A Tale for the Time Being
Coping with the Uncontrollable in A Tale for the Time Being
Japanese culture differs significantly from culture in the Western world. In Ruth Ozeki’s novel A Tale for the Time Being, these differences are prevalent as Nao visits bathhouses, discovers manga, and witnesses the significance of suicide in her country. But perhaps most importantly, Nao learns the principals of Zen Buddhism from her grandmother Jiko who preaches acceptance of the inherently uncontrollable aspects of life. Throughout the novel, various characters experience a lack of control in their lives and react very differently. In A Tale for the Time Being, Ozeki utilizes symbolism to represent the uncontrollable and demonstrate how the inability to exhibit power over a situation affects different people.
The author utilizes the auction of Nao’s panties as a symbol of powerlessness. When Nao’s father discovers the auction, he attempts to bid on them in order to prevent other hentais from violating his daughter’s privacy. To his dismay, Haruki lacks the money to be the highest bidder and consequently loses the auction and the ability to protect his own daughter, eventually deciding to take his own life. Before he attempts suicide, Haruki leaves a note saying “I should only make myself ridiculous in the eyes of others if I clung to life and hugged it when I have no more to offer” (Ozeki 284). His lack of control of the safety and wellbeing of his daughter leaves Haruki powerless and ultimately drives him to seek death. In this final attempt of the ultimate self-destruction, Nao’s father demonstrates his inability to cope with powerlessness. Without any control of his daughter’s protection, Haruki seeks what he perceives as the only thing he does have control of—his own demise.
Much like her father, Nao’s coping mechanism over her powerlessness is one of destruction; however, unlike her own suicidal parent, Nao reacts to this lack of control with rebelliousness and psychological self-destruction. In the novel, Ozeki uses Haruki’s mental instability to symbolize that which Nao cannot control. She perceives her father as weak, wishing he would be more like Haruki 1 who she believes died valiantly in war. In his second failed suicide, Nao’s inability to control her father’s bouts of depression and attempts at suicide finally causes her to break as she writes to him “if you’re going to do something, please do it properly” (286). As a major source of stress, Haruki’s instability drives Nao to wish her father would simply die. In this frustration, Nao becomes unstable herself, cutting her hair off and prostituting herself as a result of the inability to control her father. Similar to her Haruki, Nao’s powerlessness drives her to a path of destruction both internal and external, as her frustration harms not only those close to her but also herself.
Unlike Nao and her father, Nao’s grandmother Jiko reacts peacefully to that which she cannot control. Her philosophy is perhaps best reflected in Ozeki’s use of waves as a symbol of the uncontrollable. When Nao visits her grandmother for the summer, Jiko takes her to the beach and asks, “have you ever bullied a wave?” to which Nao reacts with confusion (193). In compliance with her grandmother’s request, Nao runs into the ocean with a stick and ferociously attacks the water. Despite her futile attempts, she continues to beat the waves, repeatedly getting knocked down in the process. While she finally admits defeat, Nao is left satisfied. This odd request of Jiko is a method of teaching her granddaughter a valuable lesson—it is best to accept those things, which are uncontrollable rather than fight them. With this very Zen philosophy, Jiko’s persona differs greatly from those of her son and granddaughter. Instead of reacting to a lack of control with anger and destruction, Jiko accepts her powerlessness, welcoming the environment that she cannot change.
Despite the fact that many characters in the novel experience grave hardships, Ruth Ozeki ironically uses these serious topics of bullying and suicide to illustrate a theme of positivity—no matter how bleak a situation may be, there is always a reason to keep working and, even more importantly, keep living. This is perhaps best reflected in Nao and her father; it becomes clear at the end of the novel that both made the correct decision to choose life over death when Haruki is able to establish a strong relationship with his daughter and achieve success in his job. Ultimately, both are able to recover from their painful pasts and find happiness, something that would have been completely missed had they chosen death.
