Associate Editor Pamelyn Casto

A Close Reading of Yasunari Kawabata’s
“Love Suicides”

The story can be read in Palm-Of-The-Hand Stories. (Translation by Lane Dunlop & J. Martin Holman. New York: North Point Press, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990).

Or read a different translation of the story on line.

Harsh Heritage by Harue Koga

Yasunari Kawabata was the first Japanese author to receive the Nobel Prize (in 1968). His prose is sparse and lyrical and often quite disturbing, as this story will show.

The premise of this story seems to be that if we kill off others’ ways of living to comfort ourselves, and if others comply in the killing off, then deaths and suicides can be the result– for all concerned. I suspect there’s a nice, pithy Japanese proverb the story is enacting.


There are just three character in the story. There is Father (represented only through his brief letters), the wife/ mother, and the daughter —three characters—none with names. In a sense, sound becomes a character in the story as well. All the letters the father sends to the mother (four letters in all) focus on what the father can hear from far away, as if certain important sounds carry, such as those that represent painful memories or realities.

The First Letter

“Love Suicides” (about a page and a half of text) opens fast with a woman receiving a letter from her husband, a man who decided he didn’t like her and who had deserted her two years before.
The letter came from a distant land and it tells the wife only this, just three short sentences: “Don’t let the child bounce a rubber ball. I can hear the sound. It strikes at my heart.”

This is a brief, simple opening and setting. The “history” is quickly filled in just seven short and simple sentences. Readers know from the second sentence of the opening paragraph that the husband deserted his wife and had been gone for two years. By the sixth sentence, readers learn that a child is involved, too. And by the seventh sentence readers learn that the child is nine and is a daughter. The man deserted his wife and their daughter and is now, through his letters, trying to control their lives so they don’t continue to hurt him with the sounds of their daily living.

With the first brief letter, the wife immediately complies and takes the ball away from her nine-year-old daughter. Nothing else is said about it, just that she took the ball away from the girl. The wife honors her husband’s request, even though he has been gone for two years.

The Second Letter

Another letter follows, just as brief as the first, and with another postmark. All the letter says is “Don’t send the child to school wearing shoes. I can hear the sound. It tramples on my heart.” The father uses just three sentences again but the request has more serious consequences than the first request.

The mother takes the shoes away, the child cries, and will no longer go to school. That is all that is said about this request. With his demands, the man, so far, deprives his child (as does her mother) of her toy, her shoes, and even her education (since she will no longer go to school). All to keep the man’s heart from aching.

Touches of Magical Realism

This is all told matter-of-factly in the way of effective magical realism. There is an irreducible element, the sound of personal and private acts that carries to distant lands, and there is no explanation of how this sound can be transmitted. The ability to hear from far away is merely treated as if it is not something out of the ordinary. No attempt is made for a more “realistic” story or explanation. Thus far, there have been two brief notes from afar and the wife carries out the man’s wishes.

The Third Letter

Then the husband sends another letter shortly after, but this time his writing, the narrator tells us, is like an old man’s. This letter, three sentences long again, merely says, “Don’t let the child eat from a porcelain bowl. I can hear the sound. It breaks my heart.”

It’s puzzling why the writing is suddenly like an old man’s writing. Perhaps he is fast aging in his pain and the more serious request ages him even faster. The fact of the “old man” script seems to foreshadow that something of great consequence is about to happen. The bowl can be viewed as representing the child’s food intake so his new request could have even more dire consequences than the girl no longer having her toy or no longer going to school.

At this point the woman again complies. She starts feeding the girl now as if she was three years old, and the mother uses her own chopsticks. The mother remembers how the husband used to spend pleasant days with the girl (when she was three).

It is worth noticing how the author makes fine use of the number three. His method is an effective way of constructing the story, using sets of three. It’s a sparse and highly disturbing method.

In what can be viewed as an act of rebellion over what is happening to her, the girl goes to retrieve her bowl. But the mother snatches it from her and dashes it to pieces on a rock in the garden. The sound it makes becomes the sound of the husband’s breaking heart, says the narrator.

Then with only the raising of her eyebrows to indicate some thought or revelation has come to her, the woman then dashes her own bowl against a rock. She asks if this wasn’t the sound of her husband’s heart breaking. Then she throws out the dinner table, throws her whole body against the wall, beats the wall with her fists, then flings herself like a spear through a partition. At the end of this paragraph she asks, “And what about this sound?”

The above question can relate to the actions performed by the wife, but it also seems to relate to the daughter’s response that comes in the next paragraph. The daughter cries “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!” (Note: “Mommy” is said three times.)

The above acts also shift the story from the pain the daughter’s said to be causing (by her daily living) to the mother’s pain. The mother’s trying to understand the effects of the sounds she is herself making on her missing husband. The woman’s acts then lead to the girl crying “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!” The girl runs toward her mother, and surprisingly her mother slaps her. “Oh, listen to this sound!” says the mother. With the slap, the mother has moved from inflicting pain on her husband (from the painful sounds made by her actions) to inflicting physical pain on their daughter.

The Fourth Letter

Immediately another letter comes (“like an echo of that sound,” says the narrator) with yet another distant postmark. It says “Don’t make any sound at all.” The father instructs the mother/ wife not to open or close the doors or slide the partitions, instructs her not to even breathe. He says “The two of you mustn’t even let the clocks in the house make a sound.”

This particular letter, the father’s fourth letter, is composed of four sentences, whereas the other three letters were composed of three. Is this deliberate on the part of the writer? Or done by the translator?

The mother says “The two of you, the two of you, the two of you,” (three times) and cries. Then the two of them (mother and daughter) make no sounds at all. The narrator says they made no sounds of any kind, not even the faintest sounds, for an eternity. The narrator inserts here, “In other words, the mother and daughter died.”

With this final letter, the husband has succeeded in stopping their time, stopping all their sound, stopping their lives. And they have committed their own suicides by honoring his requests.

But the story then has a surprise ending. It ends with the narrator saying, “And, strangely enough, the woman’s husband lay down beside them and died, too.”

Three Deaths

Three deaths/ suicides occur in the story. The husband, in getting the mother and daughter to slowly kill themselves, also succeeds in losing his own life. The requests from far away (via his letters) result in the death of the father close by the bodies of the mother and child. Nothing at all is said about whether this lying down and dying is meant literally– that he in fact does lie down beside them. It seems to be the symbolic result since there’s no information about him actually coming to them. But then again, the story does not need to be explicit at all. It’s enough that the father dies too. His death seems to complete the story quite effectively (and surprisingly).


About the writer:
Pamelyn Casto, twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips From Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction. Subscribe to her free online monthly FlashFictionFlash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L.

About Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972): Yasunari Kawabata was a Japanese novelist and writer of short stories. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968.

Image: Harsh Heritage by Harue Koga (1895-1933). Oil on canvas. 43.7 x 56.6 inches. 1931. Public domain.