By Brenda S. Cox
“Still, there were other things we saw from the window–other kinds of emotions I didn’t at first understand–of which I did eventually find some versions in myself . . .” –Klara, robot in Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Have you ever read anything by Kazuo Ishiguro? He’s an international writer, born in Japan and grew up in England. He writes, beautifully, in English. When he received the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature, his work was described as a mixture of Jane Austen and Franz Kafka, with a dash of Marcel Proust. I don’t know about those others, but it must be the Jane Austen part that appeals to me!
In a World Literature study guide that I wrote, I included his book An Artist of the Floating World, set in post-WW II Japan. Ishiguro also wrote the very English Remains of the Day, about an English butler, and the science fiction novel Never Let Me Go. Each of these novels includes deep insights.
So, when I saw that JASNA Southwest had hosted a talk comparing Ishiguro’s latest novel, Klara and the Sun, with Mansfield Park, I had to borrow Klara and the Sun from my library and read it. In this futuristic novel, Klara is an AF, Artificial Friend, a robot designed to companion a teenage girl in an increasingly isolated society. Like most of Ishiguro’s novels, the story is told in the first person, from Klara’s point of view. The grid she sees through can be a little disorienting, but helps us view the world in new ways. She is solar powered, and sees the sun as a kind of god.
Today I watched Dr. Hatsuyo Shimazaki’s talk, “Klara and the Sun as a Modern Interpretation of Mansfield Park.”
Dr. Shimazaki said that the connection between Ishiguro and Austen has not been examined much. But she pointed out that a recent article in the Guardian says this:
Kazuo Ishiguro . . . admires a scene in Mansfield Park that has “Fanny Price . . . suddenly going off on one,” and [he] says: “I’ve learnt so much from this profound novelist about nuance, understatement, technique . . .”
Dr. Shimakazi went on to describe Ishiguro’s Klara as a “modern day Fanny Price.” Both are socially downtrodden heroines. They are chosen to join households—Fanny, supposedly for her own benefit, though she ends up serving and blessing Mansfield Park. Klara is chosen to serve Josie, who suffers from chronic illness, in her home. Both spend years as self-effacing onlookers, staying in the background. But both are highly intelligent and closely observe the interactions around them.
(While Shimakazi doesn’t mention it, another character in Klara and the Sun, Rick, is also a marginalized outsider like Klara and Fanny. He is “unlifted,” not genetically modified, and also has to struggle for his place in the world.)
Both novels are set in isolated homes in the countryside. Fanny is treated unkindly, as a social inferior, by Mrs. Norris. Klara is similarly treated unkindly by the housekeeper. Both rarely leave the homes where they have been taken in. When they do leave, it is as a special treat, arranged by the person who cares about them (Edmund does this for Fanny, Josie for Klara). As Shimakazi says, neither is considered to have “a natural right to pleasure.”
Shimakazi then compares the narrative techniques in both novels. She shows that in chapter 2 of Mansfield Park, Austen uses free indirect discourse. As Edmund tries to help her, he asks about her family.
On pursuing the subject, he found that, dear as all these brothers and sisters generally were, there was one among them who ran more in her thoughts than the rest. . . . William, the eldest, a year older than herself, her constant companion and friend; her advocate with her mother (of whom he was the darling) in every distress. “William did not like she should come away; he had told her he should miss her very much indeed.” “But William will write to you, I dare say.” “Yes, he had promised he would, but he had told her to write first.” “And when shall you do it?” She hung her head and answered hesitatingly, “she did not know; she had not any paper.”
Austen uses the third person here (“she did not know” rather than “I did not know,” for example), not because Fanny actually spoke of herself that way, but to show us Fanny’s distance from the household. By the end of the conversation, Fanny has gotten more comfortable with Edmund, and Austen has her say, “My uncle!” in the first person.
Similarly, the robot Klara usually talks about herself in the third person, apparently as a sign of respect for people. For example, when she first meets Rick, Josie’s boyfriend, she says directly to him, “It’s very nice to meet Rick.” But later in the novel, when she has developed trust and mutual respect with people, she sometimes addresses them as “you.”
As one of the listeners to Shimakazi’s talk points out, both Klara and Fanny have much wisdom, and their families would do well to listen to them. Both also have deep faith, which influences their actions.
Of course, the two books also differ in many ways. If you have read or choose to read Klara and the Sun, let me know what you think about the similarities and differences. Do you think Mansfield Park was an influence on Ishiguro’s novel?
Both Austen and Ishiguro explore the place of marginalized outsiders. (Linguists call these “legitimate peripheral participants” in a group.) Have you been in this position? Both Fanny and Klara, over time, become accepted, loved, even crucial to the families they have joined. How do you think this can happen, in real life?