(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 469 words.)


(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

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 entire section is 813 words.)