“Swaddling Clothes”, written by Mishima Yukio, tells a story taking place in Tokyo after World War II. A tender, kind woman, Toshiko, witnessed the birth of an illegitimate baby wrapped deliberately in several soiled newspapers. She wrapped him in a flannel swaddling instead, but still couldn’t help but keep torturing herself about the provisional revenge. The titular swaddling clothes, some loose newspapers, symbolize a miserable life of the baby wrapped in it. At the same time, they stimulate the emotion mixed with guilt, uneasiness and commiseration of the delicate spirit of Toshiko who is even entangled into dangerous grab by a stranger at last because of her losing in the mind triggered by the soiled newspapers. Yet, who is tortured more by the improper swaddling clothes, the poor baby or our hypersensitive heroine, Toshiko?
A number of the story’s readers might vote for Toshiko. Apparently, she is a kind woman with precious relenting heart or she won’t “fetch a brand-new piece of flannel from her cupboard”(133), “[swaddle] the baby in it”(133) and “[lay] him carefully in an armchair”(133). All she did surmounted a normal people of her class would do—leaving the baby along and neglecting his survival, because people of her class seldom feel “offended” by “[the] callous treatment of the newborn child” (133) as long as it occurred to them the child is illegal. She did everything she could to keep the child warm and even endow him with a little dignity, so she needn’t at all keep on grilling herself and be afraid of the later vengeance to her own baby. However, the swaddling clothes tortured her so much that she couldn’t help but stick to think the fate of the baby, her own son and herself and felt “all her fears and premonitions had suddenly taken concrete form”(136) when she saw “a man in a brown jersey who [was lying] there, [curling] up on layers of newspapers”(136), which finally lead her into jeopardy of hurt, rape or even death. It’s unfair.
However, this unfairness does not necessarily mean the oversensitive woman suffer more from the swaddling clothes. In my mind, the miserable experience the swaddling clothes had brought and would keep on bringing to the baby significantly outweighed they did to Toshiko.
The nominal swaddling clothes will torture the baby more because it symbolizes the baby will fight against destitution all his life. Rationally, Toshiko wouldn’t be killed by the stranger since no matter how powerful his hand was, all he did was “seizing Toshiko by her slender wrist”. Even a desperado wouldn’t kill a slightly insane woman gratuitously, so there is great opportunity Toshiko would arrive home after all and continue her normal decent “easy”(134) and “painless”(134) life. Even though Toshiko would be uptight about the baby wrapped in the newspapers throughout the rest of her life, at least Toshiko had an ensured income from her husband and there is little chance for her to worry about sustenance. Yet considering the status of the baby, his life, portended by the soiled newspapers, is bound to be filled with thorns and marsh—“a desolate, hopeless, poverty-stricken existence” (134). His mother, “[a nurse] from the employment agency” (133), was indigent or she won’t have to work with an “enormous [stomach]” (133). Even if she was kind enough not to abandon the baby to the litter bin or the orphanage, she won’t have money to fulfill the various nutrient needs he need during his growing process and might haven’t enough money to cure the diseases he caught. When he grew up, he wouldn’t be able to get a decent job to maintain his life, and will very likely become a vagabond or beggar, having no fixed living place, “wandering through the streets by himself” (135) like the man “in brown jersey”, sleeping “on a stone bench”, “[covered with] newspapers” (136) Toshiko noticed at last. Comparing to the milieu the baby belongs to, Toshiko and her families are always staying in paradise.
Moreover, the baby wrapped in the newspapers will suffer more than Toshiko mentally. A new born baby, soft, delicacy and vulnerable, should be wrapped in warm, protective and clean swaddling clothes. Yet not every baby is lucky enough to enjoy the blessing of the god like the baby in the story. Apparently, his mother was shame of his existence or she won’t conceal her pregnancy against her employees and resort to the ridiculous excuse “gastric dilation” (133) to explain “her girth and her appetite” (133). He would stay in a family belonging to the lower class of a society with strict castes if her “nurse” (133) mother does not desert him. Even though he does not care for the status of his family, it is highly doubtful if his mother will not hate and curse his existence or will be willing to give him enough maternal love a fragile naïve child needs. Even if her maternal instinct outweighs the shame, it is dubious if she has time and energy to show the love since it is very likely the nurse will feel exhausted after she does what she have to do to support her child and herself. Even nowadays in Japan, woman labor is despised and lower-paid compared to males, not to mention a nurse at that age of that class. That’s why there are so many housewives like Toshiko in that country. Even if the maternal love is strong, whose chance is extremely scarce, it can never replace the paternal love the “illegitimate baby” (133) is doomed to lack. All of these are very likely to cause more or less mental defects during the child’s young age. It is absolutely no surprising if the child would “[curse] is father” and “[loathe] his mother” (135) when he grows up.
Nevertheless, these above are not the worst. The child might be discarded to a place surprisingly adverse against their survival. Aboveboard or underhand discuss and jibe against his illegitimate birth might fill his memory. Even his mother was not brave enough to confess his existence, how can we expect the society to accept the child? If his mother won’t secure her job unless she lied about her illegitimate pregnancy, the baby have no chance to “become a respectable citizen” (134) and obtain the “fine, carefully [education]” (134) like Toshiko’s son have. Both the social denial, regarding him as “a lonely rat” (134), and the lack of respect due to the traditional ethic rules will cause severe mental afflict during the baby’s growing process and all his life. Comparing to this life long “utter misery” (134), Toshiko’s was shorter, less substantial and is likely to be lessen by her lovely son and the routine of a housewife.
Throughout the story, no evidence shows that the baby wrapped in the swaddling clothes will be able to avoid his fate of a soiled life. The stigma of an illegitimate child is inerasable even if he makes huge efforts trying to eliminate and live a life like Toshiko and her family has. This kind of shame is somewhat similar to the stigma of the losing country of WWII, which is also indelible. The author, Mishima, is always longing for an unvanquished, imperial Japan. However, the dream was smashed by the war, which tortured the country and its people more than any other standers-by. Since this simile between the baby and the country exists, it can be further proved that the stigma-the “soiled newspaper swaddling clothes” (134) -tortured the baby more than Toshiko, a stander-by.