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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text's major themes.
Race arises as a motif throughout A Gesture Life, referencing issues of racism and racial identity. According to Doc Hata, in the beginning, people from different racial backgrounds lived in Bedley Run in relative harmony and all shared the same focus of establishing the town’s economic baseline. However, Bedley Run’s diversity has decreased in the last thirty years, with the few remaining people of color being pushed to the edges of town. Doc Hata comments disapprovingly on the decrease of racial diversity, but even so, he has adopted the same prejudices against people of color that others in his community hold, as becomes clear when he worries that Sunny might be living with blacks and Puerto Ricans. Yet Doc Hata prefers not to think of the people of Bedley Run as racist, and he also prefers not to think about his own racial status. Born Korean but raised to consider himself Japanese, Doc Hata grew up confused about his racial identity. This confusion returned when he came to the United States and again when he adopted a girl of mixed-race heritage. Ever since, he has avoided thinking about his own race to avoid feeling different from others in his community.
The motif of disappearance arises in several guises related to issues of age and death. Now retired and growing older, Doc Hata is gradually receding from public life. This experience makes him feel like he is physically disappearing. As his relevance diminishes, he harbors thoughts of himself as invisible, whether as a ghostly apparition driving through town or camouflaged in the water of his pool. Yet Doc Hata’s sense of his own disappearance goes beyond his social reputation. He also fantasizes about disappearing or becoming invisible when he faces difficult truths about his past. At one point he draws himself a scalding bath and imagines dissolving in water so hot it could sanitize his memories and restore his innocence. At times Doc Hata’s desire to run away from the past grows so intense that his fantasies of disappearance take the form of suicidal thoughts. He sometimes wonders whether certain moments of inaction reflect a secret desire to die—in effect, to disappear from existence.
Doc Hata repeatedly focuses on the here and now to hold the pain of the past at bay. When Doc Hata served in the Japanese army, a feeling would occasionally overcome him in which the present moment would take on a “superreality.” It was as if time stopped and he could sense an elevated significance in all the ordinary things around him. He attributed this sensation of the present moment’s fullness to the wartime anxiety he lived with at all times. When death could come at any moment, the here and now felt charged with significance. In the present time of the novel, Doc Hata continues to focus on the present to cope with trying times. He reminds himself to cherish the moment even in difficult circumstances, as when he finds pleasure in talking to Renny and Victoria despite being hospitalized. Doc Hata also focuses on the here and now to avoid hard memories. Sunny acknowledges this in Chapter 13 when she refuses to let him forget their difficult history, even as Doc Hata tells himself the only thing that matters is that he’s with his daughter in the present.