Sometimes, works of literature can have similar themes and motifs even if they were written in different times and different cultures. The poem “The Cry of the Children,” by Elizabeth Browning and the text “The Tattooer” by Tanizaki Junichiro and display raw themes of power, abuse, control, oppression, activism, identity, and the search for freedom. These themes fall under an overlying theme of consumption whether if its physically, mentally, or spiritually. Thus, these writers convey their themes in various literary devices.
Elizabeth Browning the Cry of Children
When Browning wrote her poem, it was a time of dark disparities between the poor and the middle and upper classes in Europe. British people were often characterized by how hypocritical their standards and opinions were. They were imitating good ethics, but were also involved in corruption. When the English government decided to look into child labor, it showed the oppression of working children. Thus, Browning decided to respond with the poem, “The Cry of the Children.” By an extensive use in symbolism, the author shows the accusation of
misery unto the children. The poem’s aim is to inform and educate her audience to no longer be silent but to be activists to prevent such inhumane acts.
The poem opens with a feeling pure grief and gloom. Thus, Browning directly plunges the reader to the sad aura of the children. For instance, “They are leaning their young heads against their mothers, / and that cannot stop their tears And that cannot stop their tears.” (Browning , 423). By comparing the children to the other youngsters, Browning characterizes the youngsters to be innocent and to play around in fields, “The young fawns are playing with the shadows” (TCC 7). Children should be happy and enjoy their youth but sadly they cannot, instead, they are “weeping bitterly” (Browning, 423). Thus, Browning blames the English government with the horrid conditions, because they don’t care about why these children are in sorrow. Strange enough, the symbolism of death is viewed as positive to the children. This is so because, when the children talk about Alice, “Little Alice died last year, her grave is shapen like a snowball in the rime… Alas, alas, the children! they are seeking Death in life, as best to have…” (Browning (424). Thus, the children say they would be better off if they would be dead. The children in the poem also go on to describe Alice’s grave: The description of the grave even illustrates that when children pass away; their bodies are not taken away for proper burial. Instead, these are being left behind and from time, as the skin gets hard, it gets covered by dust and dirt, looking like a snowball.
The children pray for help but nothing seems to be going in their way. They repeatedly question their faith as they say, “‘But no!’ says the children, weeping faster, ‘He is speechless as a stone…’ We look up to God, but tears have made us blind.” (Browning, 424). The children hope that by being very religious and making sure to keep praying to God, one day God will put
an end to all of their misery. They would have faith in God, “but grief has made them unbelieving” (Browning, 425). In the second to last stanza, Browning uses effective techniques of varying pictures to show the children’s health conditions, being severely damaged by the labor and the long hours of work in the mines and factories.
Though being children, their innocent recounts as small but direct as they are, have taught them to go through grief but not gain knowledge, as it is with age that one becomes more efficient and proficient. The children feel discouraged and are aware that they won’t get out of their situation even if death doesn’t free them. Their constant weeping is being ignored, which is hardly the sort of thing one would expect from a loving God.
Tanizaki Junichiro, “The Tattooer”
Tanizaki Junichiro’s, “The Tattooer” is a tale surrounded by pain, greed, and mystery. The protagonist, Seikichi is a young but extremely gifted painter turned tattoo artist. He was first an apprentice, then over time gradually began tattooing clients with exquisite and unique images. Seikichi’s distinctive way of tattooing was somewhat sadistic, as he took great pride and pleasure in inflicting agony into his clients. His clients were mostly male as it was common for men to get tattoos to improve and showcase their social status in society as well as to make women fall in love with them. He would almost challenge his clients to endure pain as the text says, “Whenever a spineless man howled in torment or clenched his teeth and twisted his mouth as if he were dying, Seikichi told him: ‘Don’t act like a child. Pull yourself together – you have hardly begun to feel my needles!'” (Junichiro, 81). Even throughout his career of tattooing numerous individuals, Seikichi still longed for something more. He began to get
fantasies of tattooing a woman, but not an ordinary one. For example, the narrator starts to talk about how “For a long time Seikichi had cherished the desire to create a masterpiece on the skin of a beautiful woman. Such a woman had to meet various qualifications of character as well as appearance. A lovely face and a fine body were not enough to satisfy him,” (Junichiro, 81). For years, Seikichi would imagine and envision the perfect body type of the women and all her features that would make for he to get a masterful tattoo. After passing by the Hirasei Restaurant Seikichi randomly notices a pair of lovely feet. He valued the “… human foot was as expressive as a face,” (Junichiro, 81) which can probably explain how he recognized the feet so quick. When she decided to meet Sekichi, he was ecstatic inside and somewhat calm on the outside. After some advances, the young woman grew tired of Seikichi and decided to leave. Realizing this, Seikichi emotions overcame him and he used some anesthetic to put the woman under a trance. As the sun rose, Seikichi decided to begin tattooing the unconscious woman. Instead of trying to inflict pain on the woman, Seikichi took his time carefully and precisely pricking out the outline of the tattoo on her skin. This experience proved to give Seikichi great stress as, “He felt his spirit dissolve into the charcoal-black ink that strained her skin. Each drop of Ryukyu cinnabar that he mixed with alcohol and thrust in was a drop of his lifeblood. He saw in his pigments the hues of his own passions,” (Junichiro, 82). After putting down his brush and needle, Seikichi looked in awe of his work. After speaking to the girl, she rises and releases her luxurious kimono displaying her black widow tattoo on her back. She then bursts into flames as the sunlight shone on her.
