The Aspect of Memory in Kazuo Ishiguro’s 'A Pale View of Hills'

Seminararbeit, 2006

20 Seiten, Note: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. The Plot of the Novel

3. Etsuko’s failure as a mother

4. The Unreliability of the Narrator

5. The Function of Memory in the Novel

6. Conclusion


Ehrenwörtliche Erklärung

“I’m interested in memory because it’s a filter through which we see our lives, and because it’s foggy and obscure, the opportunities for self-deception are there. In the end, as a writer, I’m more interested in what people tell themselves happended than in what actually happended.”[1] (Kazuo Ishiguro)

“Memory, I realize, can be an unreliable thing; often it is heavily coloured by the circumstances in which one remembers, and no doubt this applies to certain of the recollections I have gathered here.” (Etsuko)

1. Introduction

It is widely accepted that human memory constitutes identity: We need to have individual memories in order to experience biographical continuity. Without the episodic (or autobiographical) memory, it would be impossible for us to link our individual past to ourselves.[2] The strong connexion between memory and identity is a very prominent topic in contemporary British fiction[3] and the significance of memory is discussed in many literary works. One of this books is Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel A Pale View of Hills.

In this novel, Kazuo Ishiguro concerns himself with memories and their problematic function in the process of forming one’s identity.[4] All of his novels he has published so far deal with “individuals scanning their past for clues to their identity, loss, or abandonment.”[5] This also applies to A Pale View of Hills. The novel, Childs summarizes, “is a gentle meditation on memory and sublimated pain, which uses fantasy and displacement to reveal indirectly the distress of a woman who has lost her homeland, her husbands, and her elder daughter.”[6]

In the following, I will first outline the plot of the novel. Then I shall want to concentrate on memory as a means to create identity and to avoid responsibility. I shall also discuss the unreliability of the narrator. As we will see, this unreliability enables the reader to decipher the narrator’s memories. At last I shall try to answer the question how the main protagonist in the novel uses his memory to overcome a loss by transferring her guilt onto an imagenary character.

2. The Plot of the Novel

The novel opens with Etsuko, a middle-aged Japanese woman and the first-person narrator, receiving a visit by her second daughter Niki at her country house in Southern England. When we first meet Etsuko, her mind is occupied with the compromise she has reached with her second husband, Sheringham, over the naming of their daughter:

Niki, the name we finally gave my younger daughter, is not an abbreviation; it was a compromise I reached with her father. For paradoxically it was he who wanted to give her a Japanese name, and I - perhaps out of some selfish desire not to be reminded of the past - insisted on an English one. He finally agreed to Niki, thinking it had some vague echo of the East about it.[7] (9)

As we learn, Etsuko does not want to be reminded of the past and the reason for this is given shortly afterwards: Her elder daughter has committed suicide by hanging herself in her rented room in Manchester.

The death of Keiko is at the same time the cause for Niki’s five-days spring visit. This visit functions as the frame story for Etsuko’s memories and is set in the early 1980s. Etsuko’s memories go back to one summer in post-war Japan before she has come to England some two decades earlier. “I was thinking about someone I knew once. A woman I knew once [...] when I was living in Nagasaki. [...] A long time ago.” (10) In those flashbacks, Etsuko’s narrative focuses on two aspects that have taken place in the early 1950s in a suburb of Nagasaki: the visit of her father-in-law Seiji Ogata, known as Ogata-San, and her relationship to Sachiko and Mariko.

From her recollection of Ogata San’s visit, the reader hears that Etsuko’s marriage to her husband Jiro is unhappy. He is an electronics worker and only interested in his career. More significant however, is her story about Sachiko and her ten-year old daughter Mariko. Etsuko admits that she “never knew Sachiko well. In fact [their] friendship was no more than a matter of some several weeks one summer many years ago.” (11) Still, Etsuko and Sachiko “were to become friends that summer and for a short time at least [Etsuko] was to be admitted into her confidence.” (13) When Etsuko first meets Sachiko and Mariko, she is in her third or fourth month of pregnancy. Sachiko is a woman in her thirties. She has a boyfriend named Frank, an American soldier, with whom she plans to go to America. She is a very neglectful mother and not interested in her daughter whatsoever, even though she continually insists that her “daughter comes first” (86). Her abuse of Mariko takes many forms: She leaves her unattended, even in a period of mysterious child murders, she strikes her, and she entrusts her daughter to Etsuko, a woman she then barely knows: “If you have nothing else to concern you with, Etsuko [...] then perhaps you’d care to look after my daughter for the day. I’ll be back sometime in the afternoon.” (15) And rather provocative, she adds: “I’m sure you’ll make a splendid mother.” (15)

