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While the title literally means “heart”, the word contains shades of meaning, and can be translated as “the heart of things” or “feeling”. The novel is divided into three parts. In the first part, “Sensei and I”, the narrator, a guileless university student, befriends an older man, known only as “Sensei. Sensei lives as a recluse, interacting only with his wife and the narrator, and occasional unseen visitors, but still maintaining a distance between himself and them.
The narrator found that he regularly visits the grave of a friend, but for the moment, he refuses to tell the narrator any details of his earlier life. In the second part, “My Parents and I”, the narrator graduates and returns to his home in the country to await his father’s death. As his father lies dying, the narrator receives a letter from Sensei which is recounted in the third part of the novel, “Sensei and His Testament”. Sensei reveals that in his own university days he was cheated out of most of his fortune by his uncle. As a result, he moved to Tokyo and began living with a widow and her daughter, with whom he fell in love.
Gradually K recovered, but also fell in love with the landlady’s daughter. K confessed this love to Sensei, who was shocked, and later full of jealousy. Sensei then proposed marriage, and shortly after, K committed suicide. Sensei, who had lost his faith in humanity after being cheated by his uncle, was horrified to find the same dark impulses lurking in his own heart, and felt a heavy guilt for the death of his friend. K’s death was not a direct consequence of his unhappiness in love, but rather the same loneliness from which Sensei himself suffers.
Japanese ideology portrayed in the novel, and Sensei understands those traditions. Sensei’s suicide is an apology and an attempt to show penitence, or to do something about one’s mistakes. He is constrained by weakness, and has not the strength to hold to either those traditional Japanese values, or the new modern Western ones that were fast replacing them throughout the Meiji era. Sensei says talked to him in the years after K’s suicide. Although Sensei’s story is the climax of the novel, about half its length is devoted to the story of the narrator.
Many commentators have noted the similarity between the narrator and the younger Sensei. The narrator is at an earlier stage in his own transition from a simplistic celebration of life in the opening pages to his own growing separation from mankind. The extent of the latter becomes apparent when he returns home to find that he is no longer in sympathy with his own family. This second part of the novel, in which Sensei is physically absent, also serves as a contrast between the unthinking contentment of the narrator’s father and the thoughtful discontent of Sensei. K’s and Sensei’s suicides with the physical indignity of the father’s death, while still noting the tranquility the father manages to retain.