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Toward An Understanding of The Last Samurai: Quests

The Last Samurai is an exceedingly long and complex novel, and I don’t want to try and attempt a full and rigorous reading of it here. But I do think I can say a number of useful and interesting things about the book without going quite that far.

I think it’s worthwhile to consider how Samurai might be a variant of the quest novel. That’s what I’m going to explore right here. It might be a little slow-going at first, but bear with me and I think you’ll find that there is a payoff at the end.

The books starts out with the line, “My father’s father was a Methodist minister,” the first of many indications that the main theme of Samurai will be a quest for the father. Other clues abound: the book’s first half is girded by Ludo’s reading of the Odyssey (the example par excellence of the classical quest story, and a quest for a home, if not a father). Samurai also returns repeatedly to the point in the movie Seven Samurai at which the samurai Mifune presents a false ancestry to his peers. (Indeed, the fatherless character Mifune is mentioned numerous times in this context.) And of course the story of Ludo’s mother, Sibylla, centers around her (mis)conception of Ludo with a man she ultimately deems unworthy, which then causes her much anxiety over hiding his identity from Ludo.

So there are lots of hints that quests and fathers will be important to this novel. I like to think that each of the book’s two halves (Sibylla’s half and Ludo’s half) is involved with a great quest. We can look at Sybilla’s quest in two different ways: an aborted quest to understand her familial roots (we are given glimpses that indicate something bad happened that forced her to flee from her family in the United States, and it seems that the novel begins with a broken-off attempt to understand it); and Sybilla’s other “quest,” the raising of Ludo, which then turns into a long preparation for what ultimately becomes Ludo’s quest to find his father (and which is the quest that takes up the second half of this long novel). In essence, Ludo’s quest swallows up Sibylla’s quest, and the book is really the story of Ludo’s quest, from its deep beginnings to its “completion.” (More on why I scare-quote that later.)

Helen DeWitt has meticulously chopped up The Last Samurai into a system of sections and subsections, and these section breaks form a very useful framework for seeing where the novel is headed. If you look at them as a whole, they provide a sort of road map by which to read the novel’s quests. Here’s my interpretation of them:

To start, let’s look at the first few section breaks. The novel starts with a “Prologue” (Sibylla’s father’s father’s story), which then gives on to section “i.” Section i begins with two quotes: one from Seven Samurai wherein the farmers discuss a futile scheme to kill the bandits, and a long quote from film critic Donald Richie that overviews the plot of Seven Samurai. Section “i” is then divided into one subsection labeled “1″ (and titled “Do Samurai Speak Penguin Japanese?”) and a number of unnumbered subsections titled by the name of the book Ludo is currently reading (most frequently, the Odyssey).

What does all this mean? I take that first quote about the farmers and the samurai as indicating Ludo’s nascent dilemma–how to go to town (as the farmers do) and “recruit” a worthy samurai as father? Further sections (e.g. “Penguin Japanese,” books of the Odyssey, etc) point toward the tools he will bring to bear in his quest to find a father. At this point in the novel Ludo is approaching his sixth birthday, and fittingly all of this is very sketchy, and none of the principle characters really see where things are headed. Yet, DeWitt’s makings on the subsections provide some direction, and as things develop they get more precise.

At the end of section i we are given an “Interlude” in which Sibylla tells the story of her mother’s father–like her father’s father, it is a story of stifled genius, indicating another theme and bringing us back to the novel’s beginnings. Then we have section ii, which starts with subsection 1, titled “We Never Get Off at Sloane Square for Nebraska Fried Chicken.” As the subsections mount up (6 in all) we get as subsection titles variants on “We Never . . . ” mixed with numbers counting down from 99 (e.g. 99, 98, 97, 96), which represent the days counting down to Ludo’s sixth birthday. Befitting this mixture of subsection titles, this is where Ludo and Sibylla begin trading narration duties. The “We Nevers . . .” culminate in subsection 6, “We Never Go Anywhere,” which is where Sibylla narrates the night in which she takes Ludo to hear the pianist Yamamoto. In my opinion, this subsection 6 is the thematic and narrative heart of the novel: it gives us the first glimpse of the “genius as adventurer” that will obsess Ludo as he grows older; it also gives us our first look at the “last samurai”; and it verges into Ludo’s sixth birthday, a major scene told from both Ludo’s and Sibylla’s perspectives in which the seeds of the search for the father are clearly planted. Notably, in Sibylla’s telling the birthday scene culminates with a viewing of the part of Seven Samurai in which Mifune claims his false paternity, which causes Sibylla to have the epiphany that she has given Ludo “a total of 17 role models” (8 characters, 8 actors, plus Kurosawa).

