‘‘The test of a round character,’’ asserts British writer E. M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel ‘‘is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat.’’ Forster, himself a novelist, raises an interesting question. ‘‘Round characters’’ may be the ones that surprise, engage, and convince fiction readers of fiction, but what if they disappoint them in the process? Hana Omiya, the protagonist of Yoshiko Uchida’s short story ‘‘Tears of Autumn’’ is a character whose ability to surprise may engage and disappoint readers simultaneously. Because the story narrates her memories of the path that led her to become an immigrant to the United States from Japan, readers learn about a puzzling contradiction within her character. Hana is independent and longs for an adventurous, free life away from the restrictions faced by women in Japan. Yet she has also agreed to become a picture bride, which means she is promised to a man she will not meet until she crosses the ocean to marry him. It is curious as to why she has compromised herself to this arrangement and given in to her family’s fears about her remaining single. Her actions beg the question of whether a chance at a better life in America could possibly be worth the risk of marrying a man she might not love, or even worse, who might oppress her more than her relatives in Japan do.
Part of Uchida’s goal as a historical fiction writer is to raise such questions through the surprising, and possibly disappointing, actions of Hana. Writing in the 1980s about a woman who immigrates some seventy years in the past, Uchida took on the task of helping readers to understand why a woman of Hana’s background acts as she does. Uchida knew her audience would likely have very different values, particularly when it came to the customs of arranged marriage. For those who have grown up in a country and age in which women’s individual needs are considered at least as important, and sometimes more important, than family needs, Hana’s willingness to compromise may be puzzling or frustrating.
The dilemma posed by Hana’s marriage stems from her complexity as a character. If Hana were a ‘‘flat character,’’ in the words of Forster, she would conform more easily to readers’ expectations of an old-fashioned woman who becomes a picture bride without questioning the practice. Or she might reject the system altogether, becoming an unshakeable feminist heroine who adamantly refuses to marry to sacrifice herself. But instead Hana is both traditional and rebellious (which is, arguably, what makes her interesting as well as confusing). Within the very same paragraph, she is both a character who ‘‘wanted to escape the smothering strictures of life in her village’’ and one who comes up with the idea of ‘‘a flight to America for what seemed a proper and respectable marriage.’’
Reading that second quotation closely, however, leads to the possibility of seeing Hana as a ‘‘round’’ character with complex motivations. Hana imagines her journey to America as a ‘‘flight,’’ an escape more than a journey with a clear destination. Moreover, because her goal is a marriage that ‘‘seemed’’ appropriate enough for her family’s standards, Hana may be more interested in creating a situation that looks good than in actually getting married. Perhaps Hana initially sees her marriage as a cover for pursuing a new life in the United States. Convincing her relatives to arrange the marriage, Hana believes she has found the means to an end.
Her act may be devious and short-sighted, but it also may also be her only option. She has finally found a way to please both herself and her family. What begins as her idea becomes an act of family collaboration; it would not be possible otherwise. Hana’s mother will not agree to send Hana away until Hana’s uncle, brothers-in-law, and the village priest approve. ‘‘A man’s word carried much weight for Hana’s mother,’’ readers learn. Hana, who had never succeeded in convincing her mother to let her go to Tokyo to become a teacher, has now found an approved method of escape, one in which men who are concerned about her unmarried status are conspiring to achieve. In particular, Hana realizes that her brother-in-law, the head of her household, ‘‘would be pleased to be rid of her, the spirited younger sister who stirred up his placid life with what he considered radical ideas about life and the role of women.’’
Perhaps it is this characterization that may most trouble readers who wish that Hana would find a more independent and direct way of asserting herself. They may wonder why Hana can’t simply stand up for herself, run off to Tokyo, and become a teacher. Again, a ‘‘flat character’’ might do these things, but then Uchida’s story would be unrealistic, more true to readers’ idealistic desires for heroines than to the historical era she is writing about.
