Bedside Story" by Mitsuye Yamada, a father relates an "old Japanese legend" to his young daughter (2). The legend involves an old woman who seeks shelter in "many small villages," looking for a place to stay for the night (6). In response to her petitions, "each door opened ... then closed," (9; 12). Finally, after an evening of rejections the old woman climbs a hill and lays down to rest. When she reaches the top the full moon peeks out from behind a cloud and the old woman is overcome with gratitude. She calls out "in supplication" and in immense gratitude for having been refused a place to stay (29). Were it not for the villagers' refusing her a bed, she might never have beheld the natural beauty of the full moon. When the father recounts this tale to his daughter in modern-day Seattle, the meaning of the story falls on deaf ears. "That's the end?" The girl says to her Papa (45). The 45-line free verse poem encompasses the irony inherent in the story-within-a-story, as both the narrator and the old woman perceive the world from a hilltop vantage point. The hilltop becomes a symbolic place that links the old woman and the young girl, who although she cannot fully appreciate the old woman's sense of gratitude at simply seeing the moon, nevertheless appreciates the "comfort of our / hilltop home," (41-42). Through such poignant symbolism and irony, Yamada conveys the dichotomy between old and young generations. Mitsuye Yamada's brief poem "A Bedtime Story" examines the conflicts between the ancient and the modern worlds, and between their corresponding mystical and material worldviews.
In "A Bedtime Story," the hilltop becomes the primary symbol of awareness, perception, and enlightenment. A hilltop is an optimal vantage point, a place of safety as well as a place of increased perception. From the top of a hill, a person can gain perspective on life. From the elevated vantage point, a person can understand the bigger picture. When the old woman reaches the top of the hill, she is initially physically exhausted. After "wearily" climbing the hill, she has to "lay down to rest / a few moments to catch / her breath," (15; 17-19). However, the old woman is psychologically and spiritually strong, for when she espies the glory of the full moon shining down upon the town, she is overcome with love and gratitude. The material comfort of a bed suddenly pales in comparison with the spiritual comfort of her natural surroundings, and from her literal and symbolic vantage point the woman truly appreciates life. Her attention shifts from that of needfulness to that of thankfulness; she has gone from a beggar to one who can fully receive. The hilltop enabled her to witness the true meaning of comfort and peace from an actual and metaphorical high point.
The old woman's appreciation for the simple yet powerful comfort of the full moon contrasts with the jaded dismissal of the story by the young girl. When she hears this legend, the girl "shouted" at her father for a more dashing ending. "That's the end?" is the last line of the poem, driving home the main theme of Yamada's poem (45). Young people growing up with the material comforts of the modern world can often fail to appreciate the subtle moments that offer spiritual solace, moments such as those enjoyed by the old woman. Moreover, the young girl takes for granted the comforts of her particular hilltop home. For the young girl, a hilltop means little more than a place from which to look down on the world. The old woman, on the other hand, was also able to use the hilltop as a place from which to look upward. Whereas the old woman's vantage point offered her a widened -- and wizened -- perspective of the world, the young girl's vantage point seems narrow and insular in comparison.
Yamada underscores the significance of the hilltop vantage point through poetic devices such as alliteration and symbolism. For instance, when the poet describes the old woman, the hilltop becomes a symbol for mental and spiritual clarity. On the top of the hill she "found a clearing," (16). The clearing both literally and symbolically encompasses the state of mind of the old woman. It is simultaneously a place to rest and a place to clear her mind of worry. Drawing the readers attention to the image of the clearing, Yamada uses alliteration with the words "climbed" and "clearing," (15-16). When she describes the young girl's vantage point, Yamada again returns to the same consonant sound, using the word "comfort" instead of clearing (41). The young girl's sense of comfort contrasts with the old woman's sense of clarity: the girl seems spiritually befuddled compared with the woman in the story. The young girls' inability to comprehend the meaning of her father's bedtime tale also points to her lack of mental and spiritual clarity, especially when compared with the old woman. The old woman seems to understand all things from her hilltop, whereas the young girl cannot.
From the top of the hill, the old woman can look down on the village town below, but with "humble eyes," (37). The villagers who refused to offer the woman a place to stay become symbolically "asleep," especially in comparison to the old woman's literally and figuratively elevated mental state (21). The woman's vantage point is so all-encompassing, that the woman compares the lights in the town to the stars overhead, referring to the "starlike lights" in the village (22). Her world expands as the universe's beauty spreads out before her. Humankind and its concerns seem petty when viewed against the grand backdrop of the stars and sky. The phrase "starlike lights" also contains an internal alliterative rhythm that propels the poem and drives home the central theme. Yamada also uses random yet significant rhyming as a poetic device, as with the words "rest" and "breath," (17; 19). However, rhyme is sporadic in "A Bedside Story."
The woman's gratitude derives more from an effortless epiphany than from hard work and effort, signified by Yamada's using the word "Suddenly," in line 23: "Suddenly the clouds opened." Yamada uses passive voice to underscore the hand of the divine in the old woman's epiphany. The spiritual nature of the woman's gratitude is conveyed also through the fact that "the clouds opened / and a full moon came into view," (23-24). The use of passive voice here again shows that the woman felt blessed to have been refused a place to stay, far more blessed than she might have felt with the material comforts of a bed. The young girl experiences something similar to an epiphany: a moment of utter wonder and shock that such a simple story could come to such a simple end. Having grown up surrounded by material comforts, entertained by American television, the young girl was expecting far more from the story than it delivered. She therefore fails to see the moral of the story and fails to reach any spiritual realization or epiphany.
The old woman's total lack of materialism contrasts sharply with the young girl's overt and unself-conscious attachment to the material world. For the old woman, comfort simply means spiritual awareness and inner peace. In fact, Yamada does not use the word "comfort" when she writes about the old woman. That word is only used by the narrator, the young girl, to describe her modern-day vantage point. For the young girl, comfort means insulation from the very elements that gave the woman her realization. The old woman, on the other hand, sought material comforts initially, but instead was given a glimpse of the divine. Their experiences differ, yet ironically the young girl and the old woman both…