The Woman in the Dunes

by Kobo Abe

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The Woman in the Dunes

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The teacher is caught by villagers, who preserve their territory from the encroaching sand dunes by maintaining a line of houses whose occupants shovel them free of sand every night in Sisyphean labors. Since he cannot climb out of the sand pit formed by their digging, he is forced to stay in one such dugout with its occupant, a young widow. His changing reactions to this entrapment form the body of the novel.

Kafkaesque in its straightforward exploration of a single, symbolic human situation, pitiless in its objective tone and concentration on realistic, meticulously rendered detail, the novel grips the reader, who is forced to consider the hero’s situation as emblematic of everyone’s.

Is all our work as meaningless as the protagonist’s, shoveling away the sands which will inevitably return tomorrow? Are all our relationships as cruel, as dominated by force or the harsh requirements of our physical needs? Are we all insect specimens, trapped by walls we cannot scale? Are we all anonymous animals, foolishly suffering under the illusion that our actions and discoveries can make a difference in life?

As the hero undergoes changes in his attitude toward his imprisonment, the novel seems to suggest some value in the human relationship between the hero and the woman (never named). Meanwhile, the cruelty and selfishness of the villagers and, indeed, of the hero (who at first dominates the widow with force as the villagers dominate him), the nemesis provided by the indifferent sand, the poverty and meaninglessness of human relationships in this universe acquire mythic force.

This novel, made into a prizewinning film, reflects Abe’s continuing interest (reflected in other novels, short stories, and plays) in the problem of finding one’s identity in our modern, urbanized, alienating society.

Bibliography

Dissanyake, Wimal. “Kōbō Abe: Self, Place, and Body in Woman in the Dunes: A Comparative Study of the Novel and the Film.” In Literary Studies and West, edited by Jean Toyama and Nobuko Ochner. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990. Pays special attention to the theme of alienation and identity and to the importance of the sense of place in The Woman in the Dunes.

Hardin, Nancy. “Interview with Kōbō Abe.” Contemporary Literature 15, no. 4 (Autumn, 1974): 439-456. The major published interview with Abe. Includes important information about his life and his literary influences.

Leithauser, Brad. “Severed Futures.” The New Yorker 44, no. 12 (May 9, 1988): 122-126. This essay discusses the recurrent theme of the uncertainty of human life in Abe’s fiction.

Remnick, David. “Kōbō Abe: A Figure Apart.” The Washington Post, January 20, 1986, C1. Provides a wealth of information about Abe’s life and the experiences underlying his fiction.

Van Wert, William F. “Levels of Sexuality in the Novels of Kōbō Abe.” International Fiction Review 6, no. 2 (Summer, 1979): 129-132. Discusses Abe’s affinities with Fyodor Dostoevski, Franz Kafka, and Alain Robbe-Grillet.

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