Kazuo Ishiguro and Jane Austin

Ishiguro’s earlier novels have frequently been compared to the works of Jane Austen, an association which the author vehemently prefers to disregard. In truth, some parallels can be drawn between Austen’s typical comedy of manners and the realist narratives of Ishiguro, similarities often stemming from their portrayal of hypocrisy within a closed community. However, with The Unconsoled, Ishiguro departs from other themes and style that sparked the original comparison. Whilst this latest novel does retain the common themes of disillusionment and disappointment, it is clearly less concerned with retrospection than his previous works, presenting more a narrative of amnesia and consequent hopeless vision. The narrator and protagonist, Mr Ryder arrives in an unidentified European city and recounts a story of his interactions with the community in the run-up to an important concert. His story has an immense dream-like quality with mysterious and surreal events often bringing attention to the hypocrisies in the community by what is left out of the narration, rather than what the narrator’s word’s actually present to us.

The survival of society within Austen’s literary world relies on contractual hypocrisy which often prevents people from expressing the truth. Social codes of conduct dictate that no matter how much a person may dislike another, they must behave with impeccable politeness. In many cases this may prove to have distinct advantages to the individual; for example, Miss Bingley of Pride and Prejudice only reconciles her differences with Elizabeth because she wants to visit Pemberley. Contractual hypocrisy also exists in the family, where no matter how offensive another a person may be, the rest of the family must continue to hold them in the greatest esteem. Hypocrisy in The Unconsoled does not seem to have such clear-cut boundaries, with attitudes changing as time passes and the concert draws nearer, the fickle nature of people’s loyalties drawing attention to the hypocrisy rife throughout the community. Indeed, the farcical scene in which the garrulous Hoffman goes beyond the call of duty in offering Mr Ryder endless service and even reiterating his willingness to change the hand gesture that should be used to call him over only serves to illustrate the community’s hypocrisy when his feelings towards Mr Ryder swiftly change. By using closed communities both Austen and Ishiguro can concentrate on groups of people that are barely affected by the outside world. Although there is a sense of travel in The Unconsoled, it is only within the city, which ultimately feels like an extremely small space. Mr Ryder brings up this point when he attacks the snobbish attitude of a group at the party, realizing the insular nature of their behaviour and opinions, ‘in other words, too obsessed, obsessed with the little internal disorders of this thing you call your community, too obsessed to display event the minimum level of good manners to us.’

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Much of the community within The Unconsoled claim to have higher beliefs or standards than they actually have illustrated by Fiona’s experience with Trude and Inge who communicate in smirks and sarcasm when they believe she has concocted a story about being an old friend of Mr Ryder. In fact, they are responsible for concocting stories and place themselves above their station to the extent to which they exclaim, ‘it’s no more than we deserve now, this level of treatment. Clearly Mr Von Braun believes so anyway.’ The two women manipulate their story so that the rest of their group will be in awe in the belief of something that did not happen. Frustratingly, Mr Ryder is unable to break their cycle of hypocrisy as he cannot be sure that he was not present at the zoo. Indeed, many members of the community believe they deserve better than that which they receive. Miss Collins even blames Brodsky for her own inability to leave the city, ‘Oh, how I hate you! How I hate you for wasting my life!’ Just as Austen’s female characters may not be brave enough to escape from the constraints of society that dictate marrying a wealthy man, so too are these women held back, only to place the blame somewhere else. In the words of Miss Collins who sums up the fickle and changeable attitudes of the community, ‘they would be so polite, so long-suffering. They’d go out of their way to be kind to you, sacrifice all sorts of things, and then one day, for no reason, the weather, anything, they’d just explode. Then back to normal again.’ In Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, the protagonist is Elaine Risley, a middle-aged woman who is still affected by memories of childhood torment. A victim of school bullies because she is poor and has ‘different’ parents, Elaine is eventually able to regain a strong self-identity when the main instigator, Cordelia is admitted to mental hospital in later life. Through this narrative, Atwood presents the cruelty of human nature through the lives of children. Hungry for power even at this age, the young character are much more direct and abrupt than their male counterparts in The Unconsoled and Austen’s novels but their motives are often the same; they make fun of Elaine because she is different and do not themselves, want to be at the bottom of the pecking order.

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