The Theme of Conflict in “The Doctor’s Wife”
In the most general sense, the presence of conflict in literature, drama and other forms of artistic expression is the very lifeblood that drives the plot, motivates the actions of the characters, and ultimately leads to the climax of the work itself (Koike, 1997). Specifically relating to the theme of conflict in literature, a work that stands out as an excellent study in the theme of conflict is “The Doctor’s Wife”, written originally by Japanese novelist Sawako Ariyoshi (1931-1984) and ultimately translated into dozens of languages, attesting not only to the quality of the work, but also the intense international interest in it.
This research will deal directly with the theme of conflict in “The Doctor’s Wife” from several different points of view, which will not only help to better understand the utility of conflict in literature, but also to illustrate how Ariyoshi successfully utilized conflict to create a work that is still being discussed decades after it was first written.
Conflict in the Setting Itself
When studying the context into which “The Doctor’s Wife” is set, the theme of conflict becomes apparent right away from the standpoint of the circumstances of the story and the chronological/historical time that it takes place. It is important to understand from the beginning that the story is a medical/biographical/dramatic type of work which is set in the Japan of the late 18th and early 19th century. In Japan, and indeed all over the world, at this time, surgery itself was at best in its most primitive and infantile state and non-existent in others, with Japan and this story falling into the category of the latter (Loughman, 1991). As such, what is seen quite literally from the very first page of the work is a setting that would provide conflict for any man of medicine- being charged, and indeed having taken an oath to heal patients to the best of one’s ability, but being placed in a circumstance where the options to do so are limited, and many times, the ambition to try new medical techniques is thwarted by the medical community which often frowns on the unconventional. Therefore, Hanaoka Seishu, the doctor/protagonist in the story, finds himself as a man of great ambition but seemingly being kept on a proverbial short leash by the medical convention of the time. This conflict is vital, as it seems to echo throughout the work and certainly influences the actions of Seishu and other characters.
Conflict between the Doctor’s Wife and the Doctor’s Mother
In this work, Seishu’s wife, Kae, of course figures prominently, as does his mother, Otsugi. The dynamic tension between these two women provides a very powerful conflict that also has a major influence on the plot of the story.
From the very beginning of the story, indeed before Kae and Seishu are married, Kae is aware that mother Otsugi is someone who is quite revered in the local community and beyond. This is evidenced by a direct quote of dialogue from the work:
“Not only is Otsugi beautiful, but she is also clever and wise” (Ariyoshi, 1978, p.5)
This is a telling and pivotal quote, because from it there can be an inference that Kae had been indoctrinated from an early age that the woman who would eventually become what western culture would call a mother-in-law was a formidable, revered woman who could be one’s strongest ally or a major obstacle. Fast forwarding to the latter portions of the story, what is seen is a conflict between Otsugi and Kae as they eventually become adversaries as they compete for the attention and affection of Seishu. True, this is a timeless conflict between a man’s wife and mother, but in this case, there is an additional element that cannot be ignored. This particular conflict is further fueled by the fact that also competing for the time and attention of the doctor is his dedication to the physical healing of the sick and infirm, and this can in fact be seen in some ways as quite the demanding mistress (Mulhern, 1991).
Otsugi, the revered woman of the village, in fact becomes the catalyst to promote, approve and bring about the eventual marriage of Seishu and Kae. In this sense, Otsugi can fairly be seen as the creator of the union, and perhaps because of this subtle role, Otsugi feels that she ultimately controls the direction and destiny of the marriage itself, which in fact is something that was a fairly common occurrence and social situation in Japan during that time period in history (Koike, 1997). Perhaps it is also that Otsugi feels that Kae should be indebted to her for making the marriage to her son, such a prominent man, possible. The conflict of these two women from these many viewpoints is a critical element to acknowledge.
Inner Conflict of Seishu
In the midst of the struggle of the women in his life, Seishu also is involved in a healthy amount of conflict, albeit from an internal point of view. It has been made clear, of course that his wife and mother are in competition for the majority of his attention and affection. As a man of medicine as well, Seishu is a man who is consumed with the idea of being able to heal all of his patients, even given the limitations of medical technology and equipment in the time of the story. It is from this that one of the major conflicts in the story arises. As a means of advancing medicine and ultimately being able to help many more patients, Seishu performs experimental surgery on his wife, which renders her sightless. This creates an inner conflict for the doctor because for all of his education and intentions, he is unable to help one of the most important people in his life, which appears to have rendered him quite vulnerable and sad at times.
Conflict of the Doctor and His Wife
Finally, the conflict between Seishu and Kae needs to be considered and discussed. From the beginning of the marriage, Kae found herself fighting for the affections of her husband, as his mother and his profession both compromised the amount of attention that Kae could ultimately receive. In an effort to gain more respect and attention from her husband, Kae submits to the experimental surgery that robs her of her sight so rather than advancing her relationship with her husband the doctor, this seems to put a larger strain on it. The conflict between Kae and Seishu also arises over an obvious, yet invisible obstacle- the fact that, although there was no malice intended, Seishu did harm someone he cared about quite deeply.
Conflict, be it internal or external, is a driving force in dramatic literature, which has been seen in “The Doctor’s Wife”. In conclusion, what can surely be said based on the research of this work, is that conflict can compound, come from nowhere, and change circumstances forever.
Ariyoshi, S. (1978). The Doctor’s Wife. New York: Kodansha America.
Koike, M. (1997, April). Breaking the Mold: Women in Japanese Theatre. American Theatre, 14, 42+.
Loughman, C. (1991). The Twilight Years: a Japanese View of Aging, Time, and Identity. World Literature Today, 65(1), 49-53.
Mulhern, C. I. (Ed.). (1991). Heroic with Grace: Legendary Women of Japan (1st ed.). Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.