The Sound of a Voice

by David Henry Hwang

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Relationship Comparison

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Like David Henry Hwang’s The Sound of a Voice, Kobo Abe, a Nobel Prize-winning Japanese author and dramatist, wrote his classic piece of fiction, The Woman in the Dunes in the form of fable. Also like Hwang’s play, Abe depicts the tragic relationship between a lonely woman and a solitary man, which ends, like Hwang’s, with the male protagonist left alone in the woman’s abode. The similarities between Abe’s novel and Hwang’s Japanese-influenced play have often been noted by critics. The focus of this essay is to explore the relationships between the men and the women in these two works, with an emphasis on the authors’ shared theme of entrapment.

Hwang’s unnamed male protagonist, a Samurai warrior, wanders throughout the countryside of Japan ready to protect the villages he passes through. On one such venture, he is told about a woman who lives by herself in the woods, a woman whom the villagers believe is a threat because they do not understand her ability to fend for herself, or in other words, to be self-sufficient. Stories abound about this woman, including the fact that she is a witch who captivates men through magic spells. Armed with his sword, the aging Samurai seeks out the woman with the intention of killing her and thus ridding the village of potential harm. This is the opening premise of Hwang’s fairytale-like play, whose protagonist is a man seeking adventure. He lives on the road, alone, and happens to be afraid of women.

Abe’s novel starts differently. His male protagonist, Niki Jumpei, is a bachelor, a schoolteacher, and a hobbyist who studies insects. During a summer trip to the country, he becomes fascinated with a particular beetle that lives in the sand. Stranded for the night in an isolated village located in the midst of the sand dunes, he accepts an invitation to stay at the home of a young widow. The widow lives in a house that is located in a hole thirty feet deep in the sand. The only means of entering her house is to be let down via a rope ladder.

It is from these two points that the relationships in each story begin to develop. In Hwang’s play, the man enters the woman’s house willingly, urged on by the villagers. However, his motives for staying are deceptive. He tells the woman that he is lonely and praises her generosity in housing and feeding him. Although he probably truly appreciates her, he is not willing to tell her his name because he does not want to personalize the relationship. He is, after all, there to kill her. In Abe’s work, the man also enters the woman’s house willingly and also accepts her generosity. He, however, is not aware of the woman’s motives for welcoming him. She needs him to survive, for she lives, like her fellow villagers, in a house that would become quickly buried if she did not attend to the daily chore of hauling up the sand. It is a task that she cannot do alone. So when the stranger appears in the village, the local men, similar to the villagers in Hwang’s play, realize that they have found a solution to a community problem. Whereas in The Sound of a Voice, the community tricks one of their own (the woman whom they fear is a witch) for the safety of the village, in The Woman in the Dunes , the people trick an outsider to help them secure one of the village houses. Abe’s protagonist Jumpei has no clue as to what is in store for...

(This entire section contains 1685 words.)

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him. He accepts the invitation to spend the night in the sand dunes without any suspicion of being in danger. He is not a warrior but rather a simple, solitary man who trusts strangers.

Both men are now securely in place as guests in their respective houses. Although the man in Hwang’s play enters the woman’s house fully aware of his mission, he is quickly caught off guard by his emotions. He admits that he is afraid of women, in general, and especially afraid of this particular woman because of her reputation of entrapping men. He even searches the house for signs of the men who have come before him. However, when he inspects the flowers that the woman cares for, the blossoms that he suspects hold the woman’s past suitors, he refers to the supposed imprisoned lovers as being ‘‘peaceful.’’ He may fear the woman’s powers, but this does not keep him from eventually falling in love with her. He cannot control his emotions as she continues to make him comfortable by caring for him. She satisfies him in ways that he is not used to being satisfied. Just as his body is showing signs of softness, so is his heart. If, as he fears, he is being imprisoned, he appears to be beguiled by the proposition. He is free to leave the woman’s house at any time, but he does not choose to do so. Instead, he endears himself to the woman, helping her with chores, doing things that she cannot do, working with her and declaring that they are a team.

