Summary & Analysis: Ten Nights’ Dreams by Natsume Sōseki

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Ten Nights’ Dreams by Natsume Sōseki is a compilation of short works detailing ten dreams from different time periods. For example, in the first piece, “The First Night,” a dreamer sits next to a woman who states that she is dying (Sōseki 1). Due to the flush of her cheeks and the redness of her lips, the dreamer doubts her statement (Sōseki 1). The woman requests that the dreamer bury her if she dies by digging her grave with a pearl oyster shell and placing a piece of a fallen star on it; she also requests that he sit at her graveside for one hundred years, awaiting her return (Sōseki 2). The dreamer concedes to her request (Sōseki 2). He waits for her return but loses track of the days that go by (Sōseki 3). Once he begins to feel that the woman had tricked him, a white lily sprouts and blossoms (Sōseki 4). He presses his lips to the lily, convinced that the hundred years had passed (Sōseki 4).

The second piece of the text, “The Second Night,” is set in another time period. In this piece, a dreamer returns to his room after exiting his monk’s chambers (Sōseki 5). He finds the dagger he placed under his cushion (Sōseki 6). He thinks about the interaction he had with the monk, who had reprimanded him for his inability to reach enlightenment as a samurai (Sōseki 6). The dreamer vows to kill the monk or kill himself once the clock strikes the next hour (Sōseki 6). He would kill the monk if he achieved enlightenment or he would kill himself if he failed to do so (Sōseki 6). He struggles with the task and, once the clock strikes, remains unable to obtain his goal (Sōseki 8).

Analysis

The pieces in Ten Nights’ Dreams are surreal and enigmatic. It is worth noting that the first five of these pieces begin with the same sentence: “This is the dream I dreamed” (Sōseki 1), making the reader wonder whether Sōseki is speaking in first person and experienced those dreams himself.

Sōseki incorporates many culturally and socio-politically relevant themes into the short pieces within this work. The relationship between life and death is an important theme in many of these pieces. In “The First Night,” Sōseki introduces the concept of death by describing the situation of a woman on her dying bed; however, he also presents the concept of life by describing the possibility of her rebirth. It is likely that he incorporates this theme, the relationship between life and death, to allude to Japanese Buddhism—a spiritual system that encompasses ideas about the cycle of birth, life, and rebirth (“Buddhism in Japan”). Sōseki uses the white lily as a representation of new life; this has strong cultural elements considering the admiration bestowed upon white lilies in Japanese society.

Another important theme in many of these pieces is time; not only in the sense that the dreamers in the story experience time but that they also bear witness to events during specific time periods. In “The Second Night,” Sōseki narrates a dream set in a specific time period—feudal Japan. Using this setting, he showcases sociopolitical uses as he narrates the tensions between the religious and warrior classes (i.e., the monk and the samurai) and illustrates the significance of a warrior achieving spiritual enlightenment. One interesting cultural phenomenon that I learned from this text was seppuku, the act of ritual suicide that the samurai in “The Second Night” threatened to use if he failed to achieve enlightenment (“Seppuku-Honorable Suicide”). All in all, Sōseki weaves intriguing cultural and socio-political themes into his work.

Reflection

I enjoyed reading the pieces from Ten Nights’ Dreams. Though each of their endings left me with an eerie feeling, I would not change them. I think it is Sōseki’s intention that the reader is left feeling a little perturbed. There is a slightly melancholic strain that appeared throughout these pieces, but they still motivated me to be introspective and think deeply about the motives and actions of the characters within each dream. Sōseki effectively drew me into the worlds he crafts and blurred my understanding of the real and unreal.

One quote from the text that serves as a reflection of the theme of this course—constructing images of post-/modern Japan—is as follows:

“At last a tall, green stalk sprouted and began to grow, slanting towards me from under the stone. In an instant it was almost long enough to reach me and stopped just at my chest. At the top of the long straight stalk, an oblong bud hanging at a slight angle, came into a flower.” (Sōseki 4)

In this quote, Sōseki describes the growth of a white lily, the elongating of its green stem, and the blossoming of its flower bud. The quote relates to the course’s theme because it showcases the growth of something new and admirable, a representation of what happened in post-/modern Japan. Post-/modern Japan was marked by growth in creativity and innovation. Writers and artists, influenced by the West, produced novel works that would influence subsequent generations. The death of the woman in “The First Night” and her rebirth into a white lily signifies that the traditional elements of Japanese culture did not complete dissolve, rather they transformed.

Works Cited

“Buddhism in Japan.” Asia Society, Asia Society, asiasociety.org/education/buddhism-japan.

Natsume, Sōseki. Ten Nights' Dreams. Translated by Loretta R. Lorenz and Takumi Kashima, Sōseki Museum in London, 2000.

“Seppuku-Honorable Suicide.” Anthropological Perspectives on Death, Emory University, scholarblogs.emory.edu/gravematters/2017/01/30/seppuku-honorable-suicide/.