Letter from London: Sense of Belonging
For centuries, artistic expression has been used to express thoughts, personal feelings, and life aspirations, or spread political standpoints. Writers have continuously employed their literary skills to criticize, attack, teach, inform, or call for change among other functions. Natsume Soseki is one of the writers whose pieces continue to inspire modern literature. Natsume Soseki has not only been recognized as one of the most renowned novelists but also as a pioneer in modern Japanese literature studies. Soseki used his literary skills to share his opinions and perspectives on an array of issues, both personal and national. Thus, he is considered one of the greatest novelist in Japan born in the Meiji Era. In Letter from London, Soseki writes a message discussing different aspects, concepts, and issues about London. He had been sent to London for two years to expand his knowledge in the areas of English and Literature, where he experienced cultural shock. As demonstrated in this essay, in Letter from London, Soseki uses different central images and literary textual effects to demonstrate his sense of dislocation, discontent, and self-alienation while living in a foreign land, where he feels no sense of belonging.
First, the appearance of people in London makes Soseki feel out of place. He says that once he steps outside, he encounters people who are “depressingly tall”. If a tax were to be imposed on their height, he says, they could create an economically small animal. Soseki compares himself and feels unusually small compared to other Londoners. He laughs bitterly at his image as he continuously feels that he does not belong. This country is different from his home place, Japan, where he is less conscious of his height. Further, the way Londoners dress makes Sokeki feel alienated. He explains that when he visits parks, he meets well-dressed men and women. Sokeki is surprised that unlike in Japan, one cannot tell the class or status of a person by their dress code. For example, “a butcher’s boy, when Sunday rolls around, will proudly put on his silk hat and frock-coat”. In fact, Sokeki acknowledges that he is poor in London, but when he dresses in his frock coat, Londoners admire him. Therefore, he associates London with good style regardless of class.
Soseki further uses the “workshop” imagery to demonstrate his lack of belongingness. He writes that “of course, London is also the workshop of the world, so people do not laughingly regard foreigners as curiosities”. The narrator shows London to be a place, where other countries, such as Japan, can draw inspiration and insight. Unlike Japan, in London, people are too busy (like in a “workshop”) to be concerned with foreigners. Further, the use of the word “workshop” indicates his alienation from the country’s avant-gardism and convoluted relationship with materialism, spatiality, and technological advances. As such, he notices how London, unlike Japan, has progressed materially. In his self-alienation, Soseki sees himself as a yellow person. In Japan, he did not feel yellow. He perceived himself to be a regular human being, but in London, he said that he was “three leagues away” from human color. He assumes that due to his slightly different skin color, he is perceived as a yellow person who moves among people in crowds. This shows that Soseki has not felt any sense of belonging. He is self-conscious of who he is, thoughts that would have never crossed his mind when in Japan. In this workshop (London), he is different hence does not experience a sense of belonging. He perceives himself as the abject “other,” a different, one-sided outsider in London.
Soseki’s decision to mention the Easter can also reflect his lack of belonging in London. He wrote that the previous Friday was Good Friday, and shopping was completely forbidden as it was on Sunday and Monday. “Only on Tuesday do things finally revert to normal”. The fact that he saw the closure of all businesses during the celebration of the Easter as abnormal exhibits the difference between his life in Japan and his present life in London. He, thus, associates this holiday and tradition, which is not practiced in Japan, with London.
Soseki relates literature and books with London. In fact, literature books are one of the few things that give him a sense of belonging in London. If he were to move from one house to another, he would be less concerned about the place for his shoes or his clothes than about free space for his books. “My precious books are going to be a major problem”. He has purchased many books, some at exorbitant prices. Further, he appears appreciative when Tanak buys him Shakespeare’s plaster model and an album. This is probably because he can understand most of the literature he reads. With the heroes, he does not feel different. Literature provides Soseki with a safe place, where he can escape from his differences with the Londoners.
The narrator also uses the appearance of houses to show his alienation from others. He describes his first lodging house as old place with a dark old ceiling and in a contemptible condition. In fact, he relates his housing with his condition in London. He argues that if he were at home, he would probably not feel different, and would be living in much better house, employing some house cleaners. However, here, he spends all his allowance on clothing, food, and rent. When he looks at the place he lives in, he says, “one reason is that I have a strong sense of not being the same person I was in Japan”. This depicted that the old house he inhabited reminded him of how alone and alienated he felt in London. The things, which he has to engage in to fit in, are insignificant in Japan. He, thus, in almost all places, feels alienated. He writes that “yet, even when I used to eat beefsteak as tough as the heel on the leather shoes at the university dormitory ten years ago, was it still not a little better than this?” In fact, he has associated his pitiful housing with lack of belonging in London.
Soseki also includes Bedge Pardon, the maid, in his letter to demonstrate his self-alienation. He writes that she talks without ceasing and is always working. One can argue that in her Soseki sees his old life in Japan, where perfection or differences do not matter. He writes, “she who cannot distinguish A from B does not appear to feel even the slightest inconvenience”. Soseki, to some extent, envies Bedge Pardon, who has little worry over what people think of her. Penny (Bedge Pardon) knows little about London and appears to have little interest in the city. Soseki might have been wishing his life to be the same in London. Unlike Penny, he finds himself worried about his dressing, language, or appearance.
The narrator’s mentioning of the Cockney language is indicative of London’s complicatedness. Soseki expresses that probably people in Japan think that English sounds the same for those who speak it. However, he has realized that Cockney is different and is a language of the low-class people. He describes it as “a language not only pronounced in a manner not found in any dictionary but at such sped that it is impossible to tell where one word stops and where another begins”. It can be argued that mentioning Cockney with its lack of beginning or ending and its fast speed is a representation of his life in London. Soseki was expected to keep up with all activities in London as if he were a Londoner. Further, the fact that he pays little attention to what Penny is saying demonstrates that he rejects the unfamiliar culture in which he resides. He feels that he has lost something familiar in London, and therefore, he rejects Penny.
In conclusion, Soseki had gone to London to study under Japan’s governmental scholarship. However, reading his letters, it is evident that he faced cultural shock in the foreign place. In his Letter from London, he decides to write about his daily experiences. In his description of objects, issues, or people, he brings outs his personal alienation and lack of belonging in London. Books, houses, clothing and the languages used employ his thoughts on Japan and London. This essay had demonstrated that the appearance of Londoners (even most women were two inches taller) made him feel self-conscious, something that would not happen in Japan. Literature books remind him of London, whereas the maid, Penny, helps him draw a parallelism between the two places. In fact, in the letters it is evident that Soseki experiences a lack of identity, feels deprived, and has a hard time adapting. However, as he ends his message, he notes that more changes, albeit small, continue to happen in his own little world in London.