In her book Issei Women: Echoes from Another Frontier , historian Eileen Sunada Sarasohn has described Japanese women in Hana’s era as constrained by tradition: ‘‘Raised to be demure, submissive, feminine, and even coquettish, totally dedicated to family and children, issei women lived in a Japan that confined them to a domestic world with no status, little power, and few opportunities.’’ Issei women, a term that refers to the first generation of Japanese women immigrants to settle in the United States, may have found those ideals tested by their experiences and own desires, but options for living outside these traditions were few. Japanese culture in this era, known as the Meiji Era, did increasingly promote education for women as part of a larger cultural attempt at modernization and nationalization. Hana, a Kyoto Women’s High School graduate, experienced such reforms. The point of this education was not for women likeHanatopursue acareer, but toincrease women’s ability to pass on values to their children. ‘‘In Meiji Japan,’’ writes Sarasohn, ‘‘the smallest unit of society was the family, not the individual.’’ Even in the United States, which may have espoused more progressive ideals for women, issei women would be bound by their immediate families when at home, and restricted by racism when interacting with society.
If Hana has made a mistake in thinking she can escape these Meiji traditions by marrying a man in the United States, she is the first to realize it. Her seasickness on the boat alludes to her physical aversion to the destination that awaits her. Her only way of comforting herself seems to be hoping that she will marry a man rich enough to have a fine home and servants. Taro Takeda’s meek appearance, at the end of the novel, implies that this will not be the case, and that Hana’s escape fantasy has led to a disappointing outcome. In fact, one way to describe the main event of ‘‘Tears of Autumn’’ is that it is a painful story of Hana coming to terms with the consequences of the compromise she has tried to make between herself and tradition. Accepting responsibility means crossing the border between childhood and adulthood. Perhaps this is why ‘‘Tears of Autumn’’ functions not only as an independent short story but also as the opening chapter of a novel, Picture Bride , which shows the unfolding of Hana’s adult life in the United States, as the impact of her decision to immigrate continues.
Meeting Taro on the boat dock in San Francisco could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, for he seems older and less prosperous than Hana has imagined him to be. But Uchida skillfully shows Hana neither repudiating Taro nor breaking down with disappointment. Rather, Hana experiences a measured acceptance of her situation. Critic Esther Mikyung Ghymn, in her The Shapes and Styles of Asian American Prose Fiction , notes that Uchida often ends her books about Japanese American characters by ‘‘stressing inner strength.’’ Ghymn notes that Hana, though occupying a ‘‘much darker world’’ than characters Uchida had previously written about for children, still ultimately illustrates ‘‘resilience.’’ Ghymn refers to this as Uchida’s ‘‘positive vision,’’ a desire, not inconsistent with American culture, to be optimistic even when struggling.
Some readers may want Hana, at the end of the story, to do more than make the best of her situation. Laughing with Taro will not likely make up for Hana’s lost ideal of escape. Taro may be gentle and kind in ways that illustrate his own depth as a character, but Hana has stopped far short of telling him that he was not what she expected. Hana’s complexity as a character, and the fact that she matures in the story, makes it possible for readers to understand why she acts as she does, regardless of whether they see it as disappointing. She has just completed a long journey made up of many difficult steps: convincing her mother to arrange her marriage, leaving her family and Japan behind, withstanding a long ocean voyage, and enduring the humiliations of Angel Island. Constrained by the expectations of Japanese women that surround her, Hana cannot be the kind of feminist heroine some may desire her to be. And yet she accepts the outcome of her journey with maturity and grace, becoming a different sort of feminist character. When she sits ‘‘carefully beside Taro, so no part of their clothing touched,’’ she honors traditions of modesty and compliance while also maintaining her separate self and dignity. Compromise between herself and her culture is not something she can overcome with one youthful act of escape. The ending implies that Hana’s new life will be an ongoing process of negotiation, of finding herself within, not removed from, others’ needs and expectations.
Maureen Reed, Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Yoshiko Uchida, Published by Gale Group, 2010