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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 813

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...

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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 motto of the village: Love Your Home.

Jumpei is horrified at this futile situation, and the plot revolves around his plans for escape and his relationship with the woman in the dunes. She is never named; she is merely the woman. Jumpei and the woman gradually come to have a relationship, both sexual and emotional, though he is scornful of her dogged existence, her blind loyalty to the village and to her home.

Jumpei makes three attempts to escape the sand pit which is his home; the third one is successful, but he ends up being trapped in a larger, natural sand pit on the outskirts of town, and his recapture becomes his rescue, as he would surely have died if left to his own devices. After this episode, he seems to settle into his existence with the woman; the work is difficult but time moves quickly. Their relationship is genuine and natural, whereas his relationship with the “town woman” was cerebral and defensive. The woman in the dunes does beadwork during the day in her spare time to earn enough money for a radio and a mirror. Jumpei, however, chooses to make a crow trap, “Hope,” in the hope that a crow will be lured by the fish bait and become buried alive in his box. Seeing his trap sprung, he plans to release the crow after having first taped a call for help on its leg.

Instead of luring a crow, the bait attracts nothing but bacteria. Miraculously enough, however, the box accumulates precious water by way of one of the properties of sand, capillary action—water much purer than the water they are accustomed to using. He is overjoyed at his discovery. Meanwhile, the woman becomes pregnant, though the pregnancy is obviously ectopic, destined to be aborted and perhaps even threatening the life of the woman, who begins to hemorrhage. Because of the severe nature of her plight, the woman is taken out of her pit to a nearby veterinarian for professional help. The rope ladder is left and Jumpei is free to escape. He chooses to stay, rationalizing that now he has a “two way ticket” and that he can choose to escape at a later date. Besides, he is excited about the water trap and wants to talk about it with the villagers, the only ones who could truly share in his enthusiasm. He does not openly acknowledge his tie to the woman or to their “elemental” way of life. The book ends with two official documents, a notification of missing persons filed by his mother and, years later, the declaration of his death upon being missing seven years. The reader never learns what happens to the woman.

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