In The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi, the uphill road that Tomo ascends in exhaustion (Onnazaka, women’s hilly road) is “symbolic of the struggles and trials that women must endure while sacrificing everything as victims of feudalism.” (willamette.edu) It presents to us the Japanese woman who is struggling to find her voice amidst the suffocating patriarchal society around her. However, in this context, it is Tomo’s journey that we focus on, not simply the journeys of the traditional Japanese women as a whole. This essay will look into the significance of the uphill road in the novel: a parallel to a woman’s plight, a representation of the family that is constructed in patriarchy, a central metaphor used to demonstrate Tomo’s inner desires as well as displaying the idea of futility.
The uphill road reflects Tomo’s inner desires of which she longs for the domestic life and to be part of the working class. “The lamps that were just being lit shone orange on the snow and a smell of fish cooking for the evening meal mingled with the smoke that here and there drifted out from beneath the eaves” (189) epitomize home, familial warmth, domestic life and the intimate space within the family. These lights emanating from the row of houses and the smell of cooking, falls on Tomo’s face: she can hardly remember what family is like. She is an outsider, a mere observer that can only look longingly, at a distance, into the various households. It is not the same experience that Tomo had back at the Shirakawa household, where the many years of living with the same people do not bring about a comforting affiliation but are separated by a distance that is immeasurable – existing as mere strangers. Thus, feelings of isolation and disappointment of not being able to experience the warmth and affections of family members arise within Tomo. The imagery of Tomo standing in the snow further heightens the need for familial warmth. Additionally, other than the desire for a domestic life, Tomo also longs to be part of the working class to experience being an independent woman who is able to survive in society, battling the cold and having the power to support herself as can be seen from “the small houses she saw before each time she halted were an undistinguished collection of secondhand shops…to the core” (189).
At the same time, the hill comes to stand for all the forces and repressions employed by the patriarchal figure that Tomo have to overcome. In this scene, we see that Tomo finds it hard to scale the narrow road, which represents the “restricted sphere of a life” and limited prospects. She seems to be relentlessly caught up within the confines of the patriarchal system, and has no ability to imagine other possibilities. Just when Tomo thinks she has found a kind of solitude, she returns back to the same old houses that she had just passed. There was no end to the hill that she climbed: “She thought she had covered three-quarters of the way, but it was scarcely a half” (190). “The hand that held the umbrella was numbed by the snow” (189) illustrates that Tomo’s heart and spirit is numbed by the coldness, where it stems from the tyrannical suppression of the patriarchal authority that oppresses her. Tomo’s frozen heart and spirit symbolic of how the patriarchy objectifies her, how it numbs her spirit and emotion, and how it deprives her of her identity.
Apart from the patriarchal oppression that impels Tomo’s journey a difficult and tiresome one, it can also be said that she herself, is partly responsible for the situation she is in. For example, Tomo’s willful resilience to continue on this challenging journey is illustrated when she chooses to walk instead of taking the rickshaw despite her being worn out, makes the road so strenuous for her. Further, Tomo who is seen as a woman so upright in her morals also contributes to her arduous journey. Having the moral capacity to feel for her rival, Suga, she goes out to stake burdens upon herself, feeling responsible for the Suga’s plight and fate: “For the change from the charming young victim to the apathetic Suga of today, dull, as a silkworm’s cocoon, there lay a responsibility that could not, Tomo felt, be attributed to her husband alone.” (112) She also feels responsible for the four way relationship between her husband, son, mistress and daughter-in-law: the dark sense of revulsion against her own complicity in the four-way relationship…hold.” (148)
Lastly, the idea of futility is also demonstrated through the uphill road. Tomo has a sudden realization that all that she has been going through, all the thought and skill that she has put in, were futile: “all the strength of her life…suddenly seen the futility…so much energy and wisdom” (190). For no matter how much effort Tomo puts in, it is futile: she can never fully triumph because she is still nevertheless, confined by the patriarchal society around her. “A small-scale happiness and a modest harmony: let a man cry out, let him rage, let him howl with grief with all the power of which he was capable” (189) suggests that behind all these humble happiness and simple pleasures that Tomo desires, the patriarchal figure is always towering over the domestic sphere and working class, expressing their power and commanding the women with demands. Essentially, it is the society that defines her, where she remains subjugated.
The uphill road is significant and symbolic of Tomo’s development in the entire novel. It portrays her inner desires for a domestic life, the patriarchal forces and repressions that Tomo has to overcome and the futility that pervades throughout her entire journey. Nevertheless, the suppressed woman dares to long for the prospects above the limited horizons.