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A Family Supper Summary
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of A Family Supper by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Japanese-British writer Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1983 short story “A Family Supper” was originally published in the short story volume Firebird 2: Writing Today. A nameless Japanese narrator goes back home to visit his father and sister in Tokyo after living in California for a period of time. The family sits down to enjoy dinner together, reminisce about the past, and talk about their changing lives and plans for the future. Ishiguro is the author of renowned, prize-winning novels such as The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go. Although A Family Supper is not one of his more well-known works, it has generally received praise from critics.
At the beginning of the story, the narrator explains that his mother died from eating fugu, a species of poisonous blowfish caught off the Pacific shores of Japan. The blowfish contains two sacks of poison that must be carefully removed during preparation, or the poison spreads to the fish’s veins and kills those who eat it. The narrator reveals that his mother had always been wary of eating fugu for this reason, but decided to have some to avoid offending a childhood friend. The narrator was living in California at the time of his mother’s death, and only learned the details when he went back to Tokyo to visit his father and sister two years later. The narrator’s father, who is very reserved and dignified, tells his son about the circumstances surrounding his mother’s death on the drive home from the airport.
When they arrive home, the narrator’s father asks whether he is hungry and says they will eat as soon as his sister, Kikuko, arrives. The narrator expresses condolences for the recent collapse of his father’s firm. His father tells him that his business partner, Watanabe, killed himself after the firm’s failure because his life was empty without his work. The narrator’s father says he is glad that his son has decided to come back home, in spite of their estrangement, and that he hopes he will stay for more than just a short visit. Kikuko arrives and greets the narrator. We learn that she has been away from home studying at a university in Osaka. The reunited siblings take a stroll through their garden and chat about their lives.
The narrator learns that Kikuko has a boyfriend and is contemplating moving to America with him. She tells him that she is not sure whether she wants to leave her friends in Osaka behind to spend the rest of her life with her boyfriend. The narrator confirms that he ended his own relationship with a woman named Vicki in California. The siblings’ conversation turns to the old well in their garden, which they had believed to be haunted when they were children. The narrator remembers seeing an old woman in a white kimono pass through the garden many times at night and believed her to be a ghost. However, his mother had been convinced that the woman he saw was just an old lady from the neighborhood vegetable store crossing through the garden to get home and that he just did not recognize her in the dark.
The talk about ghosts leads to a discussion of Watanabe’s suicide. Kikuko tells the narrator that Watanabe had killed his wife and two daughters with poisonous gas before disemboweling himself samurai-style with a knife. All of a sudden, the narrator catches a glimpse of the old woman in a white kimono standing in the garden, her hair blowing around her face as she watches him. When he tells Kikuko to take a look, however, the woman is nowhere to be seen. Kikuko chides the narrator for trying to scare her. The siblings go inside, and Kikuko helps prepare the dinner while the narrator’s father gives him a tour of the house. The narrator notices that the rooms are all stark and empty and that his father’s belongings have been packed into one room along with some toy battleships that he has been constructing in his spare time. Kikuko calls the family to dinner in the tearoom, and they sit and enjoy a fresh meal of fish.
The narrator’s father tells him that it is hard for parents to lose their children, and to lose them to things that they do not understand. He drops hints that the narrator’s mother may have deliberately committed suicide out of loneliness. During the meal, the narrator notices a photograph on the wall of the tearoom that he had not seen before. The photo is of a woman in a white kimono. He asks his father who the woman in the picture is, and his father expresses surprise that the narrator does not recognize his own mother. He tells the narrator that the photo was taken right before his mother’s death. The narrator says he could not see her well in the dark and that she looks a lot older than he remembered.
After dinner, Kikuko goes to the kitchen to make a pot of tea. The narrator tells his father that he knows Watanabe took his whole family with him when he killed himself. His father replies that Watanabe took the collapse of his business hard and lapsed in judgment as a result and that there is more to life than work. He invites his son to stay with him in Japan for a while but says that he will doubtlessly want to return to America soon. He expresses his hope that Kikuko will come home to live with him after graduating from university, unaware of her plans to go to America with her boyfriend. The conversation ends when Kikuko returns with the tea.
The main themes of the story are death, suicide, spirituality, memory, the past, family, estrangement, loneliness, and generational shift. The story examines the ways in which people fill their lives while they are alive—with family, relationships, and work—and the emptiness that follows when these things are gone. The father, who is entering the eve of his life, is in a different place emotionally from his children, who are just beginning theirs. The story also focuses heavily on Japanese tradition, including gender roles and honor suicide, and contrasts older people’s way of life with the more modern beliefs and attitudes of the post-war generation. The ghost in the story is symbolic of, not only the narrator’s lost mother, but also of a family, childhood home, and country that he no longer recognizes.