from the horse driver that an earlier Shioda girl really drowned herself here; soon after, O-Nami briefly appears on a rock above the lake, again startling the narrator.

On the morning after a nighttime discussion with Daitetsu, the artist climbs a gentle hill, convinced that O-Nami would be the perfect actress since she naturally behaves as if she were onstage, thus conveying an unself-conscious beauty and aesthetic purity which he finds absent in contemporary players. Accidentally, he witnesses the appearance of a rugged fellow, possibly a mercenary, and O-Nami. After she hands him a purse in a moment of sheer beauty of poise and composition, the man disappears. Discovering the peeping narrator, the young woman shocks him a third time by confiding that the ruffian was her ex-husband, who has decided to make money by serving in the ongoing Russo-Japanese War in Manchuria. Together, O-Nami and the narrator visit Shioda’s nephew Kyuichi, a painter and draftee who is also ready to go to the war.

The journey of The Three-Cornered World ends with the Shiodas and the narrator accompanying Kyuichi to a railway station whence he will join his unit. During their final boat ride, the narrator argues with O-Nami, to whom nothing but a heroic death seems appropriate for her cousin, and who insists again on the narrator’s painting her; he still cannot do it, since there is “something missing” in her expression.

A final change comes when the train pulls out of the station and O-Nami detects her ex-husband on it. Now, she looks after his disappearing figure “with that ‘compassion’ which had hitherto been lacking.” Hence O-Nami is redeemed, and the narrator concludes the novel with his whisper to her: “That’s it! That’s it! Now that you can express that feeling, you are worth painting.”

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