Shame in “A Personal Matter”

a-personal-matter book jacket

Kenzaburo Oe explores the animalistic side of humanity in this grotesque work about a man trying to escape the horrible consequences of having a deformed child; by the end Oe makes a clear distinction that humanity is separated from the animal kingdom by responsibility. Bird greatest wish from the opening of the story is to go to Africa, the cradle of humanity, where he can be among animals and adventure. On the surface, there is an abundance of animal/human comparisons, most notably Bird’s nickname as a comment on his physical appearance. He’s grounded in a world where he’s not allowed to fly. Throughout the novel, the human body disgusts him. Even when he’s naked and alone he feels shame. Bird fumbles through awkward human encounters and envies the silently understood relationship his American friend shares with a young Japanese girl.

The descriptions of human deformities (the baby’s head, the doctor’s glass eye) and even human normality (sweat, pimples, fat) are shown to be repulsive. All from Bird’s perspective, this makes the reader wonder exactly what Bird wants from life. What is it about Africa that is so much more appealing than family life in the city? I observe that Bird views humans being separated from animals by shame, and he wishes he had the freedom from that entirely human shame. His failure at the arcade games inspires a childish shame in him that pervades the whole story. If he were free from it he wouldn’t have to hate his body and the bodies of his lovers; he wouldn’t contemplate infanticide because of the baby’s abnormality. His hatred of shame is so strong that the idea of passing the baby’s death onto someone else feels worse than sullying his own hands with its blood. He continues to make shameful decisions, like cheating on his wife and showing up to work drunk, and nearing the end he begins to make that lead him toward a less shameful path. He admits to being drunk and offers to resign; he takes the baby from the hospital, and his time with it wrenches sympathy from him. He names the baby after a friend who ran away from his own responsibilities, and to see himself do that and in the process end a life, is too much shame for Bird to handle.

At the end, in the last two pages, Bird makes the snap decision to face the problem and take responsibility, and he immediately feels better. The kids he fought in the beginning don’t even recognize the weak man they tried to victimize. The theme of transformation and humanization is important to this work because Bird first sees the baby as a wretched monster worthy only of a merciful death, and as he recognizes its human features and names it, the shame of killing it becomes too much to bear because he finally sees his son as a human being, and only then does he recognize the ultimate crime in murdering him.

I think a key moment in the story is the flashback to Kikuhiko, when he says the line, “I’m sorry, Bird, I was afraid!” after shirking his responsibility. Bird is now faced with the choice of ending the life of his deformed son named Kikuhiko, and the only explanation he can give is, “I’m sorry, I was afraid.” He’s terrified of the prospects in raising this child, so he decides avoiding that shame is more important than the baby’s chance at life. In the end, Bird decides that its life is more valuable than his and saves young Kikuhiko’s life, breaking the cycle of fear and shame in his own life.