Schoolgirl, by Osamu Dazai
This book was kindly sent to me by One Peace Books, who have recently issued a new translation of the original work published in 1939.
The schoolgirl at the center of Dazai’s stream-of-consciousness novella is cynical, inquisitive, self-conscious, and superior all at once. She is a teenager, after all. Her mood swings are not just the ol’ adolescent hormones rearing their familiar, monstrous heads, though. As she takes us through a single day of her life, we see that she is battling demons both inside herself and out. Her classmates may irritate her, but that is nothing compared to the turmoil she feels at the recent loss of her father and the heavy cloud of mourning that weighs upon her mother. Her immediate concerns about teachers, friends, and house-guests seem unimportant on their own, but taken together they mark a process by which our troubled narrator learns to construct her own identity in what she sees as a world of cowardly conformity. She is quick-witted and a reader herself, wholly caught up in books and stories which, of course, I found wonderfully endearing.
The unnamed schoolgirl is eager to grow up, to be treated like an adult. At the same time, though, she dreads becoming a woman. She sees the lack of personality in her friend Kinko as inextricably linked to her incredible femininity and, upon recalling a heavily made-up woman she saw on the train that morning, proclaims that “women are disgusting” and “impure” (p. 47).
It’s as if that unbearable raw stench that clings to you after playing with goldfish has spread all over your body, and you wash and wash but you can’t get rid of it. Day by day, it’s like this, until you realize that the she-odor has begun to emanate from your own body as well. I wish I could die like this, as a girl. (p. 47)
I take these comments to be expressions of the physical and psychological disturbance she feels at the changes occurring both within her own body and in the social role she’s expected to play as a Japanese woman. She seems unimpressed with the examples of both her female teacher and her mother and dreads being confined to a similar fate. I do hope that my reading of her repulsion as masking disdain for sexist constraints imposed upon women, rather than actually being a set criticism of women as people, is not too generous! Though this is a big generalization, I do think that a lot of young women struggle with this kind of internalized misogyny and experience it as a very personal defect, which would support my interpretation. Whether it was Dazai’s intent to invoke this internal process, though, I am not certain.
The book’s strength lies in Dazai’s ability to write a story that is both culturally specific and widely relatable. Its about navigating Japanese society and cultural norms as a girl, but it’s also simply about being youthful, restless, and discontent. Some of the schoolgirl’s voice was obscured by the roller-coaster of emotions evoked throughout the text, but perhaps that’s part of the point. Ultimately, I think that enjoyment of Schoolgirl might hinge on one’s desire to revisit (or just visit, if you are a younger reader) both the idealistic highs and despairing lows of adolescence. At this point, as someone who is no longer a teenager but still far from getting all nostalgic about it, I am pretty ambivalent about doing that and so my feeling about the book was a bit ambivalent as well. It’s ironic that this ambivalence is due to Dazai’s success in writing about such a particular emotional and developmental state. While I am short of enthusiastic about Schoolgirl, it was a good introduction to Osamu Dazai, who I am now interested in reading more of. Not a favorite, then, but well worth the read.