At the beginning of the novel, Etsuko explains that she does not want to be reminded of her past. She rejects everything that is attached to Japan and does not even want to give her second daughter a Japanese name (names her Nikki). It is not clear at this point of the story why she refuses to talk about the past, but it soon becomes obvious that she has not yet overcome the suicide of her daughter, Keiko. She feels responsible as she has left Japan and her husband, even though she has assumed that Keiko would not be happy in England.
But such things are long in the past now and I have no wish to ponder them yet again. My motives for leaving Japan were justifiable, and I know I always kept Keiko’s interests very much at heart. There is nothing to be gained in going over such matters again.
To avoid ‚going over such matters again’, Etsuko employs several defense mechanisms to protect her psyche. She tries to keep certain memories away and represses her knowledge about the past in order to shield herself from painful experiences.
She has “no great wish to dwell on Keiko now, it brings [her] little comfort.” As she explains further, she only mentions her daughter “because those were the circumstances around Niki’s visit this April, and because it was during that visit that [she] remembered Sachiko again after all this time.”
Not only does Etsuko not wish to talk about Keiko, but she is in denial about her death. When meeting her neighbour Mrs Waters in the street and asked for Keiko, she does not reveal the death of her daughter. Later, she comments her behaviour with:
It seemed easiest to say what I did.”
Presumably, Etsuko avoids any confrontation with Keiko’s suicide and – as Niki points out – even seems to be pleased to do so:
“It was odd just now, with Mrs Waters. It was almost like you enjoyed […] pretending Keiko was alive.
On the surface it appears that Etsuko is successful in repressing the thought of her daughter’s death. However, on a deeper level, she is haunted by Keiko’s ghost. She cannot sleep and she has visions about Keiko hanging in her room:
I have found myself continually bringing to mind that picture – of my daughter hanging in her room for days on end. […] It may seem morbid of a mother to have such thoughts, but on hearing of her suicide, the first thought that ran through my mind – before I registered even the shock – was to wonder how long she had been there like that before they had found her. She had lived amidst her own family without being seen for days on end; little hope she would be discovered quickly in a strange city where no one knew her.
As she concludes, the “horror of that image has never diminished, but it has long ceased to be a morbid matter; as with a wound on one’s own body, it is possible to develop an intimacy with the most disturbing of things.”
Apart from these visions, Etsuko is also haunted by bad dreams: “At first it had seemed a perfectly innocent dream; I had merely dreamt of something I had seen the previous day – the little girl we had watched playing in the park. And then the dream came back the following night. Indeed, over the past few months, it has returned to me several times.” The dream of the girl on a swing “pulling hard on the chains” without being able to “make the swing go higher” turns out not to be so ‚perfectly innocent’ as it has seemed to be at the beginning. As Etsuko realizes later, the dream has a much more profound and disturbing meaning:
The fact that I mentioned my dream to Niki, that first time I had it, indicates perhaps that I had doubts even then to its innocence. I must have suspected from the start – without fully knowing why – that the dream had not to do so much with the little girl we had watched, but with my having remembered Sachiko two days previously.
And much later in the novel, Etsuko comes back to this dream. She tells Niki that “it isn’t that little girl at all” she has been dreaming about. “It seemed to be that little girl, but it wasn’t. [..] It was just a little girl I knew once. A long time ago.” This clearly refers to Mariko, but Etsuko’s second remark leaves the reader riddled: “In fact, I realized something else […] about the dream. […] The little girl isn’t on a swing at all. It seemed like that at first. But it’s not a swing she’s on.” This remark is not further specified, but Shaffer suggests that the little girl hangs from the end of a noose.
Thus, guilt is once again present and overcomes Etsuko in her sleep.