Sachiko justifies herself by saying that “Mariko should be capable of being left alone on her own by now.” (73) However, the child is “in a somewhat difficult mood [...] these days” (73) and is not able to cope with the situation at all. Mariko does not behave; she is rude to customers of Mrs Fujiwara’s noodle shop; she avoids other children as they are mean to her cats and even has “nasty little fight[s]“ with them and is “playing truant” (14). Despite all that, Sachiko is only concerend with herself as can be seen in a scene in which Mariko is missing and Sachiko inquires whether she is with Etsuko. Etsuko, highly alarmed, offers her help and both women go out to look for Mariko. As it turns out, Sachiko is more interested in telling Etsuko about her plan of leaving Japan than in finding her lost daughter: “In fact, Etsuko, I really came round because I wanted to tell you some news. You see, it’s all been settled at last. We’re leaving for America within the next few days.” (37) It is Etsuko who reminds her that they “can talk later” (38) and “perhaps [...] should find [her] daughter first” (37). Her saying that “it’s being a mother that makes life truly worthwhile” (112) sounds utterly absurd. It is not her daughter she cares about, it is herself. The reason why she wants to go to America is not, as she claims, that “Mariko would be happier there [as] America is a far better place for a young woman to grow up” (170), but rather to fulfill her own dream she is having since her childhood: “When I was young, I used to dream I’d go to America one day, that I’d go there and become a film actress.” (109) When Etsuko expresses her concerns about going to a foreign country, Sachiko disclaims them: “I don’t think there’s much for me to worry about. [...] I really don’t see there’s any cause for me to be worrying. I know I’ll manage.” (43) And Etsuko sheepishly replies: “Actually, it was Mariko I had in mind.” (44)

Sachiko’s neglect of Mariko shows itself in her behaviour towards the pet kittens of her daughter. Even at the beginning, Sachiko is “not so optimistic about these kittens” (19), and the reader learns that one cat has already disapperared before Sachiko and Mariko have moved from Sachiko’s uncle to the cottage. “She was a good cat. [...] She was going to come with us to Nagasaki. [...] [But] the day before we were leaving, she dissappeared.” (81) The problematic relationship between Sachiko and Mariko reaches its climax when Sachiko drowns the kittens of her daughter. This scene is important in two ways: First of all, these kittens - Atsu and Mee-Chan - are the most important thing for Mariko and she is very protective of them. When they are killed, her world is destroyed and everything she has is taken from her. Second, when Mariko sees her own mother drowning her pets in a river, her worst nightmare comes true. To understand this, we have to go back in time: Before coming to Nagasaki, Mariko has been traumatized by witnessing a woman drowning her baby in a Tokyo canal. This incident has troubled Mariko’s mind ever since, as she is repeatedly speaking of a “woman from across the river” (18). Sachiko turns out to be that woman from the river and the drowning of the cats can be thus interpreted as a symbolic murder of Mariko.

After the above mentioned scene, the inner story of Sachiko, Mariko and Ogata-San comes to an abruptly end. It is not said whether Sachiko and Mariko leave for America as planned, but it is hinted that chances are high that Frank abandons them: “I realize we may never see America.” (170) The story then switches back to England, where Niki soon returns to London. The novel ends with Etsuko planning to sell the house and thus trying to make a new start.

3. Etsuko’s failure as a mother

So far, as Shaffer puts it in a nutshell, “Sachiko’s symbolic murder of Mariko appears to have nothing to do with Etsuko and Keiko.”[8] To connect both stories, he continues, the reader must recall Etsuko’s treatment of the young tomato plants which she has ruined: “I really have been rather neglectful about those tomatoes this year.” (92) Etsuko, one could argue, has treated Keiko just as she has treated her tomatoes and as Sachiko has treated Mariko. When she exclaims that “it doesn’t really matter” (92), this strangely echos Sachiko’s words about Mariko’s kittens[9]: “What does it matter about the dirty little creatures?” (165) This is in my opinion the crucial point in which the connexion of both strands is made. Starting from here, I will try to show that Mariko and Keiko are in reality the same persons, just as Etsuko and Sachiko are.

At the beginning of the novel, Etsuko explains that she does not want to be reminded of her past. She rejects everything that is attached to Japan and does not even want to give her second daughter a Japanese name. It is not clear at this point of the story why she refuses to talk about the past, but it soon becomes obvious that she has not yet overcome the suicide of her daughter. She feels responsible as she has left Japan and her husband, even though she has assumed that Keiko would not be happy in England.

