Portrayal of Love as a Sickness in Kawabata's Novel Beauty and Sadness

The poet Samuel Daniel said in one of his poems that “love is a sickness full of woes, all remedies refusing” (Page 111). The novel Beauty and Sadness by Nobel Prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata tells the story of a destructive love affair between a married writer and a teenage girl. This love affair continues to haunt both of these characters more than twenty years after their last encounter. In this novel there is the recurrent theme of the role of love as a sickness.

Throughout the novel there are many instances where the love shared between two people have deleterious effects on both the characters involved and those surrounding them. The lingering bitterness due to this love affair poisons everyone around them. Examples of the role of love as a sickness can be seen in Beauty and Sadness with the following characters: the love between Keiko and Otoko, the love between Oki and Fumiko, the “love” between Keiko and Taichiro, and most importantly the love between Oki and Otoko. The love affair central to the plot and theme of this novel is between the two characters Oki and Otoko.

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Oki is a married author with a child that begins to have a passionate love affair at thirty years old with Otoko, who is fifteen years old at the time. Despite being married and a father, Oki falls in love with Otoko. Otoko had also fallen in love with Oki, but when she became pregnant and their child died at birth their affair came to an end. Despite their affair coming to an end, the love these two characters shared once never withers and stays in the hearts of both of these lovers causing continuing bitterness and sadness.

This bitterness and sadness not only affects Oki and Otoko, it affects Oki’s son Taichiro, Otoko’s pupil/lover Keiko, and Oki’s wife Fumiko. Oki and Otoko both live their entire life regretting what happened in the past. Otoko never finds another man and Oki keeps longing for the passionate love he once had with Otoko that he does not feel with his wife Fumiko. Fumiko probably suffers the most because of this affair out of all of the characters in the novel. Not only does she find out about her husband’s infidelity which is torture in itself, she must read every little detail about it.

Oki being an author writes a book entitled A Girl of Sixteen which tells the story of Oki and Otoko’s love affair. Fumiko retypes A Girl of Sixteen for her husband and ends up crying and being upset almost the whole time while she is retyping it. Ironically, this goes on to be Oki’s bestselling novel that gives his family financial stability and enough money to put Taichiro through college. Taichiro is affected by this love affair in the way that he must watch his parents struggle with their relationship on a daily basis because of this affair, especially at the time when A Girl of Sixteen was first published.

He also must deal with Otoko’s pupil/lover Keiko who is bound for revenge for her lover Otoko. This will have deadly consequences for Taichiro. The love between Oki and his wife Fumiko is very interesting, it almost seems as if it’s fake. Oki, who fell in love with Otoko, cannot love Fumiko the same way he once loved Otoko. The passion Oki and Otoko shared is never felt between Oki and Fumiko and both of these characters are aware of this. This awareness that Oki and Fumiko can never share a passionate love like Oki and Otoko did causes continuing bitterness in both Oki and Fumiko.

Oki stays bitter for the rest of his life, regretting not staying with Otoko after she lost their child and always thinking of what his life would be like if he did. Fumiko on the other hand, is bitter due to the jealousy of Otoko and Oki’s passionate love that she can’t seem to share with Oki. There are many instances throughout the book where Fumiko brings up Otoko and you can see the bitterness and jealousy in Fumiko’s responses. An example of this is when Oki and Fumiko sit down at dinner Fumiko says “All women are jealous, but you taught me long ago that it’s a bitter, dangerous medicine . . a double edged sword” (Page 132). Reading every little detail about Oki and Otoko’s passionate love, it would be a shock if Fumiko wasn’t jealous or bitter for the rest of her life that she shares with Oki. Even though Fumiko and Oki cannot share the same love as Oki and Otoko, they are still married and share a son together. This relationship, as fake as it may seem, has deleterious effects on one person, Otoko. Otoko who was once completely in love with Oki at a young age never marries when she goes to Kyoto to get away from Oki and everything surrounding him.

Otoko lives her life continuously jealous and bitter about the love and child Oki and Fumiko share. Being so jealous and bitter you would expect Otoko to do something about it or even show her emotions, but she never really does either. She stays sheltered and channels her emotion into her paintings. Even after twenty years it’s hard for Otoko to even say Fumiko or Taichiro’s name. This is probably because Oki would have been married to Otoko with a child if it hadn’t been for Fumiko being married to Oki or Otoko’s miscarriage.

The lesbian love that Otoko and her pupil Keiko share negatively affects the most characters in this novel. I believe that the love these two women share coupled with the love Oki and Otoko once shared are central to the plot and theme of the novel. Keiko is a strange, intense girl who is an excellently crafted manipulator that uses her beauty and youth to deceive the men in this novel. Keiko is hell bent on exacting revenge for her lesbian lover Otoko. She does this by seducing both Oki and his son Taichiro, she is arguably a masochist. She seems to take pleasure in making those around her miserable.

Keiko admits to Otoko that she used her beauty and her sex to break up his family and also to seek revenge on Otoko’s behalf, Otoko being too fainthearted to do it herself. She admits to her older female lover that she spent the night with Oki out of jealousy, but when Otoko asks the question if she should be the the one jealous, neither women have an answer. Eventually, when Keiko is done seducing Oki, she moves on to seducing Oki’s son Taichiro. She uses her beauty and youth to deceive Taichiro into believing that they are falling in love.

