The Use of Symbols to Explore Relationships and Gender Roles in The Doctor’s Wife

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In her novel The Doctor’s Wife, Sawako Ariyoshi uses the same symbols effectively in order to explore the two focal themes of the book, relationships and gender roles. The aforementioned themes run throughout the novel and create a more sensitive effect for the reader, as both the themes are prevalent in our current society too and paint a picture of the Japanese society in the 18th. Century. The author uses a plethora of symbols in the novel to explore the themes. However, the few most significant ones are the loom, medicine, and the graves that the bodies of the perished Hanaokas are eventually buried in.

The author uses the loom, in terms of gender discrimination, to symbolize the prejudice prevailing in the Japanese society. For instance, after the women of the Hanoaka household toiled extremely hard and spent endless hours at the loom in order to raise money, “The entire amount was then sent to Seishu”. The women were barely credited for their diligence and dedication, let alone receiving a reward for it. This loom symbolically represents the injustice women were served with. Every penny that was earned was used to support the male heir of the family, and any thought of saving money for the marriages of the two unmarried and aging daughters in the house, Koriku and Okatsu, was blatantly ignored. Therefore, the author uses the loom in a way that it acts as a sign of restriction, which bars the women of the house from considering anything beyond their only brother’s success. *

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However, soon after Seishu finally endured success as a doctor and earned a “reasonably good income”, the women of the household no longer “worked” at the loom to cater to his betterment. The loom is now employed to symbolize a sudden sense of freedom felt by the women, as they can now consider spending on their personal needs. However, this symbol of freedom sheds light on another sort of injustice the women are served with – the injustice of being used. While the “man” (Seishu) was unable to cater for himself and his family, the women were used as tools to earn for the living of all. However, in Seishu’s professional downfall, the author depicts the women as mere objects that are made to cease working at the loom for Seishu. By constantly shifting roles as per the “male’s” convenience, the author demonstrates that it became extremely difficult for the women in the household to actually identify what their real “role” was. The loom symbolizes the idea of the loss of identity amongst women and also acts as a synecdoche for most Japanese women in the 18th century.

Moreover, medicine is another essential symbol that the author uses effectively in order to highlight the theme of gender roles. Majority of the novel is constructed around Seishu and his journey towards succeeding as a medicinal practitioner. While Seishu was continuously flooded with patients, he didn’t hesitate to treat them without any sort of remuneration, this is evident in “dispensing medicine”, out of “ expensive herbs” . All the money was spent on his medicinal practices, considering he was the “man” in the family and fulfilling his demands was of primary importance. The family’s existing penury and the fact that this meant sacrificing their general food intake, as made evident in “they subsisted on millet porridge mixed with small diced potatoes” was completely overlooked. The author makes the reader more poignant by combining the image of a pregnant Kae to the already remorseful picture. The author shows that Seishu felt no sense of concern in terms of striving to be economically stronger to support his pregnant wife. Instead Otsugi made her best effort to provide her with “cooked rice – all she could eat of it” and “extra portions of silver carp”. It is evident that Seishu’s insatiate hunger for success in terms of medicine blinds him completely. In this case, dominance of the male’s needs overshadows the vulnerability and need of a pregnant woman completely. The author uses medicine as a strong symbol to highlight the sexism that is prevalent in the Hanaoka household.

Finally, the grave is the most significant symbol of the three, in terms of exploring the theme of Gender roles. It leaves the reader piteous, as gender bias doesn’t spare the women even in their afterlife. The author ends the book with “If you stand directly in front of Seishu’s tomb, the two behind him, those of Kae and Otsugi, are completely obscured.” This symbolically expounds how little importance the women were given in the Hanoaka household and society. All the sacrifice and pain that the Otsugi and Kae endured for Seishu, through participating in the various surgical experiments for his prosperity were completely ignored as when it came to dwelling in the most spacious grave, it had to be the “Man”, Seishu. Looped together, the three symbols explore the theme of gender roles In the Japanese culture very effectively.

