My students viscerally relate to the protagonist’s integrity, savvy, generosity, and even hatred.
As a high school teacher, I find new novels to teach by reading The New York Times obituaries. That’s how I discovered Fumiko Enchi’s The Waiting Years (1957), which has, in my opinion, one of the most complex female characters in literature. The tale resonates especially with female students, who viscerally relate to the protagonist’s integrity, savvy, generosity, and even hatred. The tale is set in Japan’s early Meiji period (the late 19th-century), when the patriarchy was resisting modern ideas then trickling into the nation.
The story begins when Yukitomo Shirakawa, a respected government official, asks his wife, Tomo, to travel to Tokyo to procure a concubine for him. Among my students, his demand triggers disbelief and outrage; yet, they learn that Tomo can refuse the request only at her peril.
An intelligent judge of character, Tomo works a bad situation to her advantage: She indeed fetches a concubine, but one whom she knows will be too weak and meek to exert her own control over the family. While the beautiful Suga replaces Tomo in the bedroom, she will not be upended as the chief of her household.
As the years pass, Yukitomo replaces one concubine with another, and this is when Tomo’s magnificent complexity is revealed. Under arrangements made with the girls’ families, Tomo cannot cast the rejected concubines into the street. The household must keep and care for them their entire lives. Tomo’s hatred for these young women is mixed with begrudging compassion. She realizes that they, too, are victims of her husband’s selfish lust, as well as the system of concubinage. While Tomo could never be described as “tender,” she fulfills her obligations and even works to marry one concubine off to a good husband.
Eventually, Yukitomo turns into someone truly ugly, when he seduces the wife of his ne’er-do-well son. Tomo faces this destructive development with nerve and strength to stand up to the shame she feels. Her revenge comes in knowing that her husband has lost all sense of himself; her dignity waxes while his wanes to nothing. By the end of the novel, he’s a pathetic, debauched old man.
Tomo predeceases her husband. As she lies dying, her eyes suddenly gleam with excitement and hope. She asks that her corpse be thrown into the sea after her death, instead of submitting her body and memory to a formal family funeral — which would have made a mockery in the case of her horrible experience. In death, she achieves victory over her husband and also wins a small battle against antiquated practice that aggrieves and humiliates wives and degrades even husbands.
A FINAL NOTE: The novel, unfortunately, is out of print, but used copies are neither hard to find nor expensive.