Tools of Characterization
This is very much a story about how Jean deals with his the loss of his mother when he is only nineteen. Jean's real father is mentioned only when he mentions that his parents divorced. If Jean knows or cares for the man, he doesn't give us any indication. His stepfather, Bobby, is the only family he seems to have left, but Jean doesn't appreciate him fully until after his death. Perhaps this is because he can't understand that Bobby loves him like a son. Telling the story is a way to express his belated appreciation, and a way of giving Bobby credit for being a stand-up-guy.
The Yoshotos, Jean's temporary family in Montreal, might also represent a fractured family. Jean says their son is away working, but the sad moaning that emanates from the Yoshotos bedroom might have something to do with the son. He might be away at war, or even dead.
This fractured-family aspect takes on huge meaning when we consider that the story is set during World War II, which affects the shattering of many families across the globe.
Jean's appearance is a bit of a mess. He's going though what is hopefully an awkward stage when we meet him in 1939. He has forehead acne, sometimes over dresses, and, most awkward of all, he's missing several front teeth. We know he had teeth pulled. If Jean was wearing dentures we imagine he would have mentioned them. We can only assume that Jean is wondering around looking either like a man much older or much younger than his years. Lines like "I flashed him an excessively winning smile" take on a whole new meaning when considering the lost teeth (27).
This picture is both comic and tragic. Jean can't deal with his mother's death in peace. His body keeps intruding. This awkward physical appearance might also explain why Jean doesn't seem to mention a single friend, even though he goes to art school everyday. His physical appearance, or his anxiety over his physical appearance is probably contributing not a little to his isolation. On the other hand, this extreme physical appearance, which we are given in bits and pieces, is meant to provoke at least one or two giggles.
There is a high stress on occupation in this story. We don't meet any idlers or loafers. Jean has several occupations: artist, art teacher, and art student. Bobby was first a stockbroker, and then, when the market crashed, a buyer, seller, and appraiser of art. M. Yoshoto is both artist and art teacher. He is also the director of a school with no license. All of these key characters do whatever they can to achieve some above average success in their respective occupations.
Mme. Yoshoto's occupation is a little harder to pin down. She is most often seen cooking, cleaning, or sitting at her husband's side helping him with his work. We don't whether or not she too is an artist, or what she might have done in her home country. This information would have been hard for Jean to get his hands on. This is not the case with Jean's mother. He must have known of her interests. This is probably another instance of him not being able, or not wanting to talk about it.