Note that both Keiko and Taichiro are around the same age. When Taichiro questions her on this, Keiko admits that it is feminine jealousy, and that she is jealous “because Miss Ueno (Otoko) still loves your father . . . because she doesn’t bear the least grudge toward him” (Page 156). As the novel comes to a close, an accident occurs where both Keiko and Taichiro’s lives are in question. Being the reader, we are not a witness to the accident, but we are only told of it. Ultimately as the reader we conclude that Taichiro does in fact die at sea and the last image of Keiko is in a hospital bed.

This event is where we can see how the love Otoko and Keiko share negatively affects the most characters. Taichiro ends up dead because of this and suffers the worst. Oki and Fumiko must now mourn for their only son who is now gone for the rest of their life, and Otoko must live with the burden that her lesbian love with her pupil caused her past lover’s son to die. As you can see the role of love as a sickness is evident throughout the novel Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata. Kawabata is influenced by western culture and is well read in English literature.

Because of this, Beauty and Sadness can be compared to William Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet in the way that love plays the role of a sickness in both pieces of literature. The classic story of Romeo and Juliet tells the story of two star-crossed lovers who have a tragic romance. These two lovers are born of different families, the Capulets and Montagues, which are never to intermingle because they would be shunned if they did. In the end of the novel you can see how love plays the role of a sickness. Like in Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness, love as a sickness ultimately leads to the death of a character or characters.

Taichiro’s death can be compared to the death of both Romeo and Juliet in the way that some sort of love has led to the death of all three of these characters in their respective novels. These three characters suffer the deathly consequences love can bring about when it plays the role of a sickness in a piece of literature. When trying to understand Kawabata’s reason for writing his novel Beauty and Sadness, which encompasses the role of love as a sickness, a look should be taken into the Japanese attitude toward love.

The Japanese attitude towards love and marriage is very different that of the western world. Janet Smith explains in her chapter on the “Romantic Expression in the Japanese Love Story” that “Japanese men and women do not hold romantic love but rather practical considerations and complementarity within family units to be at the core of the bond between them” (Page 131). She also goes on to say that “marriage in Japan, in contrast to the United states with its emphasis on romance and love, is generally contemplated in objective terms based on practical considerations” (Page 131).

What Janet is trying to express here is that unlike in the United States where we marry for a romantic love, people in Japan marry not for romance and love but for things such as economic stability, social status, and family relations. It’s almost as if it’s a forced or fake marriage. When looking at Beauty and Sadness it is evident that Oki is married to Fumiko because of the reasons explained above. Oki is married to Fumiko not for romance and love, if that where the case he would have married Otoko.

The Japanese attitude towards love and marriage can also be seen in another Japanese novel entitled Waiting by Ha Jin. Waiting tells the story of an army doctor named Lin Kong who is married to a woman named Shuyu. Shuyu is a loyal wife to Lin who is married to Lin as decided by his parents. Shuyu raises Lin’s daughter but Lin does not seem to feel any love for her. Once Lin meets the character named Manna Wu, he falls in love with her and feels that he must divorce his wife and be with the woman he truly loves. After numerous tries Lin finally divorces Shuyu and he can finally be with Manna.

However, when he is finally with Manna he feels unhappy with her as well as feeling no love for her, leaving the book to end on a dark note. In this novel you can see the many restrictions and rules Japanese culture puts on love and marriage. The poet Samuel Daniel also goes on to say in his poem “Love is a Sickness” that “Love is a torment of the mind, a tempest everlasting”. To understand more clearly the role of love as a sickness in literature, a good way is to look at the psychology on love and the sickness it puts on both the mind and the body.

Back in time until the seventeenth century doctors were happy to diagnose love alone as a sickness. Frank Tallis goes on to say in his book Love Sick: Love as a Mental Illness “as it was assumed that love and its sickness were virtually inseparable” (Page 31). He also goes on to say that “in Freud’s system, the basic principles that explain falling in love are also used to explain why people become mentally ill” (Page 38). This is interesting because this reinforces the fact that love is a powerful drug that can do many things to the human body and mind.

In relation to Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness these principles can be related to the continuing bitterness and anger that both Oki and Otoko feel throughout the book. It also reinforces the fact that love will make you do all kinds of things, in particular this has to do with Keiko and her outlandish acts of revenge. Love is a powerful emotion that can be traced throughout almost every important piece of literature ever made. It is an emotion that can’t be explained in words and does something to the human body and mind that nothing else can.

Psychologists and medical doctors often wonder about the role love has as an actual sickness, which can have malevolent effects on both the human body and mind. Frequently, love does not play a benevolent role in literature. Love can play the role of a sickness in many different pieces of literature, most importantly Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata. Kawabata’s Japanese attitude toward love can also be traced throughout the novel and can be compared to another Japanese novel entitled Waiting by Ha Jin.

Throughout Beauty and Sadness there are many instances where the recurrent theme of the role of love as a sickness is seen. Love between many different characters in this novel has deleterious effects on both the characters involved and the surrounding characters. Bitterness and sadness seems to follow love in this novel and can be seem with the following character combinations: Otoko and Keiko, Oki and Otoko, Oki and Fumiko, and Taichiro and Keiko. Love may seem as a sickness in this novel but it’s actually a great human emotion that every human being should experience at least once.