‘Silence’ and Historical Presence: Teaching a Novel in the Survey

Photo of the book Silence by Shusaku Endo

Speaking of Jesuits, here’s an assignment I used this spring for the first time. In my modern world history course at the University of Scranton, I assigned a short essay about Endō Shūsaku’s 1966 historical novel Silence, a story based on true events (involving Jesuits) in seventeenth-century Japan. It took a long time to work up the nerve.

If the assignment worked, my students would use the novel as a matrix upon which to practice visualizing a real time and place, building empathy with its people. They would also analyze how Silence, as a piece of fiction crafted to resonate with a modern audience, makes it easier to see that all kinds of historical discourse must communicate effectively between different times and places. This assignment would have the additional benefit of connecting the university’s Ignatian heritage with a specific topic already covered in class, in a way that students might find personally relevant and poignant. (I do not assume my students at the University of Scranton are—or should be—Catholics, but most of them do come from a Catholic cultural environment.)

As a history instructor, however, I had three main qualms about my own assignment. As the deadline approached, my apprehension grew.

First, my students needed to use the novel to clarify, not obscure, the relationships between fact and fiction. I didn’t want any confusion about Silence‘s genre, of course, but I also needed my students to grasp the historical-pedagogical purpose of reading fiction at all. This wasn’t supposed to be an arbitrary excursion into make-believe.

Second, although Endō was Japanese (a conflicted member of Japan’s Catholic minority) and published the book in his own language, Silence adopts the perspective of a European man. The protagonist is a Portuguese Jesuit missionary who finds Japan hostile and alien. I hoped my students would use this reversal as a tool for interrogating their own perspectives. The risk was great that the opposite would happen: that the book would reinforce a Western frame of reference for Asian history and perhaps would even deepen some harmful stereotypes. I also had grave doubts about the novel’s lack of women’s perspectives—although that is a perennial problem in Jesuit-related material.

Third, although it’s not very long, Silence is a difficult text. It depicts extreme violence, abounds in irony and obscure language, and ends in ambiguity. A colleague in another department warned me that Silence had been proposed and then rejected as a first-year common reading assignment. Would its literary difficulties prove overwhelming? Even if students could make sense of the text, they might be bored beyond usefulness.

Still, I have a lot of faith in my students. Plus, I knew this novel. There was a real chance that it would hit home for some students in ways that other material in the course did not.

I managed my doubts mainly in two ways. First, I chose the assignment deadline very carefully. Students would submit their essays not when we discussed seventeenth-century Japan, as one might assume, but several weeks later, during the unit when we covered Japan’s late-nineteenth-century imperial rivalry with the West—and the day before we began talking about the twentieth-century world wars.

I think this was crucial. My goal was to make clear that Silence, as a historical novel, should be understood as product of later cultural developments and reevaluations. Even leaving aside its fictionality, Silence must not be read the way one would read a source from the era it depicts. It was retrospective writing. I wanted students to have already picked up some tools for thinking about that.

Second, I took the time to write a fairly intricate two-page prompt for the three-page essay. This document put the relationship between fact and fiction at the heart of the assignment.

Here’s an extract:


Shūsaku Endō (1923-1996) published the novel Silence in Japanese in 1966. As a work of historical fiction, Silence is based loosely on real events and people from seventeenth-century Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate. (The protagonist, Fr. Sebastian Rodrigues, is an imaginary character based on the real Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Chiara, while the major characters Inoue Masashige and Cristóvão Ferreira are fictional depictions of real people.) No detail in the book should be assumed to be factual.


This book essay has two main purposes. One is to examine how the modern author has imagined historical events and characters to make the real story accessible to modern readers through fiction. This means discussing some of the book’s key storytelling methods. Your other purpose is to examine how the author uses imagined history to make a point about his own modern world. This requires analyzing some of the main questions that the novel raises for the modern reader.

Note: This is not a research paper. You should not do any outside research for this assignment.

In class, it took quite a bit of work to explain this prompt to my students’ satisfaction. Some were especially unsure what I meant by “the author’s own modern world.” I had to explain many times that I wanted my students to approach the book as an opportunity for modern audiences to imagine some of the many possible meanings that the past might hold for them. And I stressed that this was not a historical fact-checking exercise; students should take for granted that the story was made-up and work from there. As the deadline neared, my anxiety about the assignment grew.

Then, on a Friday morning in April, we gathered to discuss the results in each of my world history sections.

Reader, it was fabulous.

My students produced thoughtful and original essays, as I discovered when I got home. In class, they discussed the book both as a personal encounter with contemporary issues through historical reflection—about cultural difference, religious doubt, violence, self-sacrifice, and despair—and as a way to identify with a past society by speculating about how it would have looked, smelled, and felt, and about the interior lives of people living there. Several agreed that Silence made the factual material we had already covered more accessible. They were, however, careful to talk about all of these elements as the products of rhetorical choices the author had made.

As for the difficulty of the text, something strange happened there. Many students confessed that they had initially expected the book to be boring. As I recall, one even said she had “rolled her eyes” at the assignment. Yet once they began reading the book, they loved it. The depth of the conversation, especially in one of my sections, bore this out.

This was the opposite of what I had anticipated. I had assumed that the prospect of reading a novel would be exciting but Silence itself might be disappointing. I still haven’t figured out why my students’ early expectations were so low. My suspicion is that they have endured bad experiences with academic literary study in general, being frustrated by their assignments in high school if not college. I sincerely hope that’s not the case. In any event, I think it must mean something important that my students expected to find fiction less interesting than nonfiction.

My concern about Eastern and Western perspectives also proved unfounded, as far as I could tell. The students did a marvelous job analyzing the Jesuit protagonist’s unreliability as a narrator, his frequent misunderstandings of his environment, and the ironies embedded in the book’s climax and denouement. They were able to grasp and explore the paradox that Silence, written by a Japanese Catholic, seems to declare the impossibility of Japanese Catholicism. They understood that the book can be read as making the opposite claim, undermining Eurocentric assumptions about what Christianity is. They empathized with the Japanese antagonists Inouye and Kichijiro as well as the various Japanese tertiary characters whom the European protagonist found mysterious or disappointing.

As for the book’s unrelenting maleness of perspective … I can’t say we solved that problem. But I can at least say, with great confidence, that the women in class were at least as deeply engrossed in the book as the men were. Moreover, they were able to point out how much Silence, as a story about men’s adventures, centers acts of radical care and self-emptying, calling into question many qualities typically associated with masculinity. That does not eliminate the problem from a history teacher’s standpoint, but it’s worth considering.

In the end, my main problem with this assignment was the amount of time it took for me to grade the seventy essays I received, compared with the amount of time it would have taken to grade the assignment it replaced. Unfortunately, this was also an assignment that exposed my courses to the risk of plagiarism to an extent most of my assignments do not. (It isn’t difficult for students to find book reviews and plot synopses for Silence, even if they don’t meet my requirements for the essay.) That slowed me down further. Still, I judged the exercise to be a solid success.

Oh, and one other thing. Many college humanities instructors complain that American undergraduates today use the word “novel” to refer inaccurately to every kind of book. For once, that was not a problem in any of the essays I read—not only because this book actually is a novel, but also, I hope, because this assignment helped students develop a clear grasp of the significance of the term.