The Benefits of Silence
At first glance, Obasan appears to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of silence, a warning to readers that wordless acquiescence to mistreatment can invite greater brutality, and that failure to talk over old wrongs can lead to poisonous anger and resentment. And it does make those arguments. Naomi’s family’s humble, silent acceptance of the Canadian government’s mandates doesn’t prove their loyalty or win them lenient treatment. Rather, it makes them easy to shunt aside. Naomi’s mother’s insistence on modest silence might make Naomi a praiseworthy child in the classic Japanese mode, but it exaggerates Naomi’s natural reserve to a dangerous degree. And the worst part of the sexual abuse Naomi suffers is the silence with which she reacts to it. Unable to tell her mother about Old Man Gower, Naomi soldiers through the disaster without speaking, all alone in her pain. Despite these compelling arguments against silence, however, Obasan takes the nuanced view that keeping quiet has real benefits. Obasan’s silence protects her from the world. As an old woman, she says little and hears less. Muffled in a wordless existence, she doesn’t suffer from racist remarks or thoughtless comments. Keeping silent is also the way she mourns the loss of her husband. Rough Lock Bill, the most admirable white character in the novel, says that talk is often self-centered. He likens the egotistical chatter of city folk to the chirping of birds who can only say their own names. He criticizes his own talkativeness, and praises Naomi’s silence. Rough Lock Bill’s words carry extra weight because, apart from Naomi’s family members, he is one of the few trustworthy adults in her life. By the end of the novel, Naomi believes that silence does not always prevent understanding. Despite the silence her mother maintained by failing to communicate with her children, and despite the fact that death silenced her forever, Naomi feels she can still communicate with her....
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