Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Sseki’s own experience informs The Three-Cornered World, which ultimately is about the Japanese intellectual’s place in a modernized and Westernized society. In that experience, early studies of Chinese literature (which has traditionally influenced Japanese culture) were balanced by a lifelong interest in and study of English and a two-year stay in London at the turn of the century. In The Three-Cornered World, Sseki delivers at times caustic criticism of the West; this is not done out of mere conservatism or xenophobia but represents a necessary corrective to immature and faddish imitation of Western culture in post-1868 Japan. The artistic independence of Sseki, as of Mori Ogai, distinguished him among his Japanese contemporaries. Sseki’s insistence on intrinsically Oriental values in a world in which changes are clearly seen has earned for him a place among Japan’s most respected modern writers.

The Three-Cornered World is a powerful novel about artistic integrity and achievement. Sseki has been criticized for being elitist; after all, he describes the artist’s ideal habitat as “the triangle which remains after the angle which we may call common sense has been removed from this four-cornered world.” Yet his radical vision of an aesthetic life that requires objectivity and personal distance convinces because of its ironic tenderness and ultimate humanism. Thus, it is fitting that the artist-protagonist goes beyond perceiving change for the better in O-Nami; it is her transformation into a compassionate human being that finally liberates his pent-up artistic energy and sets him free to paint the picture which has glimmered unrealized in his head throughout his journey in his three-cornered world.