Introduction to A Pale View of Hills



Kazuo Ishiguro
(b. 1954, Nagasaki, Japan)

What I'm interested in is not the actual fact that my characters have done things they later regret.  I'm interested in how they come to terms with it.
–Kazuo Ishiguro, 9 October 1995 interview

MLA Style Works Cited bibliographical citation - novel:

Ishiguro, Kazuo. A Pale View of Hills. 1982. New York: Vintage International-Random, 1990.

About the Author: Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro (b. 1954 in Nagasaki, Japan) moved with his family to England in 1960, when he was a young child, after his oceanographer father Shizuo Ishiguro was employed by the British government.  Kazuo Ishiguro's Japanese parents believed that they would soon return to Japan and prepared their son to resume life in his native land. However, they stayed in Britain, and Ishiguro grew up straddling two cultures, the Japan of his parents and his adopted country England. Ishiguro attended the Woking County Grammar School for Boys in Surrey and studied philosophy and literature at the Univ. of Kent, from which he graduated with honors in 1978.  Kazuo Ishiguro began composing short stories while taking creative writing courses at the Univ. of East Anglia, from which he graduated in 1980. Three of his short stories were published in 1981 in an anthology of new writers.  Throughout his college years, Ishiguro was employed as a social worker in Scotland and London, but quit in 1983 to concentrate on writing after the success of his first novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982). His second novel An Artist of the Floating World (1986) also won the Whitbread Book of the Year award, and his enormously successful third novel The Remains of the Day (1989), an international best-seller translated into more that 28 languages, was made into an Academy Award-nominated film in 1993.  The Order of the British Empire was bestowed upon Ishiguro in 1995 for services to literature, and his novel When We Were Orphans (2000) earned nominations for both the Booker Prize and the Whitbread award. The recipient of many prestigious awards and Ishiguro has emerged as one of the most celebrated and important world writers of the late 20th and early 21st century. 

1982: A Pale View of the Hills, Kazuo Ishiguro's first novel, won the Winifred Holtby Prize of the Royal Society of Literature, was hailed as "a first novel of uncommon delicacy..., an extremely quiet study of extreme emotional turbulence" by the Times Literary Supplement, and has been translated into at least 13 languages. Critic Cynthia F. Wong judges A Pale View of Hills, with a first person narrator who tells the story of the suicide of one of her daughters, as an excellent example of Maurice Blanchot's theory that narrators recall and relate past experiences to divest themselves of memories and their past. Like his next two novels, the protagonist of A Pale View of Hills, looks back on his or her life, trying to assess the events that have shaped it. The widow recalls her former life in Nagasaki, and while she rarely mentions the Bomb, it silently stands behind the events recounted in Ishiguro’s first novel. A Pale View of Hills has been celebrated as a subtle novel about the suppression of feelings and emotions, suggestively linked to history's importance in understanding the present, though Ishiguro often departs from strict literary realism.

1986: An Artist of the Floating World, Ishiguro’s second novel, won the esteemed Whitbread Book of the Year prize in 1986. Masuji Ono, the protagonist, reflects on the events shaping his life. Ono spends his days trying to negotiate the marriage of his younger daughter, visiting former haunts and playing with his young grandson. Through reminiscences and contacts with old colleagues and students, it is revealed that Ono squandered his artistic talents and channeled his creativity into Japan's militaristic propaganda efforts. In his old age, Ono finds himself condemned for ideas he held so strongly in his youth.

1989: Remains of the Day, Ishiguro’s third novel, received England's top literary award, the 1989 Booker McConnell Prize (administered by the National Book League in the United Kingdom, awarded to the best full-length novel written in English by a citizen of the UK, the Commonwealth, Eire, Pakistan or South Africa). The novel's narrator, Stevens, is a perfect English butler who tries to give his narrow existence form and meaning through the self-effacing, almost mystical practice of his profession. In a career that spans the second World War, Stevens is oblivious of the real life that goes on around him -- oblivious, for instance, of the fact that his aristocrat employer is a Nazi sympathizer. Still, there are even larger matters at stake in this heartbreaking, pitch-perfect novel -- namely, Stevens' own ability to allow some bit of life-affirming love into his tightly repressed existence ( online Editorial Reviews).
The film rights to Remains of the Day were purchased by celebrated British playwright Harold Pinter in 1989. 
1993: Film version of Remains of the Day was nominated for seven Academy Awards.
Internet Movie Database:
External Reviews of the film Remains of the Day
Internet Movie Database:

1995: The Unconsoled (novel, Knopf, 1995) is "at once a gripping psychological mystery, a wicked satire of the cult of art, and a poignant character study of a man whose public life has accelerated beyond his control. The setting is a nameless Central European city where Ryder, a renowned pianist, has come to give the most important performance of his life. Instead, he finds himself diverted on a series of cryptic and infuriating errands that nevertheless provide him with vital clues to his own past. In The Unconsoled Ishiguro creates a work that is itself a virtuoso performance, strange, haunting, and resonant with humanity and wit” (Book Description, Editorial Reviews).