After section ii this we have sections “iii” and “iv,” which narrate, respectively, Ludo’s failed schooling and the histories of various samurai/genius adventurers/father figures that inform the kind of man Ludo will go looking for in the book’s final section, “v.” Notably, section iii opens with another quote from the film critic Donald Richie, this one about Kurosawa’s film Sugata Sanshiro, which Richie declares “one might expect . . . to end with some kind of statement that he has at last grown-up . . .” The film in fact doesn’t, which is a point DeWitt harps on. This is the second time such a quote has been at the front of a section break, and it both foreshadows The Last Samurai’s own ending as well as providing the main question we should be thinking about as Ludo grows up: just what is he learning with his prodigious brain-power, what is wrong with the idea of achievement as commonly construed, and what exactly has Ludo achieved at novel’s end?

That’s the end of my look at the layout of Last Samurai. Now I’d like to say a few words about Last Samurai in relationship to the quest story. (And I hoped the foregoing has proven to you that this is a variant o the quest story.)

The concept of quest story has been usefully divided into classic and modern versions–the Odyssey is the best example of the classic quest, where the hero ventures out, defeats some enemy, end eventually makes it back home. The modern quest might be typified by Kafka’s The Castle, where the hero’s quest ultimately turns into the realization that an ending will be endlessly deferred.

Seven Samurai strikes me as combining both of these visions of the quest into a beautiful symmetrically unified whole: the farmers represent the classical quest, as they venture out, recruit the samurai to defeat their enemy, and than are shown happily planting crops the next spring, their enemy defeated and their quest brought to a conclusive end. By contrast, the samurai embody the modern quest: as they triumph over the bandits only to fight another day, and at film’s end one gets the sense that no matter how many triumphs they win, it will always be only to fight another day.

I would argue that The Last Samurai also fuses the classical and the modern quests, albeit in a much more lopsided way than Seven Samurai (with a decided preference to the modern). Certainly Ludo’s best role models embody the modern quest (for example, Red Devlin, whose adventures only end in suicide); similarly Ludo’s quest for a father is a modern quest; even Sibylla (who seems to have indefinitely abandoned her quest) strikes me as a modern hero. Yet there are indications of the classical quest–there is the Odyssey, the first book that Ludo reads, and the Circle Line that Sibylla and Ludo endlessly ride brings to mind the tidy conclusion of the classical quest (albeit, also the futile nature of the modern quest).

Of course, this is only the barest skeleton of what is a very complex book. What makes The Last Samurai very rewarding is how each of the components I just described (plus many I have not) feel like their own idiosyncratic, particular narratives. They each join together to unify into a satisfying work along the lines of what I’ve just laid out here, yet they are each also their own objects, and so they provide a very rich field for individual readings. This is indeed a very rich and complex book, a book that stands as a successful work of art.

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12 comments to Toward An Understanding of The Last Samurai: Quests

  • tom

    Many thanks, and kudos, for this magnificent recap of the journey, for Sib, for Ludo, for the farmers, the samurai, and us! I’m especially admirative of the stubborn way you’ve kept on track by breaking the novel down into sections. This is something you insisted on in your first post of the novel, and this morning it comes across as central to any future reading. I wonder if you’ve made any progress interpreting the losenge icon at the beginning of so many sections.

    Could I ask for a few indications concernings the iconography of this concluding post? I think we’re all in for a laugh when we discover a bit more about that white-bearded father in the sky. Was there any authorial intention here, aside from a burst of laughter? And what about the futuruistic city girders and shards as makeshift bridges? Perhaps it will be up to readers to help out in the links between these Mgegs and the flow of your thought. And what about those two bronze hands? Something tells me they’re from Rodin. If they’re not, they remain a far better icon for the novel than the white plaster hands in prayer we often associate with Rodin.

    Thanks again, Scott, for the many different, precious, crucial aspects of your guiding hand, starting with the choice of this novel, when you could have chosen so many others.

  • tom

    One reply in the morning, and one in the evening! I think Scott’s right to place this novel in the category of the quest. But Ludo slips away from the category’s extension when he gives up on it. Preferring money to fathers. And attending an excellent candidate for surrogate paternity through his suicide. Ludo ends up outside the ken of the quest, but with something he hadn’t bargained for: something due to chance and good fortune. He’s a Lucky Luke figure, who happens upon something that has nothing to do with paternity, but something more interesting, and more vital.

