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 of freedom that he finds in the dunes but also condones this life and opts for it over returning to the city in which he felt alienated. The ever-changing forms of the sand provide a parallel to the shifting realities of Niki’s life. The absurdity of the sandy village is like that of his own personal world. One fantastic and improbable event after another occurs, but Abe’s description of them is so accurate and so detailed that even the most unrealistic of them is made believable.
One of Abe’s best novels, The Woman in the Dunes, illustrates most of the themes and literary methods that he uses in his work. In addition to the methods already discussed, another is the use of metaphor. In the novel, settings and characters are metaphors of human alienation. Another literary technique is Abe’s frequent use of irony, which may also be found in The Woman in the Dunes. For example, the schoolteacher, after being captured, finds his treatment “outlandish.” After all, he is an employed, taxpaying, productive person. The Woman in the Dunes is not completely grim, however. Abe uses humor and commentary on some of the qualities of human nature to relieve the tone of despair that might otherwise pervade the novel.
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,...
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