Book review: The Gate

The Gate

The Gate
by Natsume Soseki
First published in Japanese in 1910
Translated by William F. Sibley
With an introduction
by Pico Iyer
NYRB Classics
ISBN13: 9781590175873
(different cover)
Literary fiction/Japanese literature
256 pages


In the introduction to my edition, Pico Iyer highlights that “Japanese literature is often about nothing happening, because Japanese life is, too.” So I was expecting The Gate (the last book of the trilogy after Sanshiro and And Then, illustrating what “then” might have happened) to be on a quieter side than the previous two books, but actually, I thought there was a lot happening!

There are also a lot of words exchanged between the main middle-aged couple, Sosuke and Oyone (after the youth in Sanshiro and the troubled adulthood in And Then). I was expecting more silence. The introduction gave me wrong expectations. But still, there are moments of silence, and of quiet observing of “the small print of life.”

However, there are crises and even some sense of mystery going on, with the Saekis, with Sosuke’s landlord and neighbor, and with the latter’s unexpected guest.

And I disagree with Iyer. For me, if Soseki’s characters seem to abhor action and decision, it’s actually because there’s so much drama happening in themselves. At one point, something happened (arriving in a big city for Sanshiro, or some type of problematic affair here), and they are stuck. Sosuke “was a prisoner of circumstances he could not control”, he also “felt ineluctably swept forward by a force beyond his control”, and the victim of fate. Hence all the indecision, until they can finally try to follow one direction.

There’s a long flashback, where we see how Sosuke and Oyone met in the first place. Though what happened then remains a bit blurred, it puts the quietness of this couple’s life in a very different light! It’s less the quiet of peace than the quiet after a major storm, and the fear of another one!

Still, there are really beautiful passages on the life of this quiet couple.

Every night after dinner the couple sat in the same place, facing each other across the brazier, and talked for about an hour. The topics of their conversation were tailored to the mundane circumstances of their lives.

The couple lived in seclusion, each utterly dependent on the other in their daily life, clinging together for warmth in a cold, sunless world.

They contented themselves instead with making their way together hand in hand.

In the light that shone from the lamp Sōsuke was conscious only of Oyone, Oyone only of Sōsuke. They forgot the dark world of human affairs, which lay beyond the lamp’s power to illuminate. It was through spending each evening this way that as time passed they had found their own life together.
Chapter 6

They began developing more deeply within themselves. What their life together had lost in breadth it gained in depth. For these six years, instead of engaging in casual interactions with the outside world, they had explored the recesses of each other’s hearts.
Chapter 14

And I really enjoy these lines, when Sosuke awakes after a nightmare:

It was a dream orchestrated by demons. He awoke from it with a start, at seven in the morning. There was Oyone bending over him with her usual smile. The bright sun had immediately banished that dark world to some faraway place.
Chapter 17

They may experience some type of happiness, but it’s nothing exuberant. It’s anchored in the awareness that they have lost everything except their mutual love. It’s more a resigned type of contentment, actually maybe not far from zen teachings.

And there are a lot of zen teachings in this novel, including Sosuke spending some time in a zen temple. Chapters 18-21 on his experience there are my favorite chapters.

His overwhelming priorities were the present in which he was now engaged and the future that was in the process of unfolding; the receding past was but an illusion, of as little value to him as a vanished dream.

He was struck by the temple’s apartness from the everyday world.

However, Sosuke leaves the temple unable to find the answer to the koan he was offered, not having much grown in self-knowledge.
As the last book in this trilogy, and to use Norma Moore Field’s words in her Afterword to And Then, in The Gate the characters “are stray sheep lost not only to society but to their own souls”.
And I believe it to be also a message on Japan’s evolution as Soseki was experiencing it in the Meiji Restoration.

As in Soseki’s other books, there is a lot of attention given to the sky.

Clouds looking like splotches of thin black ink moved ceaselessly across the sky.
Chapter 14

I’m really grateful to Meredith for organizing a Japanese Literature Challenge every year. It is a nice incentive to dive deeper into authors I actually really appreciate a lot.

Though I feel I only touched the surface of Soseki’s message in this trilogy and there are so many connections between the three books, that it would be great to reread them!
In this trilogy, I also found references to famous Haiku masters, which I’m now in the process of reading. More on that later on then.

VERDICT:  Very satisfying conclusion to Soseki’s reflection on life’s journey and social evolution in Japan through these three novels.

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What did you think of Soseki’s main message?



24 thoughts on “Book review: The Gate

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  2. I loved reading all the quotes you selected, to get a sense of this couple and how they navigated their lives. Your comments really set the stage for this book and the way it fits (or doesn’t fit) into expectations for Japanese literature. Glad that you discovered such an affinity for it!


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  4. I have never read that quote by Iyer before, and it fascinates me! Here I thought Japanese literature was ‘quiet’ because it is gentle, like I find so many of the people to be, or that it was simply portraying a “slice of life.” Well, in that case, maybe it highlights that nothing much is happening, after all. But, I am a fan of a quiet life. An introspective life.

    I have not read this, and I am glad that you brought to my attention that it is THIRD in a series. I looked for the other two in our library, which of course were not to be found. But, once I read them I hope to read The Gate. Thank you for your enthusiasm and wonderful reviews of Japanese literature. Xo


    • I think I prefer your interpretation of ‘quiet’ here.
      Yes, it actually makes sense to read it as it as written, as a trilogy (more a trilogy than a series, as the characters are not the same). If you are interested, I can send them to you as ebooks, let me know if you prefer kindle or epub


    • Funny to be cold mate….
      Anyway, I have been posting a lot recently actually.
      As you like short poems, you should try to write haiku. I have read a lot recently by Japanese masters, and I just wrote two


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  7. I’m surprised Pico Iyer made such a comment, a bit presumptuous, esp. as you’d so clearly indicated, there are lots happening, albeit not all outwardly maybe. I just finished reading Rashomon and Other Stories for JLC13 too, and Rashomon itself is the Grand Gate of Kyoto (wonder if there’s a connection to this Gate) and a lot had happened in these stories, murder, rape, altruistic rescue… etc. Thanks for sharing your JLC reading responses.


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