But such things are long in the past now and I have no wish to ponder them yet again. My motives for leaving Japan were justifiable, and I know I always kept Keiko’s interests very much at heart. There is nothing to be gained in going over such matters again. (91)

To avoid ‚going over such matters again’, Etsuko employs several defense mechanism to protect her psyche. She tries to keep certain memories away and represses her knowledge about the past in order to shield herself from painful experiences.[10] She has “no great wish to dwell on Keiko now, it brings [her] little comfort.” (11) As she explains further, she only mentions her daughter “because those were the circumstances around Niki’s visit this April, and because it was during that visit that [she] remembered Sachiko again after all this time.” (11)

Not only does Etsuko not wish to talk about Keiko, but she is in denial about her death. When meeting her neighbour Mrs Waters in the street and asked for Keiko, she does not reveal the death of her daughter. Later, she comments her behaviour with:

It seemed easiest to say what I did.” (52) Presumably, Etsuko avoids any confrontation with Keiko’s suicide and - as Niki points out - even seems to be pleased to do so: “It was odd just now, with Mrs Waters. It was almost like you enjoyed [...] pretending Keiko was alive. (52)

On the surface it appears that Etsuko is successful in repressing the thought of her daughter’s death. However, on a deeper level, she is haunted by Keiko’s ghost. She cannot sleep and she has visions about Keiko hanging in her room:

I have found myself continually bringing to mind that picture - of my daughter hanging in her room for days on end. [...] It may seem morbid of a mother to have such thoughts, but on hearing of her suicide, the first thought that ran through my mind - before I registered even the shock - was to wonder how long she had been there like that before they had found her. She had lived amidst her own family without being seen for days on end; little hope she would be discovered quickly in a strange city where no one knew her. (54)

As she concludes, the “horror of that image has never diminished, but it has long ceased to be a morbid matter; as with a wound on one’s own body, it is possible to develop an intimacy with the most disturbing of things.” (54)

Apart from these visions, Etsuko is also haunted by bad dreams: “At first it had seemed a perfectly innocent dream; I had merely dreamt of something I had seen the previous day - the little girl we had watched playing in the park. And then the dream came back the following night. Indeed, over the past few months, it has returned to me several times.” (47) The dream of the girl on a swing “pulling hard on the chains” without being able to “make the swing go higher” (48) turns out not to be so ‚perfectly innocent’ as it has seemed to be at the beginning. As Etsuko realizes later, the dream has a much more profound and disturbing meaning:

The fact that I mentioned my dream to Niki, that first time I had it, indicates perhaps that I had doubts even then to its innocence. I must have suspected from the start - without fully knowing why - that the dream had not to do so much with the little girl we had watched, but with my having remembered Sachiko two days previously. (55)

And much later in the novel, Etsuko comes back to this dream. She tells Niki that “it isn’t that little girl at all” (95) she has been dreaming about. “It seemed to be that little girl, but it wasn’t. [..] It was just a little girl I knew once. A long time ago.” (95) This clearly refers to Mariko, but Etsuko’s second remark leaves the reader riddled: “In fact, I realized something else [...] about the dream. [...] The little girl isn’t on a swing at all. It seemed like that at first. But it’s not a swing she’s on.” (96) This remark is not further specified, but Shaffer suggests that the little girl hangs from the end of a noose[11]. Thus, guilt is once again present and overcomes Etsuko in her sleep.


[1] Dunn; Adam: Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro: „Kazuo Ishiguro remembers when“ - 27.10.2000

[2] See Gymnich. In: Erll, Gymnich, Nünning (2003): p.37.

[3] See Birke. In: Erll, Gymnich, Nünning (2003): p.143.

[4] See Birke. In: Erll, Gymnich, Nünning (2003): p.145.

[5] Childs (2005): p.123.

[6] Childs (2005): p.123.

[7] Ishiguro, Kazuo. „A Pale View of Hills.“ London: Faber and Faber, 1982. All further notes will be given parenthetically within the text and will refer to this edition.

[8] Shaffer (1998): p.34.

[9] See Shaffer (1998): p.34.

[10] See Shaffer (1998): p.9.

[11] Shaffer (1998): p.26.

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The Aspect of Memory in Kazuo Ishiguro’s 'A Pale View of Hills'
Universität Mannheim
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Lydia Gaukler (Autor:in), 2006, The Aspect of Memory in Kazuo Ishiguro’s 'A Pale View of Hills', München, GRIN Verlag,


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