In House of the Sleeping Beauties, by the Japanese Nobel Prize–winning author Kawabata Yasunari (1899– 1972), the protagonist, 67-year-old Eguchi, visits an inn where old men pay to spend a chaste night with beautiful young women who have been drugged. During his time there, he muses on the lives of the women, refl ects on his past, and confronts the loneliness of old age and death.
Having heard of the inn from his friend Kiga, Eguchi makes his first visit. A woman in her 40s (Eguchi wonders if she is “the proprietress or a maid”) welcomes him and explains the rules of the house: the staff, guests, and women are to respect the anonymity of both the guests and the women, and the guests are not to have sexual relations with the women. The innkeeper shows Eguchi to a suite of rooms in the upstairs of the house, where tea, a sleeping woman, and sleeping medicine for himself await him. She gives him the key to the room where the drugged girl lies, and she assures him that the woman will not awaken until after he has left in the morning. As Eguchi examines the young woman, he ponders her circumstances. The sight of her and the smells emanating from her elicit memories of women he has enjoyed in the past as well as thoughts about family members. Each time
Eguchi returns to the inn he is assigned a different woman—or two women in the case of his last visit. Always, though, he experiences the same sensations: “melancholy comfort” and “youthful warmth.” Eguchi prides himself on the fact that he has “not ceased to be a man” and imagines that the other men who visit the house are no longer able to “use women as women.” He contemplates “the longing of the sad old men for the unfinished dream, the regret for days lost without ever being had” and comforts himself with the thought that he does not yet have their “ugly senility.” Eguchi is aware, however, that “the ugliness of old age pressed down upon him” and that “the impotence of the other old men was probably not very far off” for him. After learning of the death of one of the guests during a visit to the house, he asks himself, “Would this not be a most desirable place to die?” and “To die in his sleep between, for instance, the two young girls tonight—might that not be the ultimate wish of a man in his last years?”
The process of drugging the young women is, Eguchi realizes, a dehumanizing one. He understands that the contentment that he and the other old men experience during their visits to the house is “a happiness not of this world.” On one occasion he looks at a beautiful woman and acknowledges that “she had been stripped of all defenses” and questions, “Was she a toy, a sacrifice?” On another visit he recognizes that the only distinction between the sleeping girl and “a corpse was that she breathed and had warm blood.”
Eguchi confronts the degree of callousness during his last visit to the house. He awakes from a sleep and fi nds that one of the two women provided for him that evening has died; after he calls for the innkeeper, she tells him, “Go on back to sleep. There is the other girl.”
In House of the Sleeping Beauties, Kawabata Yasunari, winner of the 1968 Nobel Prize in literature, deals with themes that run throughout his works: the beauty of women, a yearning for the past, a search for an illusory happiness, and death. He allows the reader to enter the interior world of the protagonist and experience with Eguchi the misery and longings that come with old age. Kawabata writes in a compact, lyrical style. His use of details adds realism; at the same time, the writer creates an impressionistic effect by leaving much unsaid and having the reader see, feel, and evaluate from Eguchi’s limited point of view. \
Kawabata Yasunari. House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories. Translated by Edward Seidensticker. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2004. “Kawabata Yasunari.” In Contemporary Authors. Vol. 91. Detroit: Gale Research, 1980. “Kawabata Yasunari.” In World Authors, 1950–1970. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1975. Mishima Yukio. “Introduction.” In House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories, by Yasunari Kawabata, 7–10. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2004.
Categories: Japanese Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis
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