The character referred to only as “woman” in Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes is a far cry from the portrayal of “woman as geisha” that was often presented in Japanese novels written before the devastation of World War II. And the author seems to almost go out of his way to make a statement contrary to the qualities for which geisha were known. For example, geisha were trained in the arts, were known for their grace and beauty, and were engaging in conversation. Whereas the woman in Abe’s novel has a very limited scope of knowledge, and the narrator of the story mentions only her skill in shoveling sand. However, the aspects of geisha are not totally absent in Abe’s female character. There remain hints of the geisha woman despite Abe’s attempt to cast her aside.
The word geisha comes from two different Japanese characters. The first, gei stands for “the arts.” The second sha means “person.” Women who were chosen to become geisha were often raised in special schools, and these women sometimes began their studies as very early ages. The young girls were trained in many traditional Japanese arts including dancing, singing, enacting the ritual of the tea ceremony, creating artful flower arrangements, making calligraphy, writing poetry, and playing the shamisen (a stringed instrument). They were taught how to dress, how to walk, and how to maintain a stimulating conversation. They were known for the beautiful kimonos they wore and for the elegant hairstyles and formalized makeup, which featured a very white powder all over their faces, stylized, penciled-in eyebrows, and very bright red, painted lips. They were supposedly the epitome of feminine graces in their time. Their main purpose was to make men comfortable, to entertain them, and to provide them with an environment filled with beauty.
With this view of the geisha in mind, it is easy to see how Abe worked to create a woman in his novel who represented the exact opposite. Abe was raised amidst the ruins of war and westernized occupation. He was bitter about the changes he witnessed. So not only is the environment in which he throws his protagonist stark and hostile, so is his depiction of the female, at least up to a point.
When Jumpei, the protagonist in this story, first sets his eyes on the woman, he is less harsh. He had been expecting an older woman because the villagers had yelled to her, calling her granny. But when Jumpei sees her, one can hear just a tinge of the geisha in his description. She was a “nice sort of woman,” the narrator informs the reader. Then he adds the fact that “perhaps she was wearing powder” on her face, because her skin looked unnaturally white for a woman who lived at the edge of the sea. Then, through her actions, the woman, though not necessarily gracefully, serves Jumpei a meal. She cooks for him, makes sure he is comfortable, and honors him by offering him the best seat at the dinner table. There is even a small attempt, on her part, of offering to make conversation. Unfortunately, Jumpei is arrogant and challenges much of what the woman says. He believes she is ignorant when she tells him how damp the sand is and how it rots the wood. “Impossible,” he exclaims. Sand cannot rot wood. Of course, Jumpei will later find out that the woman is correct about this fact, but for now, he feels he has put the stupid countrywoman in her place. He is in no way in awe of her intelligence, which he finds to be simple and limited.
After dinner, the woman takes up the only instrument she owns. And Jumpei watches her, much as a man might have watched a geisha entertain him with music or dance. Except that Abe’s woman goes outside to dig sand, fill buckets, and carry them to the lift. The work is masculine, it is monotonous, and it is dirty. It makes the woman gritty, sweaty, and muscular (hard), whereas the geisha is soft and inspiring and stimulating. But despite the sweat and angularity, Abe’s woman is not totally unable to arouse Jumpei.
“He was not particularly interested in what she had to say,” the narrator states concerning Jumpei’s feelings, “but her words had a warmth in them that made him think of the body concealed beneath the coarse work trousers.” The woman, despite the fact that she has to do a man’s work, flirts with Jumpei, poking a finger in his ribs and smiling at him in a way that ignites a physical passion inside of him. But nothing comes of his feelings, at least not that first night. And in the next morning, there is a startling sight for Jumpei to behold. An image so startling, he does not know what to make of it. There is the woman, sleeping stark naked in front of him. But what a mixed image she represents. On one hand he is drawn to her nudity; but on the other hand, she has covered her...
(The entire section is 1979 words.)