Abe’s male character, meanwhile, soon realizes that he has been tricked. In desperation, he attempts to leave but soon discovers that his efforts are fruitless. The men of the village have removed the rope ladder from above. Without the ladder, his only recourse is to try to climb the walls that surround the house. The harder he tries to scale the sand walls, the more deeply he becomes buried. Whereas the man in Hwang’s play is entrapped emotionally, Abe’s counterpart is physically imprisoned. Eventually, like the man in The Sound of a Voice, Abe’s Jumpei volunteers to help the woman of the household complete her chores. His helpfulness is a scheme, however. He does so in an attempt to endear him to her. If she likes him, she may help him escape. His plan for escape is what helps him maintain his sanity in a very frustrating and desperate situation. He helps her excavate the continually falling sand. He bolsters the decaying wood braces of her house. Eventually, he even discovers a way of collecting water to add to their sparse daily ration. They even end up making love, but the encounter is more a result of close and constant physical contact than any emotional connection. The woman cooks and cares for him, but the man in Abe’s work cannot help but think that she is stupid to remain in a place that is so inhumane, to spend all the days of her life shoveling sand out of her house.

In contrast, Hwang’s male protagonist is humbled by the woman. She is more clever in swordplay than he is, putting him to shame. He is amazed by her ability to play the flute and to create the colorful and robust flowers that fill her room. When he threatens to commit suicide by placing his sword under his chin, he warns her not to come close to him. She does not listen and, instead, walks up to him and takes away his weapon. This humiliates him further. Not only does he not have the courage to kill her, he also is not strong enough to end his own life. He is afraid that she and his love for her have weakened him. In this state of mind, he decides that his only recourse is to leave her. He discovers, too late, that this is his most fatal mistake. In his indecision, his newfound love, in despair, has taken her life. In an attempt to summon her spirit back to life, he sits down on his sleeping mat and picks up her flute. He tries to make a sound with it, but he cannot.

In The Woman in the Dunes, the man tries to escape again. He makes it up the walls only to be caught by the villagers and returned to his sand prison. After a long time passes, he resigns himself to his fate and becomes caught up in the rhythm of the woman’s day. He watches how she works, notices the simple patterns of her monotonous routine. He creates his own busy work, setting bird traps, creating scientific experiments on the affects of moisture in the sand. He makes love with the woman; and in the end, she becomes pregnant. It is an ill-fated pregnancy, however, and the woman begins to bleed. A truck appears at the top of the dune, and the woman is taken away. In the excitement, a rope ladder is left dangling over the edge of the wall. It hangs down into the yard around the submerged house. The man takes notice of the ladder and begins to walk toward it; but in knowing that he can escape, he changes his mind. There is, after all, he says, no hurry. He no longer wants to leave. He has his newly discovered catchment system to tend. He wants to perfect it and then tell the other villagers about it. Who would better appreciate it?

Both Hwang’s and Abe’s works end in similar ways. Both male protagonists are left alone. Both attempt to take up the familiar patterns of their respective women’s lives—Hwang’s protagonist tries to play the flute as the woman had; Abe’s Jumpei has found not only solace but a mild form of excitement in tending the woman’s house. By the conclusion of both stories, the entrapment in both men’s cases is self-imposed. They have forsaken the roles that they played in their former lives. The search for insects has ended for Jumpei. The travels of the Samurai are over.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on The Sound of a Voice, in Drama for Students, Gale, 2003. Hart has degrees in English literature and creative writing and focuses her published writing on literary themes.