* In addition to gender roles, the author uses the loom as a symbol to explore the theme of relationships too. For instance, the novel begins with symbolizing the loom as a strong adhesive in Kae’s relationship with Otsugi. When Otsugi calls Kae’s creation on the loom “marvelous” , Kae feels a stronger sense of affection towards Otsugi. Ariyoshi tricks us into believing that Otsugi too, endures the same. However, The symbol also reveals the several bumps their relationship is about to encounter. This is evident, when Otsugi asks Kae “not to hurry or the threads would tangle”. This mirrors the volatility of the relationship the two women share. Otsugi’s admonishment could however be in a form of disguise, to warn Kae that she shouldn’t try to overtake her mother-in-law in any way, or else it could hamper their bond. This read could decipher this as overtaking her in terms of her relationship with Seishu, thus foreshadowing a conflict between the two. Soon after, the “threads” do actually “tangle” when Kae is not credited by Otsugi for toiling at the Loom for her husband’s prosperity. This is made evident in the statement Otsugi makes on Seishu’s return, “Okatsu and Koriku have been excellent weavers” Therefore, the author’s employment of the loom symbolizes the friction in between the two women, and a sense of building competition in between the two, to get closer to Seishu.

Similarly, Medicine symbolizes the relationship Kae and Seishu share. This is made evident by the author when Kae feels a certain “affinity” towards those “strange” medical objects owned by Seishu. A bond is established between his medicinal tools and her, even before she feels connected to him. The author shows that the very first conversation the husband and wife share revolves around medicine and is made evident when Seishu says, “Do you know the name of the flower”(in reference to the medicinal plant mandarage) . Therefore medicine carves a path for their relationship. The author corresponds the many sacrifices that Kae has to endure to build a stronger bond with her husband to medicine and thus extends its symbolism. for example; the medicinal experiments including the anesthesia Umpei prepares.

* Medicine symbolizes the bond the two are about to share. Later in the book, when Umpei experiments on the two women, the reader comes to see distinctly how the mutual distrust and disjuncture in between the two women is due to their insecurity over Seishu. For instance, when Seishu feeds Kae the antidote through his own mouth, a conventional gesture in between husband and wife, Otsugi feels rather uneasy and “bursts into goose bumps” Combined with this, “feelings of jealousy raged” with her when Seishu pinched Kae’s thigh to test the anesthetic. Kae endured similar feelings, when Seishu pinched his mother’s thigh while operating on her. While it is justifiable for Kae to feel uncomfortable with having seen her husband touch his own mother’s private parts, Otsugi’s feelings of discomfort towards Seishu and Kae’s intimate interactions reveals how uncanny her feelings towards her own son are. The antidote and the anesthetic therefore help the reader perceive the relationships In between the husband and wife, and the mother and son in a different light. *

* Graves, once again symbolize the irony that lies in between the relationship between the three protagonists of the novel. After competing with great vengeance, eventually both the women are present next to each other after death, none having an advantage over the other. Reiterating the quote, “If you stand directly in front of Seishu’s tomb, the two behind him, those of Kae and Otsugi, are completely obscured.” This arouses irony along with a sense of poignancy amongst the reader, as the sacrifice undertaken by both women is completely overlooked, even at a stage, where they are non-existent.

The two themes, relationships and gender roles are an intrinsic part of the novel. Ariyoshi uses the loom, medicine and the graves as symbols to explore the aforementioned. The symbols help the reader perceive the way women are treated and considered in the Hanaoka household, and also disclose the changing relationships in between the protagonists of the novel, Otsugi and Kae and It also highlights the reliance of their bond on their relationship with Seishu. The symbols used by Ariyoshi are so culturally rich that they simultaneously explore two dominant themes and give the reader an insight into the Japanese culture. *

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The Use of Symbols to Explore Relationships and Gender Roles in The Doctor’s Wife. (2016, Aug 28). Retrieved from

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