Metaphor and Message in Standing Woman

Metaphor and Message in Standing Woman

Standing Woman by Yasutaka Tsutsui is one of the many short stories anthologized in The Big Book of Science Fiction.It’s a short read, not more than five pages, and I think being able to read the story yourself would help you follow along. The version in The Big Book of Science Fiction is translated by Dana Lewis, but you can read a free online translation by David Lewis here. As always, this is not a review. There may be spoilers for those who haven’t read the story. If you would like to know why I take this stance, please see this post. Otherwise, away we go.

Standing Woman caught my eye because the quietly disturbing events made me think about my place in the world. The themes of passive acceptance, government oppression, and resistance are told through lightly decorated prose that quietly supports the story. The story is set in an alternative version of Japan and follows a man who takes a walk to visit his wife, who is standing in front of a hardware store. It opens as follows:

I stayed up all night and finally finished a forty-page short story. It was a trivial entertainment piece, capable of neither harm nor good.

“These days you can’t write stories that might do harm or good: it can’t be helped.” that’s what I told myself while I fastened the manuscript with a paper clip and put it in an envelope.

As to whether I have it in me to write stories that might do harm or good, I do my best not to think about it. I might want to try.

On first read, the introduction seems low-key. But it  also seems off in a way you can’t put your finger on. On second read, it’s clear that the introduction is raising subconscious questions. Why can’t you write stories that do harm or good these days? What is going on that makes this impossible? Why doesn’t the author/narrator want to think about whether he could write those kinds of stories? Why might he want to try to think this?

Questions are also provoked through characterization. For example, when we learn about the protagonist’s attitude toward his writing.

“I can’t give up writing, because I haven’t the courage. Giving up writing! Why, after all, that would be a gesture against society.”

But as we know from the first few sentences, the protagonist isn’t really writing anything which would be harmful or beneficial to society. How can it be a gesture against society if he wasn’t writing for society in the first place? And this question is hammered home by the other writer’s reply:

“It’s painful, suddenly giving up writing. Now that it’s come to this, I would have been better off if I’d gone on boldly writing social criticism and had been arrested. There are even times when I think that. But I was just a dilettante, never knowing poverty, craving peaceful dreams. I wanted to live a comfortable life. As a person strong in self-respect, I couldn’t endure being exposed to the eyes of the world, ridiculed. So I quit writing. A sorry tale.”

It’s not wrong to want to be comfortable, but the story shows how characters reason themselves into this passive acceptance of oppression by introducing the pillars. Pillars are former animals which are rooted to the ground and gradually vegetized, losing thoughts, physical sensations, and emotions, becoming as passive as plants. They aren’t the focus of the story, but their uncanniness drives the atmosphere of the story, raises more questions about the fictional world, and provides clues into the nature of the characters.

Maybe, I thought, it’s better to make dogs into dogpillars. When their food runs out, they get vicious and even turn on people. But why did they have to turn cats into catpillars? Too many strays? To improve the food situation by even a little? Or perhaps for the greening of the city. . .

Even if the protagonist is uncomfortable by the idea, he tries to find reasons why it’s necessary. And then we learn there are manpillars. We learn the mail carrier was turned into a manpillar for complaining about his pay. The protagonist does not wonder why people are turned into pillars like he does with cats. He wonders what people did as individuals to be turned into pillars, and what it’s like to gradually become a plant (it’s horrifying), but not why the practice of pillar-ing people exists.

Spoilers below.

The story’s climax begins when we learn that the protagonist’s wife was also turned into a pillar. Like the mail carrier, she had complained, was reported to the government, and was planted in front of the hardware store. Then, we learn that the previous night two drunks had sexually assaulted her. When her distraught husband asks if it hurts, she replies, “Mm, a little.” Her passivity is frightening, as is her husband’s anger at the drunks but not the government for putting her in this position.

There are more moments that shape the rising and falling action, such as the knowledge that the hardware store employees are kind at heart but haven’t done anything for the wife, the impossibility of making a complaint for fear of being labeled a problem person, and the husband’s infuriating visit to the coffee shop:

The bitterness of sugarless, creamless coffee pierced my body, and I savored it masochistically. From now on I’ll always drink it black. That was what I resolved.

Whoa, what a gesture! Why doesn’t he drink a steaming cup of rage and do something about it? Even that idea is denied. As the protagonist drinks his black coffee, he overhears a group of students discuss another group’s attempt to take over the Diet by force and all thirty of them being turned into pillars. The story ends with the protagonist realizing that he felt like he was becoming a manpillar himself. However, we have the feeling that he was already one, and that it’s too late for him.

Standing Woman crafts its message indirectly by drawing your eye to bits of information and creates a scenario where these questions can be raised through metaphor, i.e., the pillars. We are told about dogpillars, “They’ll eat just about anything you give them[,]” and that it’s law that you can’t call a dogpillar by its original name, because there are no proper names for plants. Note that the narrator-author doesn’t have a name either. The readers are never given this information, which goes to show that what’s not in the story shows as much as what is. Each word contributes to the story on a granular level.

— I might want to try.

— That was what I resolved.

— As a person strong in self-respect. . . A sorry tale.

Unfortunately I have forgotten four years of Japanese, so please take my thoughts on word choice with a sea of salt. I’m more confident analyzing in chunks in this case, but if any readers who know Japanese and can speak for word choice would like to chime in, I’ll add your thoughts to this article. The point being, each phrase, each character, each bit of information we receive works on multiple levels to craft a succinct impression. The story is a masterclass in making every word work.

Personal Thoughts:

I initially read Standing Woman as a caution against passive acceptance of societal wrongdoing, and on my second reading, took it as a personal criticism of the writer’s role in society. It’s all the more personal because I know I’ve been a terrible citizen. It struck me when the second writer admitted he wanted to be comfortable, because I do too. It hurt to read the lines, “As to whether I have it in me to write stories that might do harm or good, I do my best not to think about it. I might want to try.” The protagonist makes excuses to not rise up, and I do that too. I want to make stories that strike the heart, but fear that I will cause more harm than good if I boldly write social criticism. I took the intelligence of my neighbors for granted and didn’t participate in politics at all, I made plans to go to marches and never went, I read the news but never go to town hall meetings, and feel terrible and sympathetic, but what good is feeling bad if it never spurs change for the good?

The story warned me of this reality and now that my country has brushed close to it, I understand more deeply my role in bringing it to this point. I can no longer take this sitting down— or standing.

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