So I Heard You Read The Woman In The Dunes…

The Woman in the Dunes, on a periphery glance, appears to be about someone forced into a hole in a Japanese beach and forced to live with a woman as they dig ever-falling sand out of a pit. Of course, stories aren’t always as they seem at a first look. Kōbō Abe, the author, is considered the Japanese Franz Kafka, in the sense that the writing uses simplistic language but conveys an overall deep meaning, which must be peeled away in layers. Of course, it takes time to take apart the book, chapter by chapter, but once you reach the end, you should understand how significant the story is. Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes is significant because it reveals one of many “meanings of life” (you remember that exploration into the various meanings of life we talked about, right?). Abe reveals that the life is a Sisyphean task that one must uptake independently and, though one might not desire to at first, one ultimately resigns his will and puts himself towards the task.

It is interesting to note, first, that Abe, with the exception of two times throughout the novel, never uses names to describe his characters. The only exceptions are when the main character, Niki Jumpei, is listing details about himself, the other time being when Niki reads the newspaper given to him by the townspeople. There is a two-fold reason to this. The first is it allows you to see yourself within the scope of the characters. Rather than naming characters, Abe uses defining characteristics to describe the main characters: the resilient, persevering man, always paying attention to detail, and the submissive woman, aiming to please and avoiding conflict. By giving general descriptions of their character, you can see yourself in both characters and relate to their situation, in the context of futility and the eternal task (which I’ll refer to again later). The second reason is to create a sense of distance between yourself and the characters. Names are how we, as people, relate to one another. We can categorize everything and give it a name, and, through that, have understanding of whatever we name. It allows people to reach out to one another and say, “I may not know you, but you have a name; we are both human.” By not giving names, Abe wants the reader to feel distanced from the characters, which is exactly how Niki Jumpei feels and acts throughout the novel: distanced and independent from others. Why Abe names his main character is difficult to say; perhaps we need a starting point of relation to see how far one can go without others. The significance of not naming the characters leads back, as I said previously, to this prevalent notion of independence Niki experiences throughout the novel. Let me explain how.

When we are introduced to Niki, we learn that he is an entomologist, an insect collector. He travels to this dune sea on the Japanese coast in order to find a new species of insect, which may eventually be named after him. Again, the significance of names. In this case, the naming of the insect allows him to, in a stretch, reach out to others by making himself significant in the world. Here is the start of his futility in a Sisyphean task. Niki has dreams and hopes of himself that he ultimately wishes to fulfill. He sees himself, as he describes, as a “Round-Trip man;” what this means is that after he accomplishes his goal, he can always return home and to the life he once had, lessening the importance of accomplishing his goal, unlike those who are “One-Way people,” who live only to accomplish a task. The idea of a “One-Way” person relates to the myth of Sisyphus. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a man sent to Tartarus, whose punishment is to push a boulder up a mountain, only to see it tumble to the ground and begin his task anew. Why does he continually do this task, even though he knows he will never accomplish it? I’ll answer that later. For now, just keep in mind the one-track goal that Sisyphus has. Throughout the novel, Niki reveals a few relationships he has with other people, most importantly the woman he lives with, and the Möbius man. He may talk with them and be friendly with them, but, much like the Granny, the woman Niki lives with in the hole, these people are simply means to an end; he sees them just as tools to help him sustain the life he desires. Eventually, when Niki enters the town and is given a place to sleep, which is Granny’s home, Niki begins to change once the path of his life is altered.

