Stylistic Analysis of Angela Carter’s “A Souvenir from Japan”
Angela Carter uses her descriptions of the Japanese scenery and culture as an extended metaphor for the relationship she has with a local boy nick-named Taro. Carter uses complex sentences riddled with metaphor, simile, oxymorons, and personification to capture her experiences in Japan and compare them to her unrequited feelings for Taro.
The title of the Carter’s short story, “A Souvenir of Japan” suggests that her experiences themselves are her souvenirs. Multiple incidences of: personification, metaphor, and simile act as the title does in that it renames her experiences with its effect on her. Just as she and Taro’s unsatiated boredom and love was but a souvenir, the reflections from water and mirrors, the flowers, the fireworks, and the sky, all serve Carter as concrete objects for the abstract things that she is experiencing.
The metaphors that Carter utilizes are memorable and effective. She often uses the scenery, the nature engulfing Japan, to characterize her emotions. She describes the sky as “beards of stars” and the night as “piercing crescendos”. These descriptions tell of the author’s excitement for the nights that she spends with Taro and the masculinity that she finds in inanimate objects. She describes the grass she and Taro laid on as “stubbled fields”. This not only describes the sharp denseness of the grass, but again, suggests that even the sky and the grass are masculine.
Carter and Taro look to the sky to watch fireworks. Carter says that, in Japanese, a firework is described as a “hannabi”, which is a flower fire. She, herself, goes on to describe the fireworks as variegated parasols and later as dissolving earnings on the night. These metaphors suggest a distinction between the Japanese idea of fireworks and her own reflection on fireworks. While Japan generally views fireworks as fiery flowers, Carter sees them as fleeting. Much like the nights she spent with Taro, the fireworks would crescendo into the sky and dissipate into nothingness. She does this more evidently why she out-right compares Taro to the weather when she says, “His departure felt imminent, until I realized he was as erratic and inevitable as the weather.” Here, she is almost justifying his fickleness as a necessary evil.
Speaking of necessary evil, there Carter also has a few incidences of oxymoron. The term “necessary evil” is a contradictory statement in itself. Something which is evil and which causes one harm, should be vanquished; it is not something which should be wanted, let alone which should be necessary. Carter describes her relationship with Taro in oxymoronic terms. She says that Taro promising to meet her only while other things interrupting her hopes is like a “silent battle”. This is a contradictory pair in that war and battle is hardly silent, yet she finds herself in this kind of predicament. Ever struggling with the forces that interrupt her ability to see her lover. She describes their relationship as a “sweet ache”. She even calls Taro a masochist, in that he loves their relationship despite the guilt and shame that follows. Carter says that she could tell that the old lady outside of the corner shop would look at them in polite disapproval. This again is contradictory in that the woman is both polite to them when passing, but also shrewdly disapproving. One can tell that this contradictory woman is of a major concern to Carter because she describes her as, “somnolent plant life… [only] less significant than the flowers.”
Carter employs many other kinds of objects in nature to take on human like characteristics. She describes the boxes of wares smoked with cold. The box is not smoking; it is just releasing condensation. She describes the cicadas as throbbing and shrinking. These insects do not scream, they creak like crickets. She later mentions that “repression does not necessarily give birth only to severe beauties.” These objects behaving like humans is further evidence that Carter uses her descriptions of japanese scenery to characterize her own understanding of the world. Sigmund Freud might say that this is a subconscious act on the part of the protagonist to see her surrounding as the projection of her inner feelings of pain and wanting.
It is evident that the protagonist is smitten by her descriptions of Taro and the similes she uses to describe him. Carter describes “his elegant body… like of a girl approaching puberty.” She looks at him in wonderment for she explains that he is far younger than she is, and his prepubescent body is delicate and androgynous. She uses another comparison of Japanese scenery when she says that, “his skin was smooth as water as it flows through the fingers. Despite how frail she describes him in their intimate moments, she too describes his face as a mask. “High cheekbones gave to his face the aspect of a mask.” This may also reveal, to one reading Carter’s short story, that his dainty exterior is a facade because he is not truly so fragile ,but rather that he is careless and hurtful.
The protagonist allows her inner thoughts of pain to escape from behind the mask, in middles branches of compound complex sentences. Carter uses of apposition and parenthesis to clarify her thoughts.
“He could not loose his old habit of walking through the streets with a sense of expectation, as if a fateful encounter might be just around the corner, for the longer one stayed out, the longer something remarkable might happen and, even if nothing did, the chance of it appeased the sweet ache of hi boredom for a little while.”
In this example Carter writes in a similar fashion to stream of consciousness to mimic the protagonist’s thoughts of excitement. It is as though she wishes to do no more than to release Tarofrom his boredom and to become herself an object amongst the scenery. Another example of this is when Carter writes,
“And, when I remembered the finale of the puppet tragedies, how the wooden lovers cut their throats together, I felt the beginnings of unease, as if the hieratic imagery of the country might overwhelm me, for his boredom had reached a degree that he was insulted against every everthing except the irritation of anguish, if he valued me as an object of passion, he had reduced me to its root, which derives from the Latin, patior, I suffer.”
The protagonists suffering is described in lapses of subordinate clauses and in descriptions of the scenery around her. Carter writes that she learned that in Japanese culture, women are valued for what passion might be derived from them as an object. She internalizes this disposition. She takes this idea with her as a souvenir that, “perhaps, a better thing to be valued only as an object of passion than never to be valued at all.”
The conclusion of the short story is another complex sentence. It is one which summarizes the story by revisiting a metaphor about mirrors. Carter makes multiple references to reflections throughout the short story. The mirror is a grand metaphor for their relationship.
She begins by explaining the Japanese relationship to mirrors, she says that the Japanese cover mirrors with sheets when they aren’t in use, to allow people comfort. Meanwhile, the protagonist does not seek to cover reflections; she frequently marvels at reflection speculating their meaning. She looks away from the “coziness” of concerning a mirror, and instead embraces the masochism of looking into the mirror with Taro.
In the opening paragraph, Carter describes the fireworks as being, “held over rivers so that the dark water multiplies the reflections.” And so that the “flower fire” may be twice and satisfying. Similarly, the last sentence ends with the quotation,
“ But the most moving of these images were the intangible reflections of ourselves we saw in one another’s eyes, reflections of nothing but appearances in a city dedicated to seeming, and try as we might to possess the essence of each other’s otherness, we would inevitably fail.”
I understand this final sentence to mean that Japanese culture is a hypocrisy and that she, the outsider, and Taro the insider would never be able to see eye-to-eye, despite the yearning to. This is why she says “[Japan is] a city dedicated to seeming”. She describes this earlier in the story when she mentions the Japanese perception of the samurai and the geisha as virtuous, while the protagonist sees them as murderers and whores.
It seem that while attempting to find her happiness with Taro she is interrupted by the surrounding environment like the sky, or the river, or the stars or the fields, or the children playing in kimonos, or the old shop keeper, or the maid of a japanese hotel. It seems that the environment is representative of Japan as a whole and of cultural differences in general. While the protagonist would enjoy being able to possess the otherness of Taro, she is left uninterrupted, unrequited, and unpronounced due to the unalienable differences between she and him.
Angela Carter is able to relay this through her many uses of figurative language and he compound complex fixture on sentences. Carter uses these as devices from which to tell a story with little dialogue. She utilizes the protagonists descriptions of objects as vehicles to describe the protagonist’s subconscious afflictions regarding what she describes as an inevitably failing relationship between she and Taro.