Essays and Criticism
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 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...
(The entire section is 1685 words.)