This post originally appeared on the Ploughshares blog in November 2019
Kobo Abe’s 1962 novel, The Woman in the Dunes, translated into English by E. Dale Saunders in 1964, delineates in simple yet evocative prose one man’s experience of unjust capture and imprisonment, and the shifting lines between purpose and absurdity that experience foregrounds. Taken as a purely existential novel, the centrality of this figure and his experience can easily remain unchallenged. The story charts this man’s thoughts, perceptions, and feelings as he navigates his claustrophobic surroundings to the complete exclusion of other voices. Yet, he isn’t alone in his imprisonment. The eponymous “woman in the dunes,” who remains unnamed, is there with him. This woman can be viewed as a symbolic figure—one of either salvation or of damnation—or as a convenient sounding board for relaying the man’s frustrations, suspicions, and hopes. But beyond this role, what can be said of her actual character? And how does reading her as a person rather than a symbol change the dynamic of the reading experience?
The narrative of The Woman in the Dunes is a simple one. Our narrator, a man named Niki Jumpei, is a teacher with a passion for studying insects. He travels into the desert, hoping to achieve recognition and posterity in the discovery and naming of a new species of beetle. He wanders into an eerie village where houses are sunk meters down into the sand dunes, accessible only by rope ladder. After accepting shelter for the night in one of these houses, Jumpei soon discovers the ladder has been taken away, trapping him there, where he is expected to shovel sand each night in return for food and water. The woman already in the house is resigned to this task, which she undertakes without complaint. Jumpei, however, attempts resistance by refusing to work, but quickly capitulates when the villagers stop providing him with water. He then seeks escape, plotting and planning before seizing his opportunity with the aid of a makeshift grappling hook only to be recaptured and returned. The novel ends with the rope ladder returned unguarded, and Jumpei unwilling to leave. Depending on one’s interpretation, this refusal reveals the man’s broken will, or the meaning he has discovered in his life among the dunes.
The woman’s role in this narrative is as a near-silent companion, neither actively cajoling Jumpei into her way of life nor protesting his rebellion against it. Her default state is one of passive silence, which she falls into “as quickly as a stone sinks into water.” This quietness and passivity almost forces the reader to view her character, like the sand she both opposes and inhabits, in a symbolic way. She is existence in its barest form, mortal and struggling amidst the shifting destruction of the eternal sand. She is the force of the feminine: flesh and sex, mother and home. She is the working class, or perhaps the caste of “untouchables” in Japan known as the burakumin. The multiplicity of possible interpretations of this woman’s purpose and significance is echoed in the multilayered nature of the novel as a whole. Yet, underneath this shifting symbolism, there are moments where her personhood and character come to the fore.
Our sense of the woman as a character is, for large parts of the novel, dictated by Jumpei’s observations of her. Rather than illuminating her character, however, Jumpei’s assumptions add further layers of obfuscation. His unreliability is highlighted by his shifting interpretations, the lack of evidence underpinning those interpretations, and the numerous occasions upon which those interpretations prove inaccurate. In spite of his repeated errors of judgement, Jumpei remains almost comically self-assured. He is able to maneuver himself from guesswork into positions of certainty in the space of a single thought, and without any proper reflection: “The ladder had probably been removed with her knowledge, and doubtless with her full consent. Unmistakably she was an accomplice.” The move from “probably” to “unmistakably” here is facilitated by his own imagination rather than any evidence. This tendency to perceive his own ideas/desires/fears as fact underpins everything he says about the woman, making him an unreliable source of information about her.
According to Jumpei, the woman is at once some kind of seductress working with the villagers to keep him prisoner and a powerless victim too downtrodden to fight back—a prostitute or a virgin, depending on the story he is telling. As a result of these competing images, Jumpei’s treatment of the woman can be appalling. If not dismissing her as stupid, he is abusing her for her silence about his predicament. At the climax of the novel he dehumanizes her entirely. Viewed through Jumpei’s perspective, the woman becomes little more than a reflection of his own thoughts and feelings at any given moment. So, if Jumpei’s voice guides much of the narrative, and his descriptions of the woman and her actions can’t be trusted, how can we say anything about her character?
While the woman chooses silence for the majority of the novel, she does speak. Through her own words—if indeed they can be trusted—we learn that she works to clear the sand in order to protect her house and the houses of her neighbors from its destructive power. We learn that she accepts the role as she is content to be provided for by the villagers in return for her labor and has little interest in the world outside of her little home, as “there isn’t any reason to go out!” We also learn that she often seeks to steer her relationship with Jumpei into the homely and familiar, deflecting arguments by asking if the man wants dinner or tea or for her to wash his back while he bathes. This dogged pursuit of the quiet life takes on a disturbing edge not just for the situation she is in, living at the bottom of a sand pit with no way out, but also for the treatment she receives at Jumpei’s hands. The woman is often submissive or passive when confronted by this behavior. At times, however, she fights back fiercely. These outbursts provide the strongest evidence for what the woman finds important.
One outburst comes when Jumpei seeks to dismantle part of the house to build a ladder. The woman launches herself at him and bests him in the ensuing tussle (Jumpei refuses to accept being beaten by a woman, insisting, “Something was wrong with him, maybe it was all the sake he had drunk.”). Her house is already fragile due to the constant onslaught of the sand, and Jumpei’s actions in this moment threaten to destroy it. It is impossible to know the woman’s underlying motivations, but as this episode shows, she is definitively protective of her house. The woman’s quick and decisive response reveals that she is stronger and more determined than her usual passivity suggests. When the woman chooses silence and acquiescence, then, it is not due to any weakness—physical or mental—on her part, but a conscious choice. It is clear that Jumpei, whose formulations place her in a subordinate role, has underestimated her. Interestingly, this perception remains unchanged even after he is beaten by her.
When the novel’s existential aspects are stripped away, and we seek to read the woman as a character rather than a symbol, Jumpei’s cruelty, selfishness, and stupidity are brought to the fore. As a symbol, the woman can be dehumanized with limited consequences. Jumpei can search for the bones of her dead husband and child, ignoring her tears and confusion as he digs in the sand. He can dismiss her emotional and intellectual life, abuse her physically and mentally, and seek to use her body as a bargaining chip with his captors. To admit the woman’s personhood is to admit that Jumpei has been a wrongdoer as much as he has been done wrong by. In emphasizing the woman’s internal life toward the end of the novel—we get small glimpses of her internal monologue as she wonders how Jumpei can be so captivated by a crow trap, and how nice it is that he has started taking an interest in her crafts—the primacy of Jumpei’s narration begins to break down, and the problematic aspects of his earlier responses to the woman become clearer. Bringing the woman’s thoughts directly into the narrative suggests that Jumpei has finally ceased projecting onto her and has started listening. These thoughts also provide some small final insights into the woman’s character.
The woman in The Woman in the Dunes can appear changeable if we lend any credence to Jumpei’s shifting conceptions of her, but she is actually remarkably constant. One of the first things she says to Jumpei about her life is that, “In our village we really follow the motto ‘Love your Home.’” Everything else the woman says and does is consistent with that idea. In spite of the hardships she has endured and the difficulties of life among the dunes, the woman’s familiarity and contentment with her life there is evident. The strength and constancy she shows throughout the novel demonstrate that she is not the downtrodden victim she is sometimes portrayed as being. There is a hidden strength behind her apparent submissiveness, and a power in her passivity. It is this passivity, perhaps, that has enabled her to adapt to and survive the perpetual onslaught of the shifting sands.