    I don’t know what to call what Ludo happens upon at the end. I called it the master aesthetic of the novel. Tonite I’ll call it a matrix of symbolic references for someone in need of such anchoring. You don’t need a father, or a mother, to survive or create. But you need a language, a way of plotting the complexity of life on scales, figures, ones that take shape in your mind and in the minds of others. Ludo will remain orphaned, but he’ll have music, math, and adventure stories with which to plot his way out and up. This is what he finds after he’s stopped seeking help. He’s like Picasso in this respect: il ne cherche pas; il trouve. The novel’s climax or anti-climax is funny in that there is no intention involved in what is found: it’ like tripping over a stone.

    Perhaps this is the vibrant kernel of all modern quest narratives. Certainly of all tragic ones. Getting what you would never have dreamed possible. Something inimaginable, except in unformulated dreams. News from home originating from outside the home. Cool ending!

  • Padraic

    There was a payoff! Quest idea is a good way to frame the book.

    I think the complexity of the book might be overrated here, however, and I mean that as a positive for The Last Samurai. Yes, the first section *looks* weird with all the declensions and fonts and curious section titles, but you don’t really need to go too far into depth with this stuff to enjoy the book or know what’s going on – I don’t think it’s Faulknerian or anything in that you need a readers guide to help you understand what’s going on (though a knowledge of London would help)or who’s talking. There are literally dozens if not hundreds of physical events that take place in a book like Gravity’s Rainbow or Ulysses that I cannot picture in my head, but nothing like that occurs here.

    It takes a bit of time to figure out the relationships, but the basic action is easy to understand. And once Ludo takes over, section headings aside, it becomes a fairly conventionally told story.

    I would avoid calling this “an exceedingly long and complex work” because it would scare off a lot of readers unjustifiably. First of all, it’s just not “exceedingly long” by any definition. Secondly, I’m not a critic and I’m pretty sure I knew exactly what was happening to every character throughout the story. I didn’t read along with the group, but the weariness endured might be due to overthinking the story. It’s a beautiful story about the conflicts of motherhood, the pressures of genius, and the general toughness of life for those independent people who choose a life of the mind.

  • Dan

    Scott–Thanks for choosing such a fantastic novel. I keep wondering how I hadn’t heard of it before you announced the selection. It certainly deserves a broader readership.

  • Muzzy

    Great summary, Scott!

    I agree with Padraic, it wasn’t exceedingly long. Despite the high page count, it turned out to be a pretty quick read, and not too dense.

    Scott mentions the Circle Line in reference to Ludo’s quest. And I find even more significance with the figure of a circle, both in the film ‘Seven Samurai’ and in the book ‘Last Samurai.’ In the film, the samurai make a banner and use six circles to represent themselves. The village they is built in the shape of a circle. Plus there’s the circle of the mill-wheel. And in one of the very first scenes, we see the villagers sitting in a big circle as they try to figure out how to survive. So the circle is a recurring motif that signifies community, friendship, fraternity, loyalty, and probably a dozen other connotations I can’t see because I’m not from Japan.

    But in ‘Last Samurai,’ DeWitt seems to question whether a circle can survive with only two people. Does it take three or more? Sibylla and Ludo by themselves may not be enough to maintain a family. Ludo knows they need a third. I would venture to say that his quest is to form a triangle by supplementing his life with a father. That would mean the end of the Circle Line. And recall that on the samurai banner, it is the lone triangle that stands for Mifune, the would-be samurai.

  • cee

    to add to Muzzy’s iconography of the circle: between the 15th and the 19th century, approx., Japanese peasants would occasionally make village/intra-village pacts (whether to protect the village(s) against attack, to protest about taxation, or to demand famine relief). When writing petitions, or formal declarations of intra-village solidarity, the custom was to sign names, whether personal names or the names of villages, in a circle. This partly to obscure who was the ring-leader, partly to represent equality among those who had signed (usually headmen/landowning peasants – the equality only goes so far).

  • Hi all:

    Thanks for these responses plus for joining me in this read–it was a lot of fun, and I hope you all enjoyed it.

    I like the thoughts expresses here vis a vis circle–they ring very true to me!

    To clarify, I’m with all of you who say this book was not a difficult read. In fact, one of the enjoyable things about this book (for me) was how lightly each of the subplots flew by, letting me immerse myself in the narratives.

