Osamu Dazai (author), Allison Markin Powell (translator), Schoolgirl, One Peace Books, 2012. 103 pgs.
Osamu Dazai’s 1939 novella is a young girl’s narration of a day in her life as she reflects on finding her place in the world. Schoolgirl is essentially a self-portrait of a student engulfed with adolescent angst and despite the roughly seventy-year gap between its original publication and its first English translation by Allison Markin Powell, is timelessly relatable and familiar to anyone who has ever wondered, at a tender age, about the individual within society.
As the unnamed girl takes the reader through her inner monologue of random musings and daydreaming across an ordinary day, she takes on a generally sad disposition and is voluntarily forthcoming of her unpleasant traits. “I really am a horrid girl,” she says, referring to how she hates lots of things, including her “pathetic” crippled pet dog. Over dinner, she looks cynically at her mother’s house guests the Imaidas, calling Mrs. Imaida “unrefined” for her excessive laughter. The girl’s loneliness mainly comes from missing her deceased father, yearning for her older sister who had already married and lives in Hokkaido, and having a mother who spends most of her time away from home or is busy entertaining friends and acquaintances. But beneath our schoolgirl’s cynicism and self-loathing is an acknowledgement of her weaknesses and shortcomings. With her father gone, the girl feels burdened at having to be her mother’s pillar, just as much as her father was, but is regretful for still being an immature daughter: “I only ever think of myself, I thought, I let myself be coddled by her to my heart’s content, and then take such a reckless attitude with her.”
Aside from her familial relations, the girl ponders about what it means to be a member of society. Unlike the typical soul-searching adolescent, she seems to already have a fair grasp of her identity. In fact, she’s reluctant at having to let herself go. Many times she challenges the need for conformity and the limits of living an authentic life. She desires to embrace her individuality but she is also aware of the pressures of needing to belong and having to comply with society’s standards. That is where the brunt of her frustration lies. “The truth is that I secretly love what seems to be my own individuality, and I hope I always will, but fully embodying it is another matter.”
Whereas some teenagers who struggle with the same questions of personal identity turn to rebellion that manifests physically, the girl keeps it all to herself, bottled up but somehow exerting no real pressure. We never really get a sense of pent up, on-the-edge adolescent frustration that boils tantalizingly close to the surface. Our schoolgirl’s inner turmoil is somewhat controlled. No matter how subversive her thoughts become, she never lashes out, keeping herself in check. While serving dinner to her mother’s house guests:
“Despite my feelings, I forced myself to bow and smile and chat, saying how cute Yoshio was and giving him a pat on the head. Since I was the one lying outright and tricking them all, maybe the Imaidas were more pure and innocent than I was.”
She has enough maturity to act appropriately but she is equally aware of the superficiality of her actions. It bothers her that she has to put on the “happy face” that people around her expect to see because deep inside, she wants to act her own way. But her rebellion is all in her mind and never breaks surface mainly because our schoolgirl harbors sorrow more than anger. Several times over the course of the day, she wanted to cry but even her tears never fall. Arguably, the girl feels entrapped, claustrophobic not only within the society that she is part of but also within the person that she is or rather, the mask that she wears.
Her feelings are contradictory, in that as much as she dislikes acting superficially to meet accepted norms, she finds comfort in conformity. She regularly uses the word “obsequious” to describe herself and the people around her, revealing how she honestly sees society. As Shakespeare once wrote in As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage.” So our schoolgirl sticks to her script, acting accordingly to how she is expected to act around people, be it in school, while riding public transportation, or at home while entertaining guests.
The girl possesses a precocious, piercing, aggressive vision of the world around her—on society and nature. She gawks at passengers on the train going to school but on her way home, she takes a slow walk down the country road and lies down on a meadow, remembering her late father. Allowing the afternoon haze to embrace her while gazing at the blue sky, she becomes awestruck at the beauty of this scene and encounters a spiritual experience. “I want to live beautifully,” she says.
Later in the night before going to bed, she gives her mother a massage as they share a tender moment. She receives praise from her mother. “I was thrilled by the possibility of a new, calm me, one who had emerged after I had simply accepted my place,” says our schoolgirl. In the midst of her confusion and loneliness, she encounters hope.