in-a-grove

Hiya there! So here I am doing something that I’ve never tried before – reviewing and critically analysing a short story , as part of Dahlia’s Story Club. Ever since Dahlia mooted this really cool concept of the Story Club, I’ve been looking forward to her monthly Story Club posts and was pleasantly surprised when she suggested that I host the story club for the month of October.Though initially skeptical, I realized that deep down, I so wanted to do something like this, and am really, really glad that she asked me!

So without much ado, here I go!

The story I chose for the discussion is , “In The Grove” , by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. It is considered to be one of Akutagawa’s finest, most representative of writings. It first appeared in the January 1922 edition of the Japanese literature monthly ShinchōAkira Kurosawa used this story as the basis for the plot of his award-winning movie Rashōmon.

At the outset , it is a deceptively innocuous narrative of a crime, by various characters, who each give contradictory, but equally plausible accounts of the event. The ambiguity in the conflicting statements play with the reader’s mind and questions his/her ability to distinguish between truth and deceit. The reader is given the role of a judge to figure out the pieces of the puzzle and reach their own version of truth.

The Plot Analysis:

The plot itself is deceptively simple.

A bandit Tajomaru, lures a couple into the woods with the promise of hidden treasure.

After overpowering the husband, Takehiro, and tying him up, he has his way with the pretty wife, Masago.

Takehiro is then murdered and his sword, horse and other belongings disappear.

The story itself is developed as a series of conflicting testimonies by various characters, in no particular sequence.

The crime is first reported by a woodcutter to the police high commissioner. The second account is by a travelling Buddhist priest, who adds on to the woodcutter’s account, but also contradicts some of his statements. The priest’s account is followed by that of the policeman who apprehends Tajomaru . The next account is given by an old woman, the mother of the ‘missing’ Masago. Her account is of significance as it is through her words that we get to know the personality traits of the victims – that her daughter was a ‘spirited, fun-loving girl’ and that her husband was of a ‘gentle disposition’  who would do nothing to provoke aggression.

The next account is that of the apprehended bandit, Tajomaru, who confesses to killing the husband and raping the wife, but is unaware of her whereabouts. In his confessions, he appears to be unrepentant, often mocking the interrogator with his snide remarks and veiled sarcasm.I somehow found his self-incriminating testimony genuine, as nowhere does he try to cover up or show himself in a positive light. He is brutally honest in admitting that he’d committed theft,rape and murder.

“I killed him, but not her. Where’s she gone? I can’t tell. Oh, wait a minute. No torture can make me confess what I don’t know.”

And again at,

‘’Why? To me killing isn’t a matter of such great consequence as you might think. Am I the only one who kills people? You, you don’t use your swords. You kill people with your power, with your money. Sometimes you kill them on the pretext of working for their good. It’s true they don’t bleed. They are in the best of health, but all the same you’ve killed them. It’s hard to say who is a greater sinner, you or me. (An ironical smile.) ‘’

It is at these instances ( and many others) that Akutagawa’s story moves over from being a mere narrative into a fascinating piece of social criticism.

The bandit then goes on to reveal that it was the wife, Masago who had urged him to kill her husband. Tajomaru then fairly duels ( again shows the bandit’s integrity)  with Takehiro and strikes him down.

‘’ I needn’t tell you how our fight turned out. The twenty-third stroke… please remember this. I’m impressed with this fact still. Nobody under the sun has ever clashed swords with me twenty strokes. (A cheerful smile.) ‘’

Tajomaru’s blithe nonchalance and defiance, surprisingly, is more amusing than appalling.

As the men duel for her love, the wily Masago escapes into the woods. Tajomaru fears that she might bring back help and takes off with the dead man’s horse and possessions.

The next account is that of Masago’s. She is at a buddhist temple in penitence and pours her heart out. She relies heavily on tears and grief to plead her case. According to her, she was so saddened by the revulsion in her husband’s eyes that she decided to end both their lives to spare each other the dishonour. He agreed, or so she believed – as his mouth was stuffed with leaves – and she plunges her dagger into his chest.  She then runs off into the forest and unsuccessfully attempts suicide many times. In many of Akutagawa’s works, women are depicted as selfish and deceitful while men are portrayed as their hapless victims. Masago is portrayed as a manipulative woman and Takehiro and Tajomaru are portrayed as victims of her charms. But the fact that Masago despised her husband cannot be the basis to conclude that she killed him/had him killed.

The final account is by Takehiro himself, who speaks as a spirit through a medium. His spirit claims that Masago was enamoured by Tajomaru and agreed to be his wife, if he could kill her husband. At this point Tajomaru is so filled with hate at her depravity that he pushes Masago away and asks Takehiro if he should kill his wife. Masago flees in terror. Tajomaru then unties Takehiro and leaves him. Heartbroken by his wife’s betrayal, Takehiro kills himself with Masago’s dagger, making it an act of suicide.

The story then ends with a soft, ‘invisible’ hand that retrieves the dagger from his chest, freeing his spirit, leaving the reader wondering who this ‘invisible person’ could be.

Even in the testimony of the murdered victim, that ‘ought’ to be closest to truth, Akutagawa casts aspersions, by bringing in a ‘medium’ into the picture. The reader is now made to rely on the interpretation of the medium as to what the dead man’s spirit was trying to communicate. So the interesting question here is how reliable is the medium?

The differences between the various accounts ranges from trivial to the fundamental and it is left to the reader to pass a verdict in the end as to who the murderer could be. Three of the characters  claim to have killed Takehiro – Tajomaru, Masago and Takehiro himself, which makes the case all the more baffling.

Though it is evident that the testimonies cannot all be true, it is also hard, though not impossible, to objectively conclude, what really transpired within that grove! We interpret much of our world from second-hand information and even that is subject to our own personal biases and beliefs.  Similarly,all facts in the story are secondhand and everything is hearsay. There is an overload of information but no solid ‘evidence’ to arrive at a consensus, which makes one wonder if too much of details, in reality, obfuscates, rather than clarify. What each character narrates is the ‘perceived’ version and not the ‘absolute’ one. It makes the reader accept the fickleness of human understanding of reality and the elusive nature of truth. I guess the author’s argument here is that it is impossible to attain ‘absolute truth’. Despite our best attempts to be dispassionate observers, we ultimately are bound by the subjectivity of our minds.

All through the story, Akutagawa plays a perfect illusionist, leaving the reader perplexed and often introspective. Through his unorthodox narrative style, Akutagawa has successfully dramatized the complexities of human psychology. And it is for this very reason that this iconic piece of writing shall forever remain a cult classic.

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