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.
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