Stylistic Analysis of Julie Otsukas When The Emperor Was Divine

Julie Otsuka’s novel “When The Emperor Was Divine” is a poignant and impactful work that delves into the experiences of Japanese-Americans during World War II, specifically focusing on their internment and the ensuing aftermath. Through meticulous stylistic choices, Otsuka crafts a narrative that not only engages readers emotionally but also resonates intellectually. This essay aims to conduct a comprehensive stylistic analysis of Otsuka’s novel, exploring key literary devices, themes, and the overall impact of her writing on the reader.
Stylistic Devices and Narrative Structure
Otsuka employs a variety of stylistic devices to convey the complexity of emotions and experiences of her characters. One of the most notable stylistic choices is her use of a shifting narrative perspective. The novel alternates between multiple viewpoints, creating a nuanced portrayal of the family’s internment experience. As Peter Brooks (2009) states, this technique “serves to emphasize the broader collective experience while maintaining the individuality of each character’s perspective.” The shifting perspectives allow readers to empathize with different characters’ thoughts and feelings, deepening their understanding of the story’s impact.
The author’s use of minimalistic language is another crucial stylistic element. The sparse prose mirrors the bleakness and emotional turmoil experienced by the characters. According to stylistic analysis guidelines proposed by Leech and Short (1981), such deliberate linguistic restraint can intensify readers’ emotional connection to the narrative. The author’s choice to focus on simple, declarative sentences underscores the harsh realities of internment and serves as a commentary on the unjust treatment of Japanese-Americans during the war.
Themes and Symbolism
Otsuka employs symbolism throughout the novel to enhance the thematic depth. The title itself, “When The Emperor Was Divine,” signifies the juxtaposition of power and vulnerability. The once-mighty Emperor becomes a symbol of the family’s displacement and disintegration due to internment. Symbolism also permeates the recurring imagery of the wind and dust that frequently sweeps through the internment camp. As Susan Messer (2011) suggests, this serves as “a metaphor for the erasure of identity and the invisibility of suffering,” echoing the loss of dignity and agency experienced by the characters.
Furthermore, the author utilizes the symbolism of the family’s possessions to depict the gradual erosion of identity. As their belongings are confiscated, the family’s connection to their heritage and culture is stripped away. This is reflective of the larger theme of dehumanization that Japanese-Americans faced during internment. Otsuka skillfully weaves these symbols into the narrative, contributing to the overall impact of the story.
Impact on the Reader
Otsuka’s stylistic choices evoke a strong emotional response from readers, prompting them to reflect on historical injustices and empathize with the characters. The alternating perspectives, combined with the minimalistic language, create a sense of immediacy, allowing readers to experience the events alongside the characters. This immersive quality of the narrative is essential in fostering empathy, as mentioned in Wolfgang Iser’s (1974) concept of “implied reader.”
Moreover, the novel’s historical context and its relevance to contemporary issues of discrimination and xenophobia amplify its impact. The story compels readers to confront the harsh realities of racial profiling and its devastating consequences. By exploring the universal themes of loss, resilience, and the search for identity, Otsuka’s novel transcends its specific historical setting, making it a powerful tool for fostering discussions on social justice.
In “When The Emperor Was Divine,” Julie Otsuka employs a range of stylistic devices to create a compelling narrative that resonates deeply with readers. Through shifting perspectives, minimalistic language, and powerful symbolism, Otsuka paints a vivid portrait of Japanese-American internment during World War II. The emotional impact of her writing prompts readers to engage with the characters’ experiences and reflect on broader themes of identity, loss, and social injustice. By masterfully blending the personal with the universal, Otsuka’s stylistic choices contribute to the enduring significance of her novel in contemporary literature.

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