    When I said “complex” in this post, I meant with regard to all of the moving parts that went into making this book. I could easily spend days trying to arrive at a coherent reading that looks at the interrelations of just a few of the subplots/motifs in this book, to say nothing of giving a really rigorous account of the text as a whole. It was in that spirit that I called the book complex, and I mentioned it in this context to indicate that this post would only be an attempt to skim the surface, to give more of a bird’s-eye overview than to delve down into the intricacies.

  • David C

    Ludo’s quest swallows up Sibylla’s quest…I found that their quests go in opposing directions. Sibylla’s quest decrescendos into nothingness. For Ludo there is discovery. For Sib, annihilation.

    Thank you Scott and thank you fellow posters. I look forward to the next read.

  • Padraic


    Thank you for clarifying the point about complexity, and I certainly agree that, *should one choose*, there is an immense amount of stuff to unpack here. Like many great books (and I thank you for bringing this great book to my attention) it can be read at different levels. As the leader of of reading group and a critic, it is obviously your job to look at – or at least acknowledge – levels beyond the pure enjoyment of the work.

    I thought you were saying that it was complex to *read*, rather than analyze – my mistake, but it’s still not long!

  • tom

    I’m no doubt at cross-purposes with the general feeling that the group has now finished its enjoyment and thrown out the kleenexes. I feel on the contrary that we’ve only just begun. And I hope I can convince a few people.

    Padraic says that we shouldn’t refer to this novel as either long or complex. I think it was long for Scott, and that you could sense this from the onset, and in his concluding remarks. Be that as it may, my question is: who are we going to scare off by talking seriously about this book? In order to corrall God knows what reading public, Padraic ends up saying that it was easy to understand and in the end a fairly conventional story.

    I don’t understand much about this book. I don’t understand why Scott has to resort to the amazing understatement that “something bad happened” to Sib before the novel began, back there in the USA. Is attempted suicide now on the same level as expletives that have disappeared from civilised conversation? Will it scare readers off to say that this is a novel narrated by a woman who attempted suicide? Will it scare people off to talk about the cool, collected, conversational attitude of Ludo with respect to this quintessential Samurai act?

    I still don’t know what to make of either Sib or Ludo. Or any other of the characters, the Samurai surogates. I keep wanting to judge them, as David has judged Sib. But I can’t. All I know is that this string of stories has some thread going through it, and it seems imperative to make successive attempts to get at it. And that it makes sense to suspend judgment until I have. That doesn’t make me an in-depth reader. It makes me want to repeat the process, go back and read again. It stays on the surface, it never goes deep, it simply becomes more and more complex. And more and more pleasurable, if not enjoyable.

    I don’t know much of anything of the ripples of Sib’s attempted act throughout the book. I had to wait until almost the end before picking up on this thread, this terribly red thread. I don’t know what Ludo feels about this, except that he seems accepting of all eventualities. This is not easy-going. This is not for the reader’s enjoyment. This is serious adult literature. If it scares people away, then instead of pampering them and dumbing ourselves down, let’s make fun of them, as you will certainly begin doing with me.

    We’re all critics. Let’s avoid dividing the thing up into specialists and amateurs. We’re all in the same boat.

  • tom

    Here is a suggestion that I submit to this reading group, headed up by Scott. As I have often indicated during our reading of The Last Samurai, I share with it an affirmative take on the power of repetition, somewhere else and otherwise than on the Circle Line. So I would like to repeat our reading, confident that it will yield new and surprising results. This has probably never been done before, because the Circle Line dominates what we all feel about repetition. So here is the same suggestion, slightly different.

    Since we now have an online version of Helen DeWitt’s second novel, Your Name Here (co-authored), I suggest chanelling the repeated reading of The Last Samurai through a first reading of Your Name Here, beginning with the following hypothesis: that the “author as woman” as Scott says, has once again taken it upon herself to guide a young author along the road to publication and full adulthood. I don’t know how long such a hypothesis can hold up, but it seems a good enough start-off point.

    So what do you think? Are there any other people out there who are not too anxious to move on to other authors in their piles of “to be read” items, who might want to test explicit and implicit takes on Helen DeWitt by yet another reading?

    [This doesn't necessarily require a new space on the blog. This place would be fine, (ideally with a short introduction by Scott), and a few people willing to stand on the carpet for another go at Helen DeWitt.]

  • [...] quest is, something that we discussed in the big read for The Last Samurai. As we read that book I brought up the idea that the form of the quest narrative has changed since we first began writing quest [...]

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