The Tensions and Misunderstandings between Men and Women

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Produced in 1984, the play The Sound of a Voice explores the failed attempt by two people to overcome their fears and doubts that they have about each other during a brief encounter. The play takes place in the house of a middle-aged woman, who befriends a stranger travelling through a remote forest in Japan where she lives. Over the course of a few weeks, the two strangers become familiar with each other, yet they continue to treat each other with suspicion. The man fears that he will become emotionally involved and the woman thinks that he will leave like many of the others who have come to the house only to leave her once again isolated in the woods. Both have embedded in their suspicions very traditional views of what men and women are supposed to be like, and it is these ingrained views that prevent them from establishing the intimacy that both of them crave. Through the use of setting, character, dialogue, and symbolism, Hwang highlights not only these characters’ fears but also their suspicions about each other. Unfortunately, the characters’ inability to trust one another destroys their hopes for finding companionship and instead results in death.

Hwang relies on the narrative pattern of the folk tale as a backdrop to this tragic love story. He does this by creating a timeless setting, providing few clues that would anchor the play in a particular time period. Like many folk tales, the setting is in a forest, a place distinctly separated from the more human activities of the village. In addition, little background information is given to the characters; instead, they exist in a timeless present. The strange circumstances of their meeting is also reflective of many folk tales. It is unclear at first why the man, who remains nameless throughout the play, has come to this remote part of the world. Towards the end of the play, the woman accuses him of coming there to kill her because rumor has it that she is a witch. Similarly, it is also unclear why the woman lives so isolated from other people when she clearly desires human companionship. This ambiguity contributes to the stories the man has heard about her being a witch. Thus, Hwang uses a familiar folk tale character—the witch—to build suspense and mystery in the play.

Suspense is built through both setting and plot devices that convey the woamn as a mysterious and seductive woman. The eerie and unsettling atmosphere of the play—its remote setting in the woods, the starkness of the mysterious room—also enhances her ambiguous position while increasing the tensions between the two characters. The man’s suspicion that the woman is a witch is based on a number of observations that he makes throughout the play that provide its fantastical qualities: the picked flowers that appear to never die, his observation of her as a young beautiful woman in her room at night, her extraordinary sword maneuvers, and her shakuhachi playing. These various transformations and abilities that the woman has promote an uncompromising portrait of her as having seductive and magical powers. Yet the woman attempts to deconstruct this image by revealing her weakness to him: her dread of being alone. To him, her solitary lifestyle and her ability to be good at a number of arts reveal her as a very able and independent woman. It is these qualities that unnerve the man and disturb his preconceived notion of femininity, thus reinforcing the rumors that she is a witch.

Thus, despite its folktale qualities, the play explores a very contemporary issue: the inability of men and women to communicate and view each other unguarded and without preconceived ideas. By focusing on gender roles, Hwang attempts to demystify the cultural myths that typify women’s and men’s roles in many cultures: that women are subservient, dependent, and weak, while men are strong, independent, and self-possessed. Even though the characters in his play are more complicated than these stereotypes, they still cling to these notions. Despite both characters displaying qualities that are typical of their gender, their actions and behavior belie these characteristics. For example, while the woman seems to need companionship and attempts to persuade the man to stay, she makes it very clear to him in the first scene that her loneliness stems not from any inherent quality but from her isolation. The nearest village is a two days walk. For the woman, time is measured not by minutes but by the last time she has heard a human voice. ‘‘Anything you say, I will enjoy hearing. It’s not even the words. It’s the sound of a voice, the way it moves through the air.’’ Thus, it is the isolated setting in a remote forest that contributes to the woman’s need to reach out to the man. Her isolation justifies her need to persuade the man to stay with her as a companion.

The woman’s declaration of loneliness does not seem to have an impact on the man, and throughout the play, he continues to ignore her attempts to communicate the devastating effects of her isolation. Instead, he perceives her as an extraordinary rather than ordinary woman. She lives alone, cares for beautiful flowers, can play the flute, and also fights with a sword. In fact, it is particularly this last feat that makes him view his own aging body as inadequate. Although they are both middle-aged, she is more agile than he. In fact, her sword-fighting makes him realize that he has assumed her to be a typical middle-aged woman when in fact she is superior to him. After he eggs her on to fight him, he is dismayed when she beats him. Although he is supposed to be the warrior and proudly shows the woman the mosquito that he sliced in half, after being beaten by her, he is amazed and daunted. This amazement only seems to confirm his suspicions of her as a witch. Even as the woman apologizes about her seemingly unfeminine behavior, the man hints at why she is alone when he claims, ‘‘There are stories about you. I heard them. They say that your visitors never leave this house.’’ His inability to understand her need for companionship makes him resort to accusations because she is too competent and independent for a woman; thus her attempts to persuade him to see her as otherwise go unheeded.

