Places: The Woman in the Dunes

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

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

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Allegory

Time of work: 1962

Places DiscussedSand dunes

Sand Woman in the Dunes, Thedunes. Coastal region in an unspecified part of Japan. At the beginning of the novel, the main character, Jumpei Niki, a science teacher and amateur entomologist, seeks to examine the sand dunes in a scientific manner, describing their physical properties and attempting to control them through rational strategies, clearly a defensive gesture to avoid confronting the existential reality of his situation. However, the sands quickly become a pervasive and unavoidable dimension of his existence, permeating his clothes, irritating his skin, and always present in his mouth. He finally comes to accept the presence of the sand dunes and to view them not as an enemy to be controlled but as a force to be worked with. At the novel’s conclusion, he uses his knowledge of science in order to construct a trap to collect condensed water from the sands.

Abe spent his boyhood in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, whose desert landscapes made a strong impact on his consciousness. The constantly changing, wind-blown shapes of the desert sands came to symbolize to him the fluid and transitory nature of what people take to be “reality” in the everyday world. Abe’s sand imagery in his novel presents an existential vision of reality that rejects any conceptualized and rationalized view of the world–the objective attitude of science, for example–that posits enduring and fixed absolutes through which human beings experience and manipulate nature. All that humans have is subjective human existence, which is experiential and ephemeral. Abe was influenced by European existentialism, and his point of view is consistent with his Japanese Buddhist heritage, which also posits the ever-changing nature of being as it truly is and rejects the false dualism of an absolute reality that is created under the illusion of ego consciousness.

Village and sand pit

Village and sand pit. Isolated coastal village at an unnamed location in Japan, where Niki takes a brief holiday from his job to look for insects common to the coastal sand dunes. He falls into a sand pit in which there is a small house and a lone woman. She sleeps during the day and toils at night in a vain effort to remove the always encroaching sands that threaten to engulf the pit and the entire village. Niki believes he is being held captive in order to force him to aid the woman in holding back the sands.

The isolated village and its shifting sand pits function as a surrealistic expression of the character’s alienated existence. Abe was greatly influenced by the existential themes and surrealistic style of Franz Kafka, and this novel owes much to Kafka’s work. His character Niki is an alienated and lonely man who is unmarried and has few friends. He is described at one point as a man who uses a psychological condom that protects him from any intimate emotional contact with others. In extreme paranoia, he refuses to aid the villagers in their efforts to hold back the sands and abuses the woman in the pit. Niki is a man who lives in psychological denial about the true conditions of his life. His refusal to join the community efforts to survive and his reluctance to establish a meaningful and supportive relationship with a partner clearly condemn him to a lonely and alienated existence. The novel’s conclusion has Niki, after a vain attempt to escape the woman and the village, accepting his fate and joining in the daily communal efforts to combat the sands. He enters into a mutually supportive relationship with the woman and comes to live a peaceful life.

BibliographyDissanyake, Wimal. “Kōbō Abe: Self, Place, and Body in Woman in the Dunes: A Comparative Study of the Novel and the Film.” In Literary Studies and West, edited by Jean Toyama and Nobuko Ochner. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990. Pays special attention to the theme of alienation and identity and to the importance of the sense of place in The Woman in the Dunes.Hardin, Nancy. “Interview with Kōbō Abe.” Contemporary Literature 15, no. 4 (Autumn, 1974): 439-456. The major published interview with Abe. Includes important information about his life and his literary influences.Leithauser, Brad. “Severed Futures.” The New Yorker 44, no. 12 (May 9, 1988): 122-126. This essay discusses the recurrent theme of the uncertainty of human life in Abe’s fiction.Remnick, David. “Kōbō Abe: A Figure Apart.” The Washington Post, January 20, 1986, C1. Provides a wealth of information about Abe’s life and the experiences underlying his fiction.Van Wert, William F. “Levels of Sexuality in the Novels of Kōbō Abe.” International Fiction Review 6, no. 2 (Summer, 1979): 129-132. Discusses Abe’s affinities with Fyodor Dostoevski, Franz Kafka, and Alain Robbe-Grillet.
Categories: Places