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The Past that Follows: Ishiguro’s Fiction and Modern History

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Trauma plays an extremely significant role in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel A Pale View of Hills. Not only is the novel set in the time after the bombing of Nagasaki, but each character has also lived through different traumas that have distinct and differing effects, and play out in the characters’ actions and personalities. Ishiguro adeptly addresses history and past events to spark a fire in his characters that is tangible to his readers.

The bombing of Nagasaki was a detrimental part of history and this story. It shapes the backgrounds of the character’s lives and puts characters where they need to be for the novel to become what it needs to be. The Nagasaki bombing killed many innocent people and leveled the city. Such a setting for this novel paints a picture of the destruction that was left behind as a result of this. The novel portrays Etsuko’s and Sachiko’s living conditions through descriptions of the river bank near their homes. Indeed, the terrible conditions they live in as a result of the bombings lead to a character development in Sachiko, which the reader needs in order to understand the standoffish way in which she regards Etsuko and her present situation.

Sachiko is a unique character in the way that the reader never finds out much about her life as a whole. Through the novel one can piece together parts of her background, but as a whole the reader never finds out her entire background. The trauma that Sachiko has experienced is never mentioned outright in the novel as well. While Etsuko’s background and traumas are written out clearly for the most part, Ishiguro leaves the traumas of Sachiko to be interpreted by the reader. While reading, one assumes that Sachiko is a person who cares not for her child or the feelings of her friend. However, if the reader delves deeper into the text one can see that Sachiko has a reason for her behavior. One can assume from the reading that she came from a place of prominence and wealth in the past, maybe before the bombings, and is not used the rudimentary lifestyle that has been thrown upon her. She then takes this out on Etsuko in the way she seems to talk down to her and condescend her at every chance she has throughout the story according to Etsuko’s memory. Sachiko also neglects her daughter, Mariko, to a point of worry for the reader as well as Etsuko which also seems to come as a result of her background and that she never had to take close care of Mariko in the past.

Mariko is another staple character in the novel that experienced trauma that she cannot move past. While Mariko is said to be around the age of ten or so, she speaks as though she is much younger. Ishiguro captures the essence of youth in Mariko in the way that she seems to get stuck in certain situations and obsesses over things. After the bombing of Nagasaki life was difficult for Sachiko and Mariko and at a young age Mariko saw many horrible things that no child at her age should ever see. However, while she sees many terrible things, one specific incident stays with her and leaves a lasting imprint on Mariko. While at the river one day, Sachiko and Mariko come across a woman who is kneeling at the river. As they approach the woman, she lifts an infant from the water where she seems to be drowning the child. After seeing the woman at the river who seemed to be drowning her infant, Mariko, as any child would be, is trapped in a sort of way in that moment and cannot seem to move on. Seeing a mother who is supposed to be the one solid protector of her children do something so terrible, leaves a scar on Mariko and this leads to many of her trust problems with her own mother as well as Etsuko. She obsesses over her kittens and protects and defends them as best she can. Although it is never clearly stated, Ishiguro seems to want to paint a picture of overcompensation here where Mariko feels that she has to be the best ‘mother’ to the kittens in order to erase the actions of the woman at the river as well as make up for the way her own mother parents her. Mariko is severely damaged by her past and the things she sees and this develops the plot and leads to the concern that Etsuko holds for the child and her relationship with her mother.

The main character Etsuko’s life is shaped by the traumas that have clouded her past and handles each of them in a unique way that forces the reader to read deeper into the text to try and demystify her jaded past. To start, Etsuko has also experienced the terrible outcomes of the bombings of Nagasaki and now lives in squalor as a result of it. While Etsuko’s memory seems to be unreliable, as she herself even states, it is the only thing the reader has to rely on for the events of not only her own past, but of all the other characters in the story. She recalls many traumas in her past through the novel starting at the very beginning. The novel opens with Etsuko talking to her daughter Niki about the death of her eldest daughter Keiko. This event in Etsuko’s life shapes the whole novel. Her feelings that she has failed as a mother plays out not only in the way that she treats Mariko but in the way the whole story is laid out. Etsuko seems to blur her memories of her daughter and the memories of Mariko and refers to them as one person many times throughout the novel. In some instances, Etsuko never even mentions who she is talking about and leaves it to the reader to determine which memory of which child she is thinking of. For example, in chapter ten when Etsuko is remembering a time that seems to be of Mariko, she never mentions Mariko’s name. In this passage, the child Etsuko is speaking to says; “I don’t want to go away. And I don’t like him. He’s like a pig” (172). While it seems that it is Mariko she is speaking to in this moment, she could also be remembering a conversation with her daughter Keiko in reference to Etsuko’s second husband who Keiko never took a liking to and was the reason they moved to England. Etsuko then says, “Yes I promise… If you don’t like it over there we’ll come straight back” (173). This leads the reader to believe that Etsuko is remembering a conversation with Keiko because Etsuko was never accompanying Sachiko and Mariko on their journey to America, but she could be speaking to Keiko about moving to England with her new husband. Etsuko’s past husband’s were also a part of her life that could be classified as a trauma. Her first husband, Jiro, treated her very poorly and never took care of her or seemed to care for Keiko. When Etsuko left Jiro, it was a pleasant change in her life, but divorce has extremely negative effects on all persons involved. Etsuko also had a second husband. There is never much detail about this second husband but he seems to be a suitable husband and father to Etsuko and their daughter Niki and step daughter Keiko. This second marriage however leads to another trauma in Etsuko’s life and ends in the death of her husband.

Each character’s past traumas lead to their further characterization and build the plot in a way that shows the depth of the characters’ lives. Etsuko’s past, especially the suicide of her daughter Keiko, shapes the story as a whole and paints the story as well as making the reader question everything about Etsuko’s memories of Sachiko, Mariko, and the events that each one were a part of. Trauma effects humans in a very specific and intense way that not many other things do in the world and Ishiguro depicts the scars that trauma can leave on his characters beautifully.

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The Past that Follows: Ishiguro’s Fiction and Modern History. (2018, May 18). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 23, 2021, from
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