The Woman in the Dunes Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Author: Kobo Abe

First published: Suna no onna, 1962 (English translation, 1964)

Genre: Novel

Locale: A Japanese seaside village

Plot: Allegory

Time: 1955–1962

Niki Jumpei, a Japanese schoolmaster and amateur collector of insects. Thirty-one years old and ordinary looking, Niki is a rather commonplace member of the conformist urban Japanese populace. He lives in the city with a woman who is not a wholly fulfilling sexual partner. He is a creature of regular habits, appears to derive his sense of identity from the way that his society and his colleagues define him, and is not particularly individualistic or imaginative. Beneath this team-player exterior, however, Niki does harbor a few sparks of desire for individual difference and distinction; hence, he collects insects as a hobby. He took up this hobby in the hope that he would find a rare or hitherto unknown specimen of some insect and thereby earn for himself renown as an amateur entomologist. Niki also likes to toy with abstract theories about the nature of reality; he is attracted to notions such as the speculation that sand moves in waves like water (except that unlike water, sand desiccates). The novel opens on an August weekend in 1955 when Niki is out alone on an insect-gathering trip among some sand dunes by the sea. What begins as a weekend outing eventually becomes a seven-year adventure as he becomes a guest of a village in the dunes, particularly of one woman in the dunes.

The Woman in the Dunes, who remains unnamed throughout the novel. About thirty years of age, she is small in build and pleasant in temperament. She is a widow and lives alone, having lost her husband and only daughter to a sand slide during a typhoon the previous year. She is a down-to-earth, sensual woman (she sleeps nude, with only a towel to cover her face) and seems to have an intuitive, almost primal, grasp of the life force and a tenacious will to survive. Poor, unpre-possessing, and unsophisticated though she is, she is not without dignity and spiritual beauty. Like the other inhabitants of this Kafkaesque dune village, the woman lives in a house at the bottom of a sand pit, and her only access to the outside world is a rope ladder suspended from the pit mouth, a ladder that can be retracted by the villagers. The village supplies her with a sense of community and the necessities of life, chief of which is water. An indefatigable and loyal worker, she in turn supplies the village council with quantities of the local salt-laced sand, which is sold illegally to dubious construction companies in the city. Niki is lured to her house by the villagers, who assign him to be her helpmeet. Through their life together, Niki learns to derive meaning from his existence—not by discovering an obscure insect but by realizing through their interaction a new sense of manhood, humanity, and community.

The Woman in the City, who also remains nameless and contrasts with the one in the dunes. The city woman probably is Niki's lover and possibly is his wife. Sex between Niki and this woman is made uneasy by twinges of psychological rape and rendered discomfiting by feelings akin to a psychological venereal disease. Their coitus is deficient in libido and excessive in self-consciousness. Niki compares it to punching off on some season ticket, and it is always performed through the prophylactic screening of a condom.

The Villagers of the Dunes, also anonymous, resembling a Greek chorus, Niki's captors and arbiters of his fate. They are motivated by the need of their community to survive; hence, they provide Niki as a mate to their woman. They are insular and uncaring about the larger society beyond their community, yet they have the redeeming qualities of peasantlike good humor, wisdom, and pragmatism. For example, when Niki escapes from the woman's pit only to become trapped in quicksand, the villagers rescue him un-grudgingly. Indirectly through the villagers and more directly through the woman, Niki learns to appreciate the differences between the bestial and the beautiful in sexuality, between the illusion of freedom and the true freedom in choice exercised, and between rote conformity and individual meaningfulness in responsible human activity.

Categories: Characters