Character Development in A Tale for the Time Being
Each person, wherever and whenever he or she lives, experiences his or her own here and now. Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being explores this idea by following three main characters who are all separated by time and space. Despite the fact that Ruth lives on the Canadian island of Whaletown, Nao lives in Tokyo, and Haruki #1 lives in the past, all of their lives are connected by Haruki #1’s secret French diary. The diary–although written in Nao and Ruth’s past–is able to preserve Haruki #1’s here and now, and in doing so, allows the lessons that Haruki learns to transcend through time and space. Through the passing down of Haruki #1’s diary, it is evident that understanding the stories of others is crucial to personal growth.
First and foremost, Haruki #1’s understanding of the great philosophers is essential to his legacy. As a philosophy student turned soldier, he battles between his desire to love the world and the responsibility to hate his enemies. At first, Haruki is bitter both towards his fate and towards the Marquis for beating and humiliating his friend. He writes, “I only hope that I will not die until I taste the sweetness of revenge” (319). However, after writing about Montaigne, Socrates, and the Buddha–just to name a few–Haruki is able to “learn to die” and come to terms with his fate (323). He chooses death to rid himself of uncertainty and to ensure that his family gets taken care of. In the end, he not only accepts his fate, but also his enemies. Explaining his decision to fly his plane into the ocean, he states, “Better to do battle with the waves, who may yet forgive me” (328). Evidently, by thinking and writing about the philosophers’ messages, Haruki gains a more mature view of the world.
Just as the philosophers empower Haruki #1 to come to terms with his situation, Haruki #1’s story empowers Nao to adopt a better mindset. From her unfortunate family situation to the bullying she experiences at school, Nao has every right to have a negative view of the world. She considers suicide her best option, but through the words that Haruki #1 leaves her, she realizes that her life will be better if she learns to love. After reading about her great uncle’s refusal to harm his enemies, Nao states, “I remembered how I used to ambush Daisuke-kun and beat him up, and also how I went forth as a living ghost to stab my enemy Reiko in the eye. I started to feel so bad about this, I decided I would apologize if I ever saw them again. . . ” (386). Nao is proud of her great uncle’s courage, and as a result, she strives to follow in his footsteps and make peace with both her enemies and herself. Thus, Haruki #1’s here and now are able to reach out from the past and influence Nao’s here and now.
While Haruki #1’s diary comes into Nao’s life to bring her a source of pride, it comes into Ruth’s life to teach her to be less prideful. When Ruth first finds the Hello Kitty Lunchbox, she is possessive of its contents and hesitant to show them to other people on the island. Because she has writer’s block, Ruth channels all of her energy into proving that the lunchbox washed up on the shore of Whaletown as a result of the tsunami in Japan, and she refuses to accept the theories of experts living on the island. She is even dismissive of her husband Oliver’s ideas; for instance, when he points out that Nao’s father was trying to help her, Ruth snaps at him: “Are you fucking kidding me? He learns about the hentai site and so he takes pills and tries to kill himself? How exactly is that helpful?” (294). Due to her narrow-mindedness, Ruth fails to see that Oliver is right–Nao’s father tries to bid on her underwear to save her from humiliation. Fortunately, Haruki #1’s diary helps Ruth become more trusting. The fact that the diary is written in French forces Ruth to seek the help of a native French speaker, Benoit. After reading Benoit’s translation, Ruth realizes that if Haruki #1 and Nao can learn to accept their enemies, listening to the ideas of her husband and neighbors is the least she can do. In fact, her first impulse is to ask for Oliver’s opinion. One of Oliver’s ideas, the one involving multiple universes, actually motivates Ruth to write again because she knows there exists a universe wherein she has already completed her memoir. Therefore, Haruki #1’s diary teaches Ruth that listening to others and accepting their help is necessary to personal growth.
Ironically, while here and now are inherently temporary, they also occupy an infinite amount of time and space. Haruki #1’s thoughts and decisions–his here and now–becomes part of Nao’s story when she discovers his diary. Additionally, Ruth finds both Nao’s and Haruki #1’s heres and nows in the Hello Kitty lunchbox that washes up on the shore of Whaletown. While reading A Tale for the Time Being, we can see that all three of their stories are part of the reader’s here and now. Thus, at any given moment, a person not only experiences his or her own here and now, but heres and nows of the people he or she is talking to, of the musicians playing the music he or she is listening to, and of the author of the book he or she is reading.
Ozeki, Ruth. A Tale for the Time Being. New York: Penguin Books, 2013.