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The Japanese are well-known for their legendary ability to appreciate the beauty of nature, especially in its most fleeting and fragile forms, such as the autumn leaves and the spring blossom. Yasunari Kawabata has managed to convey the fascination with nature that his home country is famous for with the help of an essentially Western literary genre - a novel. In Snow Country, his most brilliant and poignant novel, the nature not only occupies an extremely important place in the narrative, almost becoming a separate character, but it also helps the author explore the complex and intricate relationships between the main characters: Shimamura, Komako, and Yoko. Nature plays a crucial role in the novel, mirroring the protagonist's emotional state and his aesthetic sensitivity, but also underlining his loneliness, egocentricity, and inability to love genuinely as opposed to Komako's strong feelings and Yoko's humanity.
The whole novel resembles a landscape painting in which human figures are only part of the scene. The love story that takes place in the book is 'framed' by the majestic mountain views. The narration begins with the description of the landscape and the train coming "out of the long tunnel into the snow country" where "the earth lay white under the white sky" (Kawabata 11). The tunnel functions as a boundary between the usual world that Shimamura, the protagonist, comes from, and the isolated, peculiar, magical world of the mountains. Shimamura gradually becomes mesmerized by its strange beauty and contrasting colors: the white of the winter snow, the red of the autumn leaves, the black of the night and his lover's hair. This world resembles a Japanese painting with its austerity of lines and colors. Shimamura stays under the spell of the mountains and Komako's love for a long time, though by the end of the novel the power of attraction begins to weaken and is ultimately broken by the tragedy in the cacoon-warehouse. Suffering, illness, and death are not welcome in the enchanted aestheticized world in which Shimamura prefers to live. At the very end of the novel, he is pushed back by the men that are trying to help Komako carry Yoko's body. But, in fact, he willingly retreats in the pursuit of the cold, magnetic beauty of the stars. The story that begins with the cold beauty of the snow country, ends with the even colder beauty of the Milky Way with its "quiet, chilly loneliness" (Kawabata 137). The protagonist came to the hot springs in search of emotional warmth and human touch, but was unable to let them change himself, so, now he is leaving with an even colder heart.
While on the one hand, the novel resembles a painting in which the love story is framed by the landscape, on the other hand, it also resembles a mirror. The image of the mirror is one of the central leitmotifs of the novel. From the very beginning, nature becomes a metaphoric mirror which reflects the characters' feelings, emotions, and thoughts. While still on the train, Shimamura discovers a magnetic sight - the window he is looking at becomes a mirror reflecting the girl opposite him with the "monotonous mountain landscape, undistinguished for mile after mile" (Kawabata 16) as a background:
In the depth of the mirror the evening landscape moved by, the mirror and the reflected figures like motion pictures superimposed one on the other. The figures and the background were unrelated, and yet the figures, transparent and intangible, and the background, dim in the gathering darkness, melted together into a sort of symbolic world not of this world. (Kawabata 15)
Indeed, in the book, the author uses nature as a peculiar kind of a mirror in which the main characters are reflected with all their strengths and weaknesses. For example, when looking at Yoko's reflection, Shimamura saw that "a light out in the mountains shone in the center of the girl's face" and he "felt his chest rise at the inexpressible beauty of it" (Kawabata 15). It turns out that Yoko possesses a very special light inside her - the light of her humanity. It can be clearly seen in the way she treats the dying young man, the teacher's son, and the way she talks to the little girl, the hotel owner's daughter, and cares for the destiny of Komako, her rival. But, unfortunately, Shimamura is not able to truly appreciate it. He is like a mirror himself, registering the life around him but not participating in it. On the train, he "had the illusion that the evening landscape was actually passing over the face" of Yoko (Kawabata 16). For him, the women he met in the snow country became an indispensable part of the landscape. He admired them, appreciated their beauty, but ultimately rushed by like a train leaving behind the beautiful mountains and rivers.
In Snow Country, nature becomes the mirror that reflects the way Shimamura feels and sees the world. In one of the episodes, when he is talking to Komako leaning on an old cedar tree, a detailed description of the tree catches the reader's attention: "For some reason all the branches on the north side had withered, and, their tips broken and fallen, they looked like stakes driven into the trunk with their sharp ends out, to make a terrible weapon for some god" (Kawabata 31-32). In fact, this tree is very much like Shimamura himself, whose irrational, emotional, humane side has withered for some reason and he is not able to feel real love, neither towards Komako nor towards Yoko. He is cold, cruel, and indifferent without completely realizing it. The only emotional part of him that is still alive is his aesthetic appreciation.
Shimamura's enhanced aesthetic sensitivity can help him appreciate the beauty of human beings, nature, and music, which are inseparably intertwined in Snow Country. One of the key episodes in the novel is the episode in which Komako is playing the samisen for him. The magical sound of music transforms the protagonist: he gives himself up "to the current, to the pleasure of being swept off" and is "being carried away by his own mountain emotionalism" (Kawabata 63). His soul becomes clear like the mountain air because "the tone is different on a day like this" (Kawabata 63) and "there was none of the city dust" (Kawabata 63). He becomes an integral part of nature and the music, just like his lover Komako:
Practicing alone, not aware herself of what was happening, perhaps, but with all the wideness of nature in this mountain valley for her companion, she had come quite as a part of nature to take on this special power. Her very loneliness beat down sorrow and fostered wild strength of will (Kawabata 63).
But the sensation is too fresh, powerful, and frightening for Shimamura, who is accustomed only to such artificial and superficial pleasures as writing about the Western ballet he has never seen. He is afraid of the real life and deep feelings, which he, ironically enough, calls "wasted effort" (Kawabata 63). But, in fact, his own life turns out to be an idle meandering, a true waste of effort, devoid of profound emotions, deep feelings, and genuine humanity.
As a real aesthet, Shimamura is able to appreciate the beauty of nature, especially in its fleeting, fragile manifestations. He pays special attention to the delicate beauty of the moths whose "wings fluttered like thin pieces of paper in the autumn wind" (Kawabata 77), dragonflies that were "bobbing about in countless swarms, like dandelion floss in the wind" (Kawabata 77), and "slender autumn grasses" (Kawabata 92), "Kaya plumes waved on the steep slope of the mountain opposite, a dazzling silver in the morning sun... and yet rather like the fleeting translucence that moved across the autumn sky" (Kawabata 98). Yet, he is unable to appreciate the fleeting and fragile beauty of the human relationships something that is seen and valued by Komako, who asks, "People are delicate, aren't they?" (Kawabata 93). This defect is what makes the protagonist ultimately lonely.
Yasunari Kawabata has built his famous novel according to the best traditions of Japanese literature and culture. It its peculiar austere, but also stylistically refined way, Snow Country glorifies the splendor of nature. But it also teaches the readers to appreciate this beauty and to become an integral part of it, to see in the mirror of nature human hopes and fears, love and suffering, and to use this mirror to explore their own souls.
Kawabata, Yasunari. Snow Country. New York, Berkley Publishing Corporation, 1960.
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Nature as a Mirror in Yasunari Kawabata's Novel Snow Country. (2023, Aug 06). Retrieved from https://speedypaper.com/essays/nature-as-a-mirror-in-yasunari-kawabatas-novel-snow-country
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