2001: When We Were Orphans  (novel, Knopf-Vintage Books, 2001). 

2005: Never Let Me Go  (novel, Knopf, 2005). 

2005: The White Countess (screenplay, Sony Pictures Classics, 2005). 

Introduction to A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

In 1982, A Pale View of the Hills, Kazuo Ishiguro's first novel, won the prestigious Winifred Holtby Prize of the Royal Society of Literature, and the [London] Times Literary Supplement hailed it as "a first novel of uncommon delicacy . . . , an extremely quiet study of extreme emotional turbulence" (qtd. in "Kazuo Ishiguro, 1954 -"; emphasis added).  Contemporary Authors Online introduces A Pale View of Hills this way:

Ishiguro's highly acclaimed first novel, A Pale View of Hills, is narrated by Etsuko, a middle-aged Japanese woman living in England. The suicide of her daughter, Keiko, awakens somber memories of the summer in the [early] 1950s in war-ravaged Nagasaki [before Keiko is born] . . . . Etsuko's thoughts and dreams turn particularly to Sachiko, a war widow whose unfortunate relationship with an American lover [FRANK] traumatizes her already troubled daughter, Mariko. ("Kazuo Ishiguro, 1954 -"; emphasis added).

In a brief review, Mary J. Mayer astutely captures distinctive elements of the novel's narrative structure, narrator, characters, and themes:

Skillfully interweaving past with present, this first novel unfolds a poignant haunting tale that moves the reader as much by what is left unsaid as by what is told.  The narrator, a middle-aged Japanese woman [ETSUKO] living in England, has recently lost through suicide the daughter [KEIKO] of her first marriage.  Looking back at the long-ago summer in Japan when she was awaiting the birth of this child, she recalls her brief, strange friendship with another young woman [SACHIKO] who, with her young daughter [MARIKO], takes up residence in the Nagasaki suburb under somewhat mysterious circumstances.  On one level the book is the story of this relationshipOn another, in its portrayal of people struggling to extricate themselves from the nightmares and dislocations of war and to establish new lives, it affectingly and [subtly] examines the making of choices in life.  On both levels, this spare and sensitive novel achieves success. (825; emphasis added)

Most critics agree that common themes developed in Ishiguro's novels, including A Pale View of Hills, "deal with issues of memory, self-deception, and codes of etiquette, leading his characters to a re-evaluation or realization about the relative success or failure of their lives" ("Kazuo Ishiguro, 1954 -"; emphasis added). 


In the themes and narrative techniques at work in A Pale View of Hills, students may see the influence of literary modernism.  For example, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Rosemary Roberts observed that Ishiguro develops his themes using "controlled prose that more often hints than explains or tells. The effect evokes mystery and an aura of menace" (qtd. in "Kazuo Ishiguro, 1954 -"; emphasis added).  Ishiguro suggests rather than explains significant meaning in A Pale View of Hills through striking settings, images, motifs and symbols: for example, the wasteground, the series of child murders, the river, the kittens, the rope, the girl hanging from a tree, the mysterious woman from the other side of the river (real or imagined by Mariko), capture the ominous setting and frightening atmosphere of post-atomic bombed Nagasaki.  Parallels between the past and present are also used to comment on each other and develop the themes of A Pale View of Hills


ETSUKO is the first-person NARRATOR and main CHARACTER of A Pale View of Hills, and the entire novel is narrated by only Etsuko from only her POINT OF VIEW.  The SETTING and time of the novel shift back and forth between Narrative Present and Narrative Past:  both present and past stories are told by Etsuko, based entirely on her perceptions and memories, and what she is--and is not--willing and able to tell:

