John Galsworthy

The Japanese Quince

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The Japanese Quince Summary

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“The Japanese Quince” is a 1910 short story by John Galsworthy. The story is only three pages long, but its compressed nature helps to underscore the symbolic importance of those few events that take place. The story concerns Mr. Nilson, who awakens to a strange sensation in his throat and chest. He attempts to avoid dealing with this by taking refuge in his daily routines. When, over the course of these routines, he runs into Mr. Tandram, he finds himself put off by the man. Because Galsworthy describes Mr. Tandram and his routines, in exactly the same language he does Mr. Nilson, the annoyance that Mr. Nilson feels towards his neighbor seems odd and arbitrary –hinting that this simple story is meant to be taken as an allegory, although it’s exact meaning is intentionally left opaque. Galsworthy wrote many short stories but is perhaps best known for his Forsyte Saga, a trilogy about the Forsyte family.

The story opens in Campden Hill, a district of London. Mr. Nilson, “who was well known in the City,” opens the window of his dressing room. He experiences a strange “sweetish” taste in his throat and a “feeling of emptiness beneath his fifth rib.” Mr. Nilson pays the sensations no heed, however, noting what a perfect morning it is. Mr. Nilson’s eye alights on a small tree in the square below that is in bloom.

Mr. Nilson, then, after spending some time considering the price of wines, looks at himself in an ivory-back mirror – these details make clear that Mr. Nilson is upper-middle-class, at least, and tasteful. Looking at his face in his mirror, he admires his appearance: “his round, well-opened, clear grey eyes, wore a reassuring appearance of good health.” It is interesting that Galsworthy uses the circumlocution “wore a reassuring appearance of good health,” which indicates only that his eyes seemed healthy, not that they were. The verb “wore” even hints at dissimulation, evoking the idea of a healthy appearance as a garment covering something more ominous. After his previous strange sensations, the notion that all is not well with Mr. Nilson has already been implied.

Indeed, not long after this, Mr. Nilson again experiences “that queer feeling.” This “somewhat concerns” him, and he decides to take some fresh air. Hearing a cuckoo clock strike eight, he realizes breakfast won’t be for another half hour and decides on a walk through the gardens. His walk does nothing to dissipate his strange feeling; it actually makes it worse. Mr. Nilson wonders if he ate something unusual the day before that is affecting him today, but can recall nothing out of the ordinary. Soon, however, his attention is taken in by the small flowering tree he had noticed from his window. It is covered in pink and white flowers, and a blackbird sits among its boughs singing.

Mr. Nilson is just exclaiming that he alone is witnessing the beautiful tree, experiencing the fine morning, when he suddenly realizes that he is not alone. His neighbor, Mr. Tandram, who is described as looking exactly like Mr. Nilson, is standing next to him, in the same posture, smiling up at the same tree. This ruins Mr. Nilson’s mood, and he feels unsure about how to respond to the man’s presence. Finally, he asks the man what kind of tree it is that they’re staring at. Mr. Tandram replies that he was just about to ask Mr. Nilson the same thing. He leans towards the tree, looking for a plaque with its species name on it, and replies: “Japanese quince!”

A strangely labored exchange of small talk about the tree and the virtues of blackbirds’ singing follows. Both men seem to be embarrassed by and for one another, and soon they part ways, each with his newspaper clasped behind his back. As at every other point in their meeting, Galsworthy is careful to portray the men as near mirror images of one another.

Mr. Nilson begins his retreat indoors, careful to measure his steps so that he doesn’t arrive at his door at the same that Mr. Tandram arrives at his. At the last minute, he finds himself again absorbed in the glowing beauty of the one little flowering tree in the garden, the Japanese quince. Mr. Tandram’s cough awakens him to the fact that Mr. Tandram is still mirroring him. This makes Mr. Nilson “unaccountably upset,” and he “abruptly” enters his house and opens his paper. There the story ends.

“The Japanese Quince” is a masterwork in ambiguity. What Mr. Nilson’s strange sensation signified is never told; why he and his neighbor are so alike, and the meaning of their similarities, is also never explained. The Japanese quince itself, at first just a pretty flowering tree, is later said to “quiver and glow” as if it were “appreciating their attention.” It is also described as “being more living than a mere tree.” These details, though subtle, add to the dreamlike strangeness of the scene.