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The Japanese Quince
By John Galsworthy (1867-1933)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Setting
Characters
Point of View
What Is a Japanese Quince?
Plot Summary
Interpretation and Theme
Descriptive Style
Climax
Symbols
Questions, Writing Topics
Biography of Galsworthy

Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2011
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Type of Work and Publication Year

......."The Japanese Quince" is a short story about a well-to-do London businessman. Charles Scribner's Sons first published it in 1910 as part of a collection entitled A Motley.

Setting

.......The action takes place on Campden Hill in London in the early twentieth century. The main character and his neighbor both work in London's financial district, known as "the city." 

Characters

Mr. Nilson: London businessman who experiences worrisome symptoms even though he is the picture of good health.
Mr. Tandram: Nilson's next-door neighbor. He is also a businessman and experiences symptoms like Nilson's.
Wives of Nilson and Tandram: The narrator mentions the spouses, but they have no speaking role in the story.  

Point of View

.......The narrator tells the story in third-person point of view. The viewpoint is omniscient only in relation to main character, Nilson—that is, the narrator reveals Nilson's unspoken thoughts but not Tandram's. 

What Is a Japanese Quince?

.......A Japanese quince is a shrub or small tree that blossoms with pink or red flowers in early spring. Contrary to Mr. Nilson's statement in the story that they do not bear fruit, the Japanese quince does bear pear-shaped green, yellow, purplish green, greenish-yellow, or white fruit. The fruit is hard when picked in the fall and not suitable for eating except when used to make preserves. The shrub has a fragrance resembling that of pineapples, lemons, and vanilla. Its main purpose is as an ornamental shrub for gardens. Click here to see images of the Japanese quince.

Plot Summary

.......While in the dressing room of his home on Campden Hill in London, Mr. Nilson experiences a sweetness in his throat and an emptiness in his chest. Opening a window, he notices that a small tree in the Campden Hill gardens is blossoming. “Perfect morning,” he thinks; “spring at last!” (paragraph 1).
.......After going downstairs and getting the morning paper from the sideboard in the dining room, that same sweetness affects him as before. A bit concerned, he goes outside for fresh air and a walk in the gardens. But only moments pass before he again experiences the feeling of sweetness, along with a slight ache above his heart.
.......He considers what he ate the previous evening but recalls no food that could cause his sensations. Then he notices the small tree that he saw from the window. It has green leaves and pink and white blossoms. Very pretty. When he stops to observe it, he notices his neighbor, Mr. Tandram, doing the same. Nilson had never spoken to him even though Tandram had lived in the house next door for five years. 
.......Feeling obliged to speak, Nilson says, "Fine morning!" (paragraph 7),
......."Beautiful, for the time of year" (paragraph 7), Tandram says.
.......Both men are about the same height, both have mustaches, and both are carrying the morning paper. Nilson asks whether Tandram knows the name of the tree.
.......“I was about to ask you that” (paragraph 10) Tandram says.
.......Tandram then steps closer to it and sees a label on it. "Japanese quince" (paragraph 13), he says.
.......They exchange friendly small talk about the tree and the song of a blackbird nearby, then return to their homes. When Nilson reaches the top step, he experiences that same choking sweetness in his throat. At that very moment, he hears someone cough or sigh. When he looks in the direction of the cough, he sees Tandram looking out from his French window at the Japanese quince. 
......."Unaccountably upset," the narrator says, "Mr. Nilson turned abruptly into the house, and opened his morning paper" (last paragraph).
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Interpretation and Theme

.......The theme of the story is that many people lead a humdrum, uneventful life but refuse to change their ways. They are in a rut. Galsworthy uses Mr. Nilson as an example of such people. 
.......Nilson lives in an exclusive section of London, fashionable Campden Hill, and apparently makes plenty of money as an investor in London's financial district—known to London residents as "the City" (a term used in the first and seventh paragraphs of the story). Thus, he does not lack the means to lead a dynamic, outgoing life. What he lacks is the will to become more involved with the world around him. Consider that he has lived next to Mr. Tandrum for five years but never once spoke with him until the mysterious fragrance brings them together at the quince tree. 
.......Oddly, both men have mustaches, both are about the same height, both carry newspapers, and both have dealings in the financial district. These similarities tell the reader that there is nothing distinctive about them. They are among the mass of men who lead lives of quiet complacency and ordinariness.
.......The conversation they have is pleasant. Nilson thinks, "Nice fellow, this, I rather like him" (paragraph 18). Here is an opportunity for Nilson to cultivate a friendship with his neighbor—to get out of his rut and into the world. But their conversation stalls, and both return to their homes. 
.......After hearing Tandrum cough, Nilson discovers that Tandrum is like him in another way: Tandrum, too, has a reaction to the quince tree. Nilson is "unaccountably upset" (last paragraph) that his neighbor is so much like him. Moments before, he thought he was unique: “Morning like this! . . . and here I am the only person in the Square who has the—to come out and—!” (paragraph 7).  In other words, he thought, he was the only person in the neighborhood who had the initiative to go outdoors and appreciate the spring day. Then he sees Tandram. At the end of the story, Nilson goes back indoors and opens his newspaper. Apparently, he prefers his comfortable rut.

Descriptive Style

.......Galsworthy develops his theme with concise descriptive language. The details are spare, but none of them is wasted. Many words have more than one meaning. For example, Nilson's "feeling of emptiness" (paragraph 1) describes a physical sensation in his chest while also suggesting that his life is empty. Some words describe not only an object but also an aspect of Nilson's life. For example, Nilson's "ivory-backed handglass" (paragraph 2) suggests that he can afford luxuries. 
.......To emphasize how similar Nilson and Tandram are—and therefore commonplace and boring—Galsworthy says both of them are about the same height and have brown mustaches, grey eyes, and "well-coloured cheeks" (paragraph 2, paragraph 7). Both have newspapers clasped behind their backs, and both live in houses with a French window and scrolled iron steps. When the two men part company, Galsworthy writes, "It struck him [Nilson] suddenly that Mr. Tandram looked a little foolish; and, as if he had seen himself, he said: 'I must be going in. Good morning!' ” (paragraph 19). The key words here are "as if he had seen himself." 

Climax

.......The climax occurs when Nilson hears Tandram cough and sees him look out the window at the Japanese quince. It is at this moment that Nilson realizes that he and Tandram are alike and lead the same kind of boring life. 

Symbols

The Japanese Quince

.......The Japanese quince—bursting with colorful blossoms—symbolizes rebirth. Its fragrance suggests to Nilson and Tandram that they, too, could have a new life if they simply made the effort. 

The Blackbird

.......The blackbird's singing makes the world cheerful and pleasant. It symbolizes the interesting and productive persons Nilson and Tandram could become if they also used their talents to become more involved with the world.

Study Questions and Writing Topics

  • Who recommended deep breathing as a healthful exercise? 
  • Nilson lives next door to Tandram. Not until they encounter each other at the Japanese quince do they speak to each other for the first time. Why has it taken so long for them to meet?
  • Why do people like Nilson and Tandram prefer to keep to themselves?
  • Was Galsworthy like Nilson and Tandram? Or was he outgoing and daring?
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