  1. Etsuko's NARRATIVE PRESENT is set in England of the late 1970s, during the time after Etsuko learns of her older daughter Keiko's suicide, and Etsuko?s younger daughter NIKI (by Etsuko's deceased second British husband) comes to visit on a "mission" to assure Etsuko that she is not to blame for Keiko's death (Pale 10-11; ch. 1).  The Narrative Present situation functions like a kind of NARRATIVE FRAME in that it prompts Etsuko's memory and telling of her Narrative Past story--but little of this past story is told to Niki.  There is only one narrator in A Pale View of Hills, and Etsuko's audience is not specified (she may be addressing only herself).  Within Etsuko's present distressed situation--coping with her loss and guilt caused by the suicide of her daughter Keiko--lie strong psychological motivations and thematic connections (though unacknowledged even to herself) that turn Etsuko from the narrative present to telling her dreams and recounting memories of a specific time in her past life. 
  2. Etsuko's NARRATIVE PAST is set in post-World War II Nagasaki, Japan, of the early 1950s, when Etsuko is pregnant with Keiko by her first Japanese husband, JIRONagasaki was one of the two Japanese cities devastated by atomic bombs dropped by the U.S. in 1945 to end the war in the Pacific, after which the U.S. occupied Japan for a few years, into the early 1950s, before withdrawing.  As James Campbell asserts, "In Etsuko's present life as much as in her past, she is circled by a chain of death which has its beginning in war? (qtd. in ("Kazuo Ishiguro, 1954 -").  Etsuko's past story gradually reveals significant aspects of her past life in Japan: the madness she experienced during the war, her first marriage to Jiro, her relationship with her father-in-law OGATA-san, but especially the strange relationship she developed with Sachiko and her daughter Mariko

Most literary critical commentary on A Pale View of Hills to date has focused on the character and (un)reliability of Etsuko as narrator.  As Mesher observes, Ishiguro takes "narrative unreliability . . . considerably beyond the familiar techniques of writers such as Joseph Conrad . . ., where the narrators' account of events can be trusted, if not their interpretations or explanations of those events. In his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, for example, Ishiguro's narrator fabricates not only motives but also actions and even characters."


UNRELIABLE NARRATOR: "A narrator who, for some reason, cannot or does not fully comprehend the world about him or her and whose conclusions and judgments the reader thus mistrusts.  An author who uses an unreliable narrator generally provides clues indicating the narrator's fallibility and expects the reader to be wary of anything that the narrator reports" (Murfin and Ray 492).

"The fallible or unreliable narrator is one whose perception, interpretation, and evaluation of the matters he or she relates do not coincide with the implicit opinions and norms manifested by the author, which the author expects the reader to share" (Abrams 168).  The fallibility or unreliability of such narrators can be due to "excessive innocence, or oversophistication, or moral obtuseness," and creates dramatic "ironies" (Abrams 168)--that is, discrepancies between what the narrator says happened and what it meant VS. what readers suspect or understand "really" happened and it "really" meant through clues embedded in the narrative.


HOWEVER, the above generalized literary definitions do NOT quite capture the uniquely later 20th century form of "unreliable" narrator that Ishiguro has presented to us in Etsuko, the narrator of A Pale View of Hills


What Etsuko Does and Does Not Tell

Etsuko's "unreliability" as a narrator does not seem to be a matter of "excessive innocence, or oversophistication, or moral obtuseness"; nor of an inability to "fully comprehend the world" about her.  What Etsuko does and does not tell, is a complex mix of conscious motives and unconscious associations of dream and memory, that reflects the author Ishiguro's more complex psychological understandings of the late 20th century.  A prominent dramatic question raised early in the novel but never explicitly asked or directly answered in Etsuko's narration is why Keiko committed suicide.  Yet her second daughter Niki, as well as most literary critics, assume that the reticent, repressed Etsuko is tortured, however unconsciously, by the question, or its denial, and cannot confront directly her guilt-ridden feelings of responsibility.  Etsuko herself points out the unreliability of memory and its dependence on circumstance, and moves her narration back and forth between the present and the past.  But neither past or present, nor movement between the two, provide Etsuko with self-protective escape and distance in time or mental space from her feelings for long: like the ebb and flow of an incoming high tide, both move Etsuko closer and closer to an inevitable climax, when she must confront her feelings about her daughter's death.


However, what may still confound many novel readers' expectations is the fact that  Etsuko's story telling will not finally yield explicit and definitive "answers" to what "really" happened with Keiko and to what extent Etsuko is "really" responsible for Keiko?s suicide.  Kazuo Ishiguo has stated: "What I'm interested in is not the actual fact that my characters have done things they later regret.  I'm interested in how they come to terms with it" (qtd. in Jaggi 45).  Many literary critics and readers have rephrased the question in Ishiguro's terms, and focused on Etsuko's journey, impelled by conscious motives and unconscious needs, back through real and invented memories and uncertain dreams associating past and present, the path she had to travel in bringing herself to confront and learn to cope with the tragedy of her daughter's suicide. 


