Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The Woman in the Dunes is Abe’s most popular novel, no doubt in part because it was made into a film in 1963. The film was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1964. The story begins with the disappearance of Niki Jumpei, a young teacher. It traces Niki’s difficult journey into his own consciousness and his finding his identity. The sand dunes, with their sands constantly encroaching upon the residents of the village that abducts Jumpei, are a powerful metaphor of one’s struggle to discover one’s identity.
Niki Jumpei likes to collect insects, so he goes one day to the sand dunes in a remote area, hoping to find some unusual ones for his collection. Once there, he becomes trapped at the bottom of a sand pit, only to discover that a woman lives there. She appears to think of him as a substitute for her dead husband.
Although there seems to be little meaningful life there, in order to survive at all, Niki must, daily, shovel away the sand that accumulates. Abe skillfully uses minute detail to make the reader remain ever aware of the completely invasive nature of the sand into every part of daily existence. After adapting somewhat, Niki then rejects this absurd life and fights to escape. During this period, he often abuses the woman with whom he shares the sand-pit home because she accepts so passively what he is fighting to escape. Ultimately, however, Niki not only comes to terms with the strange kind...
(The entire section is 469 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: World Fiction Series)
The Woman in the Dunes is about Niki Jumpei, a Japanese schoolteacher in his thirties who is thoroughly entrenched in the bureaucracy of postwar Japan. He is a team player—a company man who harbors a small cache of rebellious, or rather independent, thoughts. For recreation one holiday, he leaves his wife or lover, the reader is never sure which, in the city while he takes a train to the seaside for a weekend of insect collecting in the dunes, hoping to find a new form of beetle so that he may name it after himself and have a fleeting moment of fame.
The book opens with speculations about Jumpei’s disappearance. A coworker/amateur psychologist suggests that Jumpei has committed suicide and points to insect collecting as a sign of his unresolved Oedipus complex, his deep-seated behavioral disorder. As no one has heard from him for seven years, he is pronounced dead at the end of the first chapter.
The narrative then recounts what has actually happened to him. Wandering on the dunes looking for a beetle with frail, hairy legs, he misses the last train home. All the while he does this, he speculates upon the nature of sand, its mobility, its flexibility, its inability to take shape on its own. He decides to stay in the nearby village, so small that he must room with one of the inhabitants. An old man he meets along the road takes his request for room and board to the community center. The town elders decide to board him with a woman who lives alone after having lost her husband and child in a sand slide. The inhabitants live in homes pitted deep within the dunes. After being lowered by a rope into her home, Jumpei soon discovers that he is to be her mate/prisoner—the choice is up to him—and that he has been indentured into the village’s service as a sand shoveler. The villagers must shovel sand throughout the night to ensure the existence of their homes. If one house is abandoned to the sand, each house in the tiny village strand is threatened; thus...
(The entire section is 813 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
A teacher and an amateur entomologist, Niki Jumpei decides to take a vacation to gather specimens for his collection of insects. He takes a train to a small town near the ocean and, carrying a canteen and a large wooden box, disappears from the urban life he knows. Eventually, he is missed by his mother and by his lover. His mother files a report with the missing-persons bureau, but the authorities can find no trace of her son.
Jumpei’s story is as follows: After arriving in a small beach town, he walks from the railroad station to an area of dunes near the ocean. He comes upon a strange village, where many of the houses are located in pits created by huge sand dunes. As night approaches, he begins to look for a place to sleep; villagers direct him to a building that is little more than a shack, located in one of the depressions in the dunes. It turns out to be the home of a young woman, who offers to accommodate Jumpei. Unenthusiastically, Jumpei accepts the woman’s hospitality.
Jumpei is horrified by the woman’s story. He learns, soon after his stay begins, that she is a widow whose husband and young daughter were both victims of the ever-encroaching sand. Her life now is a constant struggle against the sand, shoveling it to a place from which it can be hauled up for shipment to shoddy contractors for use in making cheap concrete. This industry is the sole economic support of the entire village. The woman makes it clear that Jumpei is expected to help with the work of shoveling sand in exchange for his room and board. Their shoveling is essential; without constant efforts to remove sand and send it to the top, the little house would be overwhelmed by sand slides.
Jumpei soon discovers that he cannot escape from the depression in the dunes in which the house is placed. He attempts to evade the fate to which he has been condemned. He tries to bully and threaten the woman to force her to help him leave, but he fails. He tries to bargain with and to threaten the only other villagers he sees, the men who arrive at the top of the dune, lowering buckets to the pit below to be filled with sand, and raising the buckets on ropes; they do not respond to his overtures. Finally and reluctantly, he gives in and helps the woman with her unceasing labor, but he cannot get used to the constant presence of sand. It is in his clothes, in his eyes, on his skin, and in his mouth; when he sleeps, it coats his entire body.
When he is not shoveling sand, sleeping, or eating his meals,...
(The entire section is 1030 words.)