The morning after Niki enters the village, he wakes to see that the rope ladder leading into his hole has been removed and he and Granny are trapped in the bottom of the pit, forced to dig the sand from the sides and keep it from collapsing in. Granny reveals that the villagers have done this to hundreds, potentially thousands, of other travelers and it is a natural part of their life (it is important to mention that Granny is actually in her thirties). Niki resists this change in his task, still seeing his ultimate goal to return home to the life he desires. He calls the villagers savages and barbarians for thinking it is okay to trap people within their town. These people, who continually dig out the sand only to have it pile in again, are “One-Way people” who have a Sisyphean goal, which they still do even though they may not desire it. As Niki plans his escape and does what he can to avoid work, he brings up his colleague, who he refers to as the Möbius man. Let me explain what a Möbius strip is: it’s a twisted circle that has no front or back; imagine an “infinity” sign. Niki brings up the idea of the Möbius man when the task is presented to him to underline the significance of a Sisyphean task. The task of digging up the sand only to dig it up again later has no beginning and no end, it simply is, much like a Möbius strip. Over time, he starts to connect with Granny more and talk with her. Though he often lashes out, they still have sex on a regular basis, she cooks him food and bathes him, and are still somewhat friendly to each other. Within their encounters, however, Niki notices and picks apart details about what he notices on Granny. I forgot to mention that an important reason Abe made Niki an entomologist is because entomologists are tasked with noticing details. In his life, Niki picks apart little, insignificant details of everyone he knows, focusing on these factors rather than the whole picture. Keep this in mind. Eventually, while still planning his escape, Niki begins to help Granny dig the sand out of the hole, beginning his futile task.

Niki still has aspirations of leaving the hole and returning, though, his mind still on a “Round-Trip” track. One night, after days of planning, he springs into action; innocuously incapacitating his partner, he uses a device of his own making to exit the hole and begins to run out of the village before he falls into a quicksand pit and nearly dies. The villagers pull him out and return him to the hole with Granny. Even though he has nearly died, he still has aspirations of leaving the hole and returning home. He convinces the villagers to let him go take walks on the beach if they watch him and Granny have sex. Granny beats Niki to a bloody pulp, and yet Niki doesn’t fully grasp the futility of his actions. He soon builds a contraption to capture crows, which he will use in a similar fashion as carrier pigeons, which he names “Hope.” Even after all that has happened, Niki still has the hope of leaving and returning to the life he desires. Months go by as Niki and Granny continue to dig the sand out of the hole and a change begins to occur in Niki. He focuses less on the details that bother him about Granny and the village and begins to take into account the whole aspects of each; perhaps it is because he is making a connection with a person he enjoys being with, and perhaps it is because he is resigning in his goals of escaping. It could be a mixture of the two. Soon, Granny gets pregnant and she and Niki begin to become even closer. However, a month later, Granny has what is called an “extra-uterine pregnancy” and loses a lot of blood. The villagers send down a rope ladder and carry her into a truck, in order to transport her to a hospital. Here is where the biggest change in Niki occurs: even though the rope ladder is there and he could climb out and escape, he continues to shovel the sand out of the way, focusing on his new goal. Niki is now independent, no longer relying on the woman he used to live with for companionship, the Möbius man for conversations and understand, nor Granny for her care of him. He knows that he alone must accomplish the task he is set out to do. It is at this point that Niki stops being a “Round-Trip man” and becomes a “One-Way man,” existing simply to accomplish a singular goal which he knows he must always do. He becomes Sisyphus, in the sense that the life he desired is no longer important to him, nor is it attainable anymore, but lives a life that he must life, even though the goal will never be reached and is ultimately futile.

Why, though, does Abe bring up the idea of a Sisyphean task of digging sand out of a pit? Abe is trying to say that life is a Sisyphean task. We live for a singular purpose and, though we aspire for greatness, we must ultimately resign to the task given to us and accomplish it, even though our end result is always the same: death. Life is, then, futile, but we live anyways because our task is our goal. Life may be difficult to live but we do so anyways. We live to accomplish our task but never achieve it, but do so knowing full well the futility of our task. We may dream, but we will never achieve. The life we desire is far different from the life we need. It is these concepts that Niki wrestles with throughout The Woman in the Dunes, this significance of our lives and goals in the world. But enough about me, what have you been reading lately?

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