However reticent, fallible, evasive, and indirect her narration may be; what Etsuko does tell is rich with suggestive parallels, connections, projections to help critics and readers try to fill the gaps left by what Etsuko does not tell. Among the most significant narrative gaps is Etsuko and Keiko's relationship, and much critical speculation has focused on what is indirectly revealed by the intriguing parallels and projections suggested by Etsuko's memories of Sachiko and Mariko.  "Etsuko's memories, though they focus on her neighbor's sorrows and follies, clearly refer to herself as well," wrote Edith Milton in the New York Times Book Review (qtd. in "Kazuo Ishiguro, 1954 -"; emphasis added).  "The lives of the two women run parallel": "Etsuko, like Sachiko, has raised a deeply disturbed daughter; like her, she has turned away from the strangling role of traditional Japanese housewife toward the West, where she has discovered freedom of a sort . . . . Surrounded that summer by a new order that has shattered ancient ways, the two women chose the Western path of self-interest, compromising--to varying degrees--their delicate daughters" ("Kazuo Ishiguro, 1954 -").  "In the story of Sachiko and her deeply disturbed daughter, Etsuko finds a reflection of her own pivotal choices, not least the choice to leave Japan" (Howard 402).  Other "memories" also embody Etsuko's projections on her present situation: for example, in Etsuko's story of MRS. FUJIWARA, "reduced from her former social position to running a noodle shop, Etsuko finds an image of her present and perhaps her future life" and a means to confront "her sense of loss and her fear of the future," according to Howard (402). "These projections are largely unconscious [to Etsuko], though readily apparent to the reader, as is the movement of approach and withdrawal, recognition and denial" (Howard 402).

Works Cited


Abrams, M. H.  A Glossary of Literary Terms.  6th ed. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishers- Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1993.

Agatucci, Cora.  "Introduction to A Pale View of Hills."  [Blackboard course document.]  English 205 Online: Survey of British Literature II, Central Oregon Community College, Winter 2006.


Howard, Ben. "A Civil Tongue: The Voice of Kazuo Ishiguro."  Sewanee Review 109.3 (Summer 2001): 389-417.


Ishiguro, Kazuo.  A Pale View of Hills. 1982. New York: Vintage International-Random House, 1990.


Jaggi, Maya.  "A Buttoned-Up Writer Breaks Loose." [Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro.]  [Manchester, UK] Guardian 29 April 1995.  Rpt. World Press Review 42.4 (1995): 45.


"Kazuo Ishiguro, 1954 -  ."  [New Entry: 5 June 2001.]   Contemporary Authors Online. Gale, 2001.  Rpt. Gale Literature Resource Center.  Gale, 2003. Central Oregon Community College Library, Bend, OR. 23 Nov. 2003.


Mayer, Mary J.  Rev. of A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro (Putnam, 1982).  Library Journal 15 Apr. 1982: 825.


Mesher, D.  "Kazuo Ishiguro, November 8, 1954 - ."  Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 194: British Novelists Since 1960, Second Series. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book.  Ed. Merrit Moseley.  Gale, 1986. 145-153.  Rpt. Gale Literature Resource Center. Gale, 2003. Central Oregon Community College Library, Bend, OR.  5 May 2003.

Murfin, Ross, and Supryia M. Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford-St. Martin's, 2003.

Wong, Cynthia F.  Kazuo Ishiguro. Writers and Their Work Series. Tavistock, Devon, U.K.: Northcote House, in association with British Council, 2000.  [SUMMIT: PR6059.S5 Z975 2000]

---.  "Like Idealism Is to the Intellect: An Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro." Clio 30.3 (Spring 2001): 309 (17pp). EBSCOHost Academic Search Elite 2000, Article Number: 5587426.
Abstract: "Presents an interview with novelist Kazuo Ishiguro on personal idealism. Family background; Literary accomplishments and awards; Views and principles on the history and literature."

---.  "The Shame of Memory: Blanchot's Self-Possession in Ishiguro's A Pale View of Hills." Clio 24.2 (Winter 1995): 127 (19pp).  EBSCOHost Academic Search Elite 2000, Article Number: 9508223079.
Abstract:  "Focuses on literary theorist Maurice Blanchot's concept of self-dispossession in Kazuo Ishiguro's novel `A Pale View of the Hills.' Features of Blanchot's theory of self-dispossession; Type of narrative strategy employed by Ishiguro; Trends in Ishiguro's novels."



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