As with any play, dialogue becomes the primary way of understanding character’s hidden motivations and desires. Thus, throughout the play, when the woman tries to communicate her loneliness to him, he misunderstands her. For example, whereas she sees her various talents as a way to pass time and deflect her loneliness, he views them as extraordinary accomplishments that he envies. At the climax of the play when the man finally reveals his intentions for coming to this remote area, he claims, ‘‘Sometimes—when I look into the flowers, I think I hear a voice—from inside—a voice beneath the petals. A human voice.’’ His insinuation that the flowers are men who have been imprisoned by her is a way of expressing his own fear of entrapment and the helplessness that accompanies falling in love.

Even though the man obviously is smitten with the woman, viewing her as being younger than she is and helping her around the house, his fear of being turned into a picked flower is what makes him decide to leave even after he has told her that he would stay. To him, the flowers represent being subdued by the woman since she has the power to decide whether they live or die once they have been picked. In the final scene, as he is leaving, the man tells her, ‘‘You changed the shape of your face, the shape of my heart—rearranged everything—created a world where I could do nothing.’’ His feelings of inadequacy surface as he tells her pointedly that in many ways she is the stronger of the two. Her effect on him has been to make him feel powerless and less of a man because she is able to take care of herself. Rather than see the possibility of their relationship as being equal, he sees it as a power struggle, with either one or the other in charge. As it stands, he sees that the woman is in charge both of his feelings and of her life.

The woman views the flowers in a different way; to her, they are representative of her ability to nurture and extend life. The flowers bring her comfort as they allow her to connect with life in an intimate way. She also views the men who have visited not as being captured by her but as taking a part of her with them when they leave. Thus, the flowers may represent the different parts of her that have been taken away and her need to replace what has been lost. The woman is not innocent; she is an aging woman who has experienced disappointment. For this reason, she does not provide a real name when the man asks her, thus contributing to the various levels of deceit that both characters participate in. Likewise, the man steals a flower and watches as it first continues to blossom and die when he spies on her in her room. The flowers represent differing perceptions of love—its possibilities and disappointments.

In this short but complex play, Hwang explores how mistrust, deception, and fear can inhibit people from finding happiness with each other. Despite the obvious affection between the two aging characters, they cannot move beyond their own need to protect themselves to embrace love and understanding. The woman tries to please the man in the ways that are traditional to her gender, such as waiting on him and downplaying her talents rather than take pride in them. The man pretends that he is not emotionally involved with her and that he can leave at any time, yet it is her various abilities that intimidate him and make him feel inadequate. The mistrust that the man and woman have of each other cannot be overcome. Their deception and fears continue to create misunderstanding that ultimately ends in tragedy: the death of the woman.

Because of her intense isolation and alienation from society, the woman has no other choice but to kill herself when the man decides to leave. She can no longer bear the rejection of visitors once they find out what she is really like. Ending on a despondent note, the woman prophesies that the man will suffer a fate worse than death because he has decided to leave. After he discovers her dead, he resumes her position as the main occupant of the house, taking her flute and attempting to play it, but he cannot play as the woman did. Her death has allowed him to reclaim his power over his feelings, but it has also resulted in the loss of both beauty and love.

Source: Doreen Piano, Critical Essay on The Sound of a Voice, in Drama for Students, Gale, 2003. Piano teaches literature and writing at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.