The connection between Seikichi, the tattoo, and the young woman are substantially meaningful. In the text, Seikichi says to the woman, “To make you truly beautiful I have poured my soul into this tattoo…All men will be your victims,” (Junichiro, 83). This shows that the tattoo not only represents the woman, it also represents its creator. Seikichi says he has poured his soul into the tattoo and how men will
be victims to her, as it is a symbolic reference to his sadistic attribute of inflicting pain on his clients, who were primarily men. Seikichi could’ve also tried to pass a curse/omen to the woman just to save himself. This is shown as he hoped she will make men her victims now on except for Seikichi putting them through painful procedures. However, Seikichi knows that a black widow spider is extremely venomous when it is a female. Also, a female black widow spider will usually have a red hourglass on it to show its sex. Tanizaki expertly chooses to have the tattoo of a female black widow to show how Seikichi’s time is running out of torturing people. Instead, Seikichi will now be tortured similarly to how a female black widow eats the male after mating. In addition to the spider, the placement of the tattoo is also symbolic. By having the tattoo on the woman’s back, she cannot see it only someone behind her can. Thus, it shows that Seikichi is directly facing his problems of greed, lust, and violence and cannot escape it even though he created it. Foolishly, Seikichi himself has unknowingly aided the “spider” (the woman) to construct a web to trap him. There is no way getting out as the woman will weave the web of Seikichi’s sadistic behavior over and over him suffocating his life, his love of tattooing and tormenting. The woman burns in the air because Seikichi’s relentless hard work on creating the tattoo has added up to nothing and has got him nowhere. Therefore, the main point Tanizaki wants to make readers visualize is how the mistreatment and corruption of the power of one’s own art/creation can also lead to their own downfall.
Both stories show that power, abuse, control, oppression, activism, identity, and the search for freedom are in them. For instance, in Browning’s poem, power and abuse are showed when the bosses and owners of the factories control and subject the children to harder working conditions. They are oppressed as they are innocent and don’t have the ability to speak for themselves as nobody would believe their story. They are fighting for their identity as they contemplate suicide and how to end their life since they don’t value themselves as other well-off kids do. They search and long for freedom as they pray to God
relentlessly to help them get out of their misery. In Junichiro’s story, Seikichi uses power and abuse to pleasure himself as he subjects his clients to painful tattoos. He finds joy in his pan he brings as he is an oppressor. His identity and search for freedom are however questioned as when he tries to tattoo a woman and she turns back on him. His pain and greed have actually brought him misery as he is trying to find that one perfect canvas. Both stories show the protagonist(s) going through physical, mental and emotional/spiritual pain. For example, in Browning’s poem the kids are subject to hard labor (physical), they don’t have an education (mental), and they contemplate on suicide and try to pray to God to be in a better state in where they are at. In Tanizaki’s work, Sekichi puts people through pain as he tattoos people and makes them bloody and puts his clients in agony (painful), he goes wildly crazy for the women he thinks is going to be his masterpiece and he tries to persuade his clients that he is doing the right thing and for them to accept the pain (mental), and when the woman becomes engulfed her spirit affects Sekichi as he tries to gain her back (spiritual/emotional). Also, both texts show a form of consumption. For example, in Browning’s poem the children are consumed in trying to find a better life while their bosses are consumed to overworking the kids and gaining more money. In Tanizaki’s text, Sekichi is consumed with
trying to get the girl to be tattooed by him, however when he does get to tattoo her the pain he caused on so much people gets brought on to him in return.
As you can see, both authors use literary devices in their works to showcase their theme or motif in the text. The poem “The Cry of the Children,” by Elizabeth Browning and the text “The Tattooer” by Junichiro Tanizaki, both show the themes of power, abuse, control, oppression, activism, identity, and the search for freedom. These sub themes fall under the greater themes of physical, emotional, and mental distress/abuse as well as symbolic uses to display consumption. As a result, these
authors show their audience how sometimes art can be hostile and lead to greed and addiction (“The Tattooer”) but it can also be used to inform and bring awareness to a cause (The Crying of the Children).
· Browning, Elizabeth. The Cry of the Children. 3rd Edition, The Norton Anthology of World Literature
· Junichiro, Tanazaki. The Tattooer. 3rd Edition, The Norton Anthology of World Literature