Literature Study GuidesObasanChapters 31 33 Summary

Obasan | Study Guide

Joy Kogawa

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Obasan | Chapters 31–33 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 31

In this brief chapter Naomi goes to the swamp, where she finds a frog with a broken leg. Stephen appears and tells her that Nakayama-sensei has come to see them. Naomi takes the frog, which she intends to nurse back to health, and goes with him. Once she is home, she receives news that is not revealed. The rest of the chapter describes how Naomi nurses the frog back to health, to the point where he hops to freedom on his own. Naomi then mentions briefly that she has not received a reply to her last note to Father.

Chapter 32

Naomi finally reveals the news that she received from Nakayama. Her father is dead. Although she has known this subconsciously, Naomi does not say the words aloud until 1951, when Naomi is in ninth grade and the farmer's daughter, Penny Barker, comes to see the new house they have moved to in town. Saying the words finally makes her father's death real. She still has no news of her mother or grandmother, despite Nakayama-sensei's efforts to find them on a visit to Japan. Stephen is convinced they are dead, and letters about the search that Naomi finds in Emily's files provide no reason to believe otherwise.

The house they have moved to is small and simple, but it is a real house and it is in town, not on the farm. Stephen is able to practice the piano more and becomes increasingly skilled. He and the music teacher are working on a cantata for a music festival, and Naomi sends a copy of the music to Emily, who says how proud Naomi and Stephen's father would be of him.

Chapter 33

It is now 1954. Stephen has not been in the house for two years, having been accepted into the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto after winning the music festival. He lives there lives with their Aunt Emily. His talent has continued to grow—he even tours Europe—and the town of Granton takes pride in him.

Stephen and Emily return to Granton for a visit. Naomi notes that he is less surly, but that he is still "irritable and almost completely noncommunicative with Obasan." He refuses to wear clothes she mends for him or eat the food she makes for him. When Uncle recites a haiku, Stephen barely responds, and Naomi notes that "He is always uncomfortable when something is 'too Japanese.'" On the other hand, Stephen gets on well with Emily who, he tells his sister, is not "like them." He is referring to Uncle and Obasan. On the last night of Emily's visit, Naomi overhears her talking to Uncle, with Obasan listening quietly. They are having a disagreement, with Uncle urging something "for the sake of the children," a phrase that Naomi has heard whispered for most of her life. Emily argues that Naomi and Stephen are no longer children and "should be told." Uncle apparently wins the argument, and Emily puts some papers in a gray cardboard folder.

Analysis

Chapters 31 and 32 focus on the death of Naomi's father, although his death is not revealed explicitly until Chapter 32. This choice by the author echoes Naomi's own denial of what has happened and shows her inability to accept the loss of another parent. She focuses instead on the injured frog she has found, perhaps hoping that if she heals him, other tragedies can magically be undone. Only when she says the phrase "my father is dead" aloud to Penny Barker does she finally accept reality.

The episode with the frog may also foreshadow what happens with Stephen, who still limps on his own injured leg, and who is damaged in other ways as well. He finds release in his music, as well as an escape from his history and his heritage. As his success grows, he is seen not as Japanese, but as a gifted pianist whom the town of Granton claims for its own, and whom the farmer's daughter Penny looks at romantically. But with his acceptance in the white community, Stephen distances himself from his family more and more, both physically and emotionally. He moves to Toronto to attend the music academy and attaches himself to Emily, who he says is not like "them," referring to Uncle and Obasan. In fact, he barely speaks to Obasan when he visits and doesn't touch her traditional meals.

The code of silence and a lingering mystery also reappear in these chapters. Naomi overhears Emily and Uncle discussing something, with Uncle urging silence on some topic "for the sake of the children." This is an echo of the very first chapter, where Uncle refuses to tell Naomi something because she is still "not old enough."

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