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Obasan

Joy Kogawa

Chapters 31–34

Chapters 25–30

Chapters 35–39

Summary: Chapter 31

In Granton, Naomi often went to the swamp to hang out. One evening Stephen came along on his bicycle. She showed him a frog with a broken leg, and he told her to come home. She brought the frog with her, imagining that it might be a prince. Nakayama-sensei was at the house. Naomi says she doesn’t remember when she was told, though at this point in the narrative, we’re not sure what Naomi is referring to. She remembers going outside, gathering water and mud, and making a home for the frog in a glass bowl. She feeds the frog for weeks, until its leg heals and it escapes.

Summary: Chapter 32

In 1951, the family moved to a house in town. Stephen worked on a cantata for a school production. Penny Barker, the daughter of the farmers for whom Naomi’s family worked, came to their house, probably to petition Stephen for a part, and Naomi told her that her father was dead. As soon as she said the words aloud, she felt sick.

Stephen said that Mother and Grandma must be dead, too. Aunt Emily had written hundreds of letters trying to find them, with no success. However, two letters in the package Emily sends to Obasan’s house in the present day concern a request for Mother’s readmission to Canada, which suggests that the sisters had been in contact.

Summary: Chapter 33

After high school, Stephen went to the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. There, he won a prize for a piano competition and toured Europe. He also spent time with Aunt Emily, whom Naomi hadn’t seen in twelve years at that point. When he came home to Granton from school, he was surly and quiet. He sometimes refused to eat Obasan’s food. During one of Stephen’s summer breaks, Aunt Emily came for a visit. She was warm to Naomi, but didn’t smile when she greeted Obasan. One night, Naomi hears the adults whispering about whether or not to tell the children something. Obasan prays, and Aunt Emily cries.

Summary: Chapter 34

The cardboard folder Aunt Emily had on that mysterious night is included in her package. Earlier that day, Naomi had seen Obasan reading its contents with a magnifying glass.

Mr. Barker, the family’s former employer, comes over with his second wife, Vivian, to say he’s sorry for Obasan’s loss. Vivian reminds Naomi of the first Mrs. Barker, who didn’t want her daughter Penny playing with Stephen and Naomi. Through Vivian’s eyes, Naomi sees how cluttered and unappealing the house is. Mr. Baker asks after Stephen, but Naomi hasn’t seen him in eight years. The last time he came home, he brought a divorcée from Paris with him.

Obasan brings tea in dirty cups. Vivian seems ill at ease, and Naomi says she wishes she could banish the offensive smells and sights from the house. The Barkers ask if Obasan will be all right. Deaf, she does not answer them. Mr. Barker praises Uncle, whom he calls Sam, and says, “ ‘It was a terrible business, what we did to our Japanese.’ ”

Naomi thinks about the well-intentioned questions and comments she often gets about whether she likes Canada, how good her English is, and if she’s ever been “back” to Japan. She says she is from Canada. The fact that Obasan is not puts her in “silent territory,” beyond multiculturalism and racism.

Analysis

While Chapter 31 intimates that Naomi’s father has died, we don’t find out for sure until Chapter 32. This uncertainty mirrors Naomi’s own refusal to comprehend her father’s death. Because the news is too staggering for her to take in, she shuts down. Instead of coming to grips with the death of her parent, she channels her attention toward the injured frog. This creature resembles the chicks and kittens of previous chapters in his helplessness and innocence, and becomes a receptacle for the love Naomi will no longer be able to express to her father. His recovery is bittersweet: It is a pleasant surprise, and shows the success of Naomi’s kind ministrations, but it also underlines Naomi’s powerlessness to bring back her father.

Chapter 34 features our first glimpse at an extended interaction between Naomi and white people since Rough Lock Bill saved her life at the lake. While many chapters have contained references to snubs, racist remarks, or the threat of physical violence, these references have been fleeting. Here we get a long look at an uncomfortable meeting of cultures. The interaction is particularly fraught because the Barkers employed Naomi’s family during the war years, which makes them directly responsible for the subhuman living conditions their employees suffered. Mr. Barker’s remark about the bad treatment of “our Japanese” is not only clichéd and offensive, it is dripping in unintentional irony. He fancies himself a kind man who has embraced multiculturalism, and perhaps he is. Even if his intentions are sterling, however, that does not erase the fact that his pleasantry about the poor treatment of Japanese Canadians grossly understates his own part in that poor treatment.

Chapter 34 suggests that good intentions are not enough. It is nice of the Barkers to pay their condolences, but their behavior once they get to Obasan’s house undermines their kind gesture. Mr. Barker hollers at Obasan in broken English, as if she will understand bad grammar more easily; Vivian perches on the edge of her seat as if loath to touch the furniture; both seem ill at ease. Similarly, the good intentions of people who ask Naomi whether she likes Canada, among other questions, do not excuse their cluelessness.

Naomi reacts with irritation to the Barkers, just as she does to the offensive questions. When she says she wishes she could erase the unfamiliar smells of Japanese food from the house, or see the dust she and Obasan are too short to see, she is being sarcastic and displaying her frustration with the stereotypical thinking of white Canadians. But if anything, her reaction is remarkably measured. She wonders if perhaps Vivian is being solicitous, rather than just condescending. She assumes that even her rudest interlocutors have kindness in their hearts.

Naomi sees Obasan’s identity as less complex and tortured than her own. Naomi herself is Canadian through and through—but she faces a constant barrage of questions about her nationality. Her self-image doesn’t match the way many of her fellow Canadians perceive her, and frustration is the result. As Naomi sees it, Obasan doesn’t face the same kind of problems. She is what people assume Naomi is: originally from Japan. That fact, and her silence, makes her inviolate.

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