One of the most primal fear within human mind is the fear of the unknown.
When I said fear of the unknown, it doesn’t have to be Lovecraftian fear of an existence far beyond human comprehension that makes us question our place in the universe. It can be something closer to home, that is to say, fear for our fellow man, fear for what darkness that might lurk behind the seemingly benign mask people (strangers, friends, or family alike) put on in their daily live.
Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Thief, among other things depending on your interpretation (as the unreliable nature of the narration offers variety of view), is an exploration of this theme, or to be more precise, how an act of crime can cause doubts and distrust within a certain community.
Before going into the essay further, it should be noted that The Thief original Japanese title is “私” or “watakushi”. A way to pronounce oneself in a very formal way. This titling reflects the narrative in the story, in a way. The plot itself is about the serial thievery happening in a dormitory which our Narrator, “I”, resided in. Rather than being a “whodunnit” mystery or morality examination of thievery, or the nature of crime in general, the story seems to be far more interested in examination of how a community react toward the act of thievery itself and how does being on the suspected end can how affect a person. Much of the narration is about the social tension that arise within “I” and his friends, and seed of doubts planted within people in the face of a committed crime, especially toward people who are “different”, whether that was because of lower social class or psychological factors, with the Narrator being the center of this distrust.
Beyond portraying the general distrust in a community, 私 also delve into how being on a suspected end affects a person psychology. Already ostracize due to his lower social status and seemingly “different” nature as noted by one of his “friend” Hirata, being a suspect of a crime is just another ammo for the people around him to distance themselves from him. As the story goes on, apart from the increasing awareness of a gap that he has with the people around him, the narration delve more and more on “what-if” that he’s a thief. Exemplified by the following sentences:
” I suppose what makes a thief different from other men is not so much his
criminal act itself as his effort to hide it at all costs, the strain of trying to put it out
of his mind, the dark fears that he can never confess. And now I was becoming
enshrouded by that darkness. I was trying not to believe that I was under
suspicion; I was worrying about fears that I could not admit to my closest friend.” Page 3
“If I were a prudent, clever thief—no, I mustn’t put it that way—if I were a thief with the least bit of conscience and consideration for other people, I’d try to keep my friendships untarnished, try to be open with my friends, treat them with a sincerity and warmth that I need never be ashamed of, while carrying out my thefts in secrecy.
Perhaps I’d be what people call “a brazen thief,” but if you look at it from the
thief’s point of view, it’s the most honest attitude to take. “It’s true that I steal, but
it’s equally true that I value my friends,” such a man would say. “That is typical of
a thief, that’s why he belongs to a different species.” Anyhow, when I started
thinking that way, I couldn’t help becoming more and more aware of the distance
between me and my friends. Before I knew it I felt like a full-fledged thief.” Page 4
As much as we like to espouse “not to let what other people thoughts define you”, the effect of societal gaze is powerful and “our context and social appearance can end up dictating our own fundamental nature”, often preventing us to be the best possible version of person we could be and hampering the process of establishing our own individuality.
As the Narrator said it himself, “In this kind of situation what difference
is there, really, between an innocent man and an actual criminal?” By the end, it doesn’t seem to matter who actually is the thief. The mere idea that someone they knew close might be a thief was enough to shatter friendship and destroy trust among people, essentially it cast people in a limbo of ambiguity where you don’t know who to trust in a fear of betrayal.
That is of course until it was narrated that the Narrator was the thief all along. The story ends with the Narrator become a professional thief whereas one of his friends from the higher social status, Higuchi, led a successful few years later. While you can take all the event in face value, the weird ending note where the Narrator assure us that all of his account has been a full truth is essentially a dare by Tanizaki to question the events that happened so far. For the purpose of this essay however, my interpretation is this:
In order to save his friends from breaking apart and stuck in a realm of ambiguity, the Narrator decides to take a full blame of the thievery. Essentially, relieving his friends, and to the reader, us, as well, of the burden of ambiguity on who to trust. As we read the story, we also experience the same distrust that all the characters experienced as well. The narrator statement regarding how has been “telling the truth over and over again” in a roundabout way is not only directed to the Narrator’s friends, but also directed to us. His assurance of the full truth of his account, his proclamation about how Hirata is the man to trust, and the statement regarding Higuchi leading a successful life is, in a way, an image maintenance.
The Narrator wants his friends, and us, to believe in an ideal of an absolute right in the form of Hirata and Higuchi, while casting himself as a villain, the evil to blame on.
But, in real life, we can’t do that. Not in an expense of an innocent ostracized man, no matter how scary the unknown can be.