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The idea for The Sound of a Voice is original to Hwang, but it is inspired by Japanese ghost stories and has the character of a myth or a fairy tale. With ‘‘only minor alteration,’’ Hwang suggests in his introduction to FOB and Other Plays, ‘‘it could be set in a mysterious forest on any continent.’’ A Japanese woman in her forties or fifties lives alone in a secluded forest. Her only joys are her flowers, her shakuhatchi (an end-blown bamboo flute), and the occasional visitors she receives. The play opens with the woman receiving a fifty-year-old male visitor. Throughout the early scenes of the play, the couple exchange polite conversation, but when the woman leaves the room, the man investigates the room and its contents, takes a flower from a bouquet in a vase, and listens at the screens, but resumes a restful posture when the woman returns. When they retire for the evening, the woman takes the vase of flowers with her to her room, and the man sits on his mat with a sword at his side. The man prepares to leave in the morning, but the woman convinces him to stay.

Underneath the polite chatter that continues between the two of them runs a counter dialogue of gesture. As the play progresses, the woman continues to wait on the man, guard her flowers, and play the shakuhatchi while the man helps the woman with the household chores, ponders his stolen flower, and practices his swordplay. The couple seemingly never sleep; the woman plays her shakuhatchi while the man dozes with his sword at his side, jumping awake at the slightest provocation.

The man and woman continue in this torturous dance until, when the woman surprise the man with her skill with the sword, they confess their true situation. The woman is aware of the stories about her that circulate among the surrounding villages: that she a beautiful witch who enchants, seduces, and imprisons her would-be killers. Having heard the stories, the man has come to prove his manhood by surviving her wiles, killing her, and returning to the villages with his story. The woman challenges the man to kill her, but he is unable and promises never to leave her. Then, after a scene in which the man is unable to kill either her or himself, the man is shamed and decides to leave the woman. While she will not force him to stay, she begs him either to stay or to kill her, not to leave her alone:

I won’t force you to do anything. (Pause) All I wanted was an escape—for both of us. The sound of a human voice—the simplest thing to find, and the hardest to hold on to. This house—my loneliness is etched into the walls. Kill me, but don’t leave. Even in death, my spirit would rest here and be comforted by your presence.

The woman neither confirms nor denies the gossip about her but only chides the man for his cruelty in believing it. The woman thinks the man is leaving, so she goes to her room; but the man changes his mind, returns to the front room, moves everything off his mat, including the ever-present sword, and takes up the woman’s shakuhatchi. As he unsuccessfully attempts to play it, the lights come up behind the screen to reveal that the woman has hung herself. The man obliviously continues his futile task.

One of the main themes of the play is expressed on the first morning of the man’s sojourn at the woman’s house, as the woman explains that words ‘‘are too inefficient. It takes hundreds of words to describe a single act of caring. With hundreds of acts, words become irrelevant.’’ Although she craves ‘‘the sound of a voice,’’ the two of them convey the most significant meaning through gesture and action, not dialogue. Scene 3 comically illustrates the contrast between voice and gesture. The man, stripped to the waist, enters the room with a load of chopped wood. Noticing the woman’s eyeing of his mid-life paunch, he pats it and begins to joke about his physique. She tries to convince him that he should love his body the way it is, but he continues to hit it as an instrument, talk to it as a companion, and generally belittle its appearance. The scene culminates with the man telling his belly that at least it will be faithful and ‘‘never leave me for another man.’’ The woman responds, ‘‘No,’’ acknowledging that she will be faithful, even though she was not directly addressed. The man then asks her, ‘‘What do you want me to say?’’ She responds to his request in gesture, leaning over to him and touching his belly with her hand. Like the older woman in The House of Sleeping Beauties, she ‘‘bewitches’’ the man, not with enchantment, but with kindness and caring expressed through her actions and gesture Referring to The House of Sleeping Beauties, Hwang told Cooperman that ‘‘there is the notion of stillness representing a certain amount of passion, a certain amount of need. The emotions that can’t really be expressed in an explicit form or can’t be understood but only act upon the individual.’’

Source: Felicia Pattison, ‘‘David Henry Hwang,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 228, Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Second Series, Gale, 2000, pp. 128–43.


Critical Overview