The Aged Mother by Matsuo Basho
In The Aged Mother by Matsuo Basho we have the theme of power, selfishness, honesty, forgiveness, wisdom, love and change. Narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator it becomes clear to the reader from the beginning of the story that Basho may be exploring the theme of power. The ruler of Shining abuses his power by requesting that those in the region kill their elderly parent(s). The ruler, who is a warrior, does not see any benefit when it comes to old people. It is only at the end of the story that he becomes aware of the benefits of keeping old people alive. If anything the ruler is acting selfishly because inevitably most people will eventually be old but does not dawn on any of the people in Shining. They blindly follow the request that has been made by the ruler. That is till the farmer realizes that he cannot kill his mother or allow for her to die. He risks his own life in order to save the life of his mother. Something he knows will not please the ruler of Shining and that is why he hides his mother in his home.
Even though she knows that she is to be killed the mother cannot but help her son because she loves him. She does this by leaving twigs on the path so that the farmer will find his way down the mountain. It is also interesting that when the farmer reaches the top of the mountain with his mother he has a change of heart. This suggests to the reader that the farmer loves his mother more than he fears the ruler of Shining. He is not afraid to go against the ruler’s wishes even if it means certain death for himself and his mother. This may be significant as Basho may be suggesting that love will conquer all. That once a person is true to their family they have the ability to not only survive difficulties but to allow themselves to override the wishes of those who might be in power.
There may also be some symbolism in the story which might be important. The mountain can be seen to represent or symbolize difficulties. The farmer struggles as he is climbing the mountain and his mother by way of the twigs makes it easier on her son even though she is set to die. The fact that the ruler is a warrior suggests that he is brave. However this may not necessarily be the case. The ruler is picking on the most vulnerable in society by making a decree that old people should be killed. There is nothing brave about this and the ruler is hiding behind the power that has been given to him. If anything the ruler represents an abuse of power and how dangerous this abuse can be to others. The twigs can be seen to symbolize the mother’s selflessness. Unlike the ruler, who is acting selfishly, she is prepared to die in order for her son to not get into trouble.
The end of the story is interesting as the ruler appears to have a change of heart when he hears the farmer talking about how he made the rope of ashes. For the first and only time in the story the ruler admits to others that he has been in the wrong. That he in reality is dependent on the wisdom of the elderly. It is after all through the mother that the farmer learnt how to make the rope of ashes. It is her wisdom that has saved the day. Something that the ruler understands and more importantly accepts. The rope of ashes is significant as it acts as the impetus for change and ironically it is made by a woman who was due to be put to death. Her only crime being that she had aged. It is also by forgiving the farmer that the reader realizes that the ruler himself has not only changed but is willing to pay tribute to those who may have been old.