The Man Who Turned Into a Stick

by Kobo Abe

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What existential issues does "The Man Who Turned Into a Stick" by Abe Kobo raise?

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The word "existential" refers to anything that concerns, relates to, or affirms existence.  This entire text addresses the nature of human existence, namely, the fact that human beings are inherently complacent and fundamentally disposed to stop striving once they feel "satisfied".  Essentially, most of us become metaphorical "sticks" during our lives: as the Man from Hell says, "In short, the stick is the root and source of all tools."  The majority of us -- "98.4 percent" to be precise -- are, at best, tools in the hands of others.  We are used, made to perform in some capacity, scuffed up and scarred by our experiences, sometimes "suffer[ing] rather harsh treatment" that impacts what kind of literal stick we become when we die.  Those 98 out of every 100 of us who become sticks have no "aims," just like the Hippie Girl and Boy; she explains, "Aims are out-of-date."  Our lack of personal goals, our satisfaction with enough, leads to our complacency, and so, when we die, "a living stick [turns] into a dead stick [...]."

Given that this fate awaits some 98% of us, the text suggests that we all possess a predictably human propensity to avoid risk and to fail to take chances that might make our existence more extraordinary or even interesting.  We are neither good enough to have earned a reward (if such a thing exists in the text's world) or bad enough to warrant punishment.  The man who has turned into a stick in the story is simply abandoned in the end, of no note.  The Woman from Hell suggests that they give the stick to the little boy, saying, "At least it ought to serve as a kind of mirror.  He can examine himself and make sure he won't become a stick like his father."  The Man, her supervisor from Hell, laughs in her face and asks why "anyone who's satisfied with himself would do that?"  He explains that the man turned into a stick precisely because he was "satisfied."  This doesn't mean that the man was always happy, that he never wished for anything to be different, it's just that he, apparently, never really made an effort to change what displeased him.  And so he became a stick, just like his son will likely someday do.

Just like we all, or the vast majority of us, will do.  In the final lines of the text, the Man and Woman from Hell speak directly to us; the Man says, "Look -- there's a whole forest of sticks around you.  All those innocent people, each one determined to turn into a stick slightly different from everybody else, but nobody once thinking of turning into anything besides a stick."  The Woman affirms this: our acquiescence to satisfaction is simply a part of our nature, our existence as human beings, or rather sticks.  "You're not alone," she says, "You've lots of friends . . . men who turned into sticks."

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Read "The Man Who Turned Into a Stick" by Abe Kobo. How does this story function as social commentary or satire? 

This story functions as a satire because it makes the argument that most people -- "98.4 percent of all those who die in a given month," in fact -- live such uneventful lives, are so "satisfied" with their lives, that they do nothing special at all, nothing that would warrant either reward or punishment.  A satire is a text that uses humor, irony, and wit to expose human weakness or folly in order to, hopefully, spur some kind of change in the person or people it targets.  The human weakness exposed by this text is that we have, evidently, become too complacent.  As the Man from Hell tells the Hippie Boy, "I'm sure you haven't any particular aim in mind" in regard to the stick, to which the Boy responds, "I'm not interested in aims," and the Hippie Girl confirms, "Aims are out-of-date."  It's as though they (and we) have no goals, at least not any extraordinary ones: that the vast majority of people, in reality, lack goals.

Therefore, when the Man from Hell tells the Hippie Boy and Girl when they sell him the stick for five dollars, "you may imagine you've struck a clever bargain, but one of these days you'll find out.  It wasn't just a stick you sold, but yourself," what he means is that this Boy and Girl will probably become sticks as well; after all, they've already confessed that they have no aims in life.  Just as the man who died was simply "a living stick [that] has turned into a dead stick," so too will they (that or "rubber hoses").  This is why the Boy and the stick "understand each other" in his words and "look alike" in the Girl's.  They are the same in that neither one lives or has lived a life that can be called exceptional or even interesting.  

The stick, as the Woman from Hell points out, is "encrusted with dirt" from being handled so much, that its bottom is "rubbed and scraped": evidence that it has been used, "employed by people for some particular purpose."  She believes that "it [has] suffered rather harsh treatment" as it "has scars all over it."  In other words, this stick, when it was alive, was only a "tool" as the Man from Hell calls it.  Perhaps it was used by others but really had no initiative of its own, no particular and personal "aims."  

This social commentary is rather bleak, however, because it does not seem as though we have much opportunity to change our fate.  The Woman from Hell wants to give the stick to the little boy (whose father changed into the stick), saying, "At least it ought to serve as a kind of mirror.  He can examine himself and make sure he won't become a stick like his father."  The Man from Hell laughs because no one who's truly "satisfied with himself" can avoid becoming a stick.  Ultimately, then, it seems that the only way to avoid turning into a stick when we die is to not be a stick while we're alive: we cannot be too satisfied or complacent.  We must push ourselves, have "aims," and really work for them.  Sadly, according to this story, it seems that most of us will fail to do so.

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