The Woman in the Dunes

by Kobo Abe

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Critical Evaluation

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The Woman in the Dunes is the best known of Kb Abe’s works, at least in the Western world, perhaps in part because it was made into a memorable motion picture. More important, however, is that this grim, almost allegorical picture of the state of humanity echoes a Greek myth that resonates in the twenty-first century: the myth of Sisyphus, who was condemned to spend his days pushing a heavy rock up a steep slope, only to have the rock slide back down every time. Albert Camus, one of the major writers influenced by French existentialism—a philosophy that dominated much of Western thought and literature after World War II—used Sisyphus as a symbol of human fate in one of his major essays. Very simply stated, the existentialists held that life was similar to the experience of Sisyphus: Human hopes and dreams (particularly that of the Christian afterlife) were doomed never to be realized, but human nobility was nevertheless confirmed in accepting this fact and carrying on with the struggle.

The Woman in the Dunes has a distinctly Japanese style. The setting for almost all the action is an isolated village whose inhabitants have no interest in and little connection with the larger world outside their immediate area. They are primitives who accept their harsh fate, condemned to an eternal struggle with the encroaching sand, because they can conceive of no other way of life. Their sense of humor is crude and cruel, and their imaginations are limited. The simple experiment with water that Jumpei conducts at the end of the novel would never occur to any of them, and yet it could lead to a major easing of one of the harsh conditions of their existence. Still, even should the experiment turn out to be a success, there is no reason to believe that the villagers will use Jumpei’s results to their benefit.

The allegorical nature of The Woman in the Dunes is underlined by the relatively small amount of interest Abe shows in making his characters into individuals; the fact that the second of the novel’s two major characters, the woman in the dunes herself, is never given a name is evidence of this. Even Jumpei is almost always referred to as “he” or “him” in the narrative. He is a most ordinary man, with the single unusual character trait of an interest in collecting insects. The reader knows only that he has a mother and a lover, as well as a single friend, and that he is a teacher. Otherwise, he is simply Everyman, and he is lost.

The central symbol in this allegory is the sand. Its presence in the novel is relentless, representing not only the dreariness and inevitability of everyday life but also the material out of which people make their living and the capriciousness of the natural world in which they are fated to try to survive. It is sand that kills the woman’s husband and daughter and that almost kills Jumpei in his attempt to escape. More than anything, however, the sand is the symbol of a reality that is so continuously present, forming a kind of film over everything in the lives of these characters, that it becomes an integral part of every moment of their lives. They nearly come to a point at which they are no longer aware of the unpleasantness of its continual presence.

Abe, with Yukio Mishima and Nobel Prize winner Kenzabur e, was a leader of a post-World War II generation of Japanese writers who took a major interest in politics, a subject not traditionally important in...

(This entire section contains 807 words.)

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Japanese literature. There is evidence of this interest inThe Woman in the Dunes: The villagers are exploited to haul sand that is then sold by a corrupt business society to make shoddy concrete. A political dimension exists in the helplessness of the characters, who continue providing this sand for corrupt businesses without questioning or attempting to change the situation.

More important, however, is that many critics see in The Woman in the Dunes a distinct similarity to Czech writer Franz Kafka’s works, especially Der Prozess (1925; The Trial, 1937) and Das Schloss (1926; The Castle, 1930). Both writers use the same kind of nearly anonymous characters, both place their characters in hopeless situations they did little or nothing to create, and both depict people at the mercy of forces they have no means of understanding. Abe once said that he intended to provide hope for his characters, and perhaps Jumpei’s experiment can be seen as a small ray of light, but the tone of The Woman in the Dunes and the fate of its characters leave little room for this possibility. Abe, like Kafka, creates in his works situations that mirror humanity’s helplessness in the face of incomprehensible and overwhelming forces.


Critical Context


Critical Overview