Book Review: The Woman In The Dunes by Kobo Abe (1962)

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Release: 1962

For my next book review I’m having a look at Kobo Abe’s The Woman In The Dunes. The original Japanese title translates to just “Sand Woman”, and while a woman in the sand seems to play a pivotal part in the story, she doesn’t seem to be the focus. This is where I was wrong. The more I read, the more I came to realize that this a story about a woman told from the point of view of a captive man. You might argue that it is a first hand account of Stockholm Syndrome, but I would argue this is an account of every day captivity that is all to prevalent in our society. She lives under the weight of societal oppression and the man simply shares a glimpse of her everyday life.

The story focuses on an entomologist who goest the desert in Japan (inspired by Tottori) to find beetles. He is there too late and is offered accommodation by the local villagers, which he agrees to. The conflict arises in the morning when he realizes he cannot leave. He is trapped in the house at the bottom a sand pit with no escape, his only companion is a woman that seems to know more about his plight than she lets on. Early on in the novel it feels as though the woman is an accomplice in his captivity, but this becomes clear that she is just as much a prisoner. The story is developing a parallel between the man being trapped in his house and the homelife of many women in society. To an outsider (the captive man) the captivity seems so incredibly unjust, but for the woman and the villagers it seems only natural. He fights the system and is kept down in his hole, it is only when he shows his dominance over the woman that he is accepted and allowed up from the bottom of the hole. Even as a captive it is the woman who is expected to care for him, wash him, cook for him, completely take care of him. She tells him stories of other captive men who fought the system and lost, she says that they weren’t strong enough. The interesting thing is she is the only constant through all these stories, she is the only one strong enough to survive this captivity. If he becomes more complacent to his plight his survival becomes easier, but he comes from a society where he is free, so his complacency can only come with much difficulty. The same likely goes to the other men who were made captive. Abe is expressing the divide between expected and accepted mistreatment of women, and the expected respectful treatment of men. Both mistreatments are intolerable, but society finds one acceptable under the guise of tradition, to fight this tradition could prove deadly.

I can see this being a “close to home” issue in Japan, where the house wife seems to be the expected role of many women, but in reality it relates to societies all over the world. So many of my acquaintances and students , here in Japan, live with the expectation that it is their job to serve their family (dinner, lunch, breakfast, and taking care of the house). Even households in which both partners work, it seems expected of the woman to prepare meals and take care of the home. While this is surely not the case for everyone in Japan, it seems to be a remarkably common scenario. Though I like to think this isn’t a problem plaguing America or other Western countries, deep down I know it is. Many view this sort of behavior as acceptable and customary, but when do you draw the line and say it is a form of oppresion?  Both the man and the woman were trapped in the dunes, but only the man had any hope of escape. The woman would remain trapped in her place, her escape would create no solace, her life would be no different. The man was experiencing the woman oppression and finding it intolerable, but his views were purely selfish.

The Woman In The Dunes is incredibly stressful to read, but very rewarding. Early on I was sympathetic for the man, but realized soon that he was undeserving. It is the kind complacent woman, strong enough to survive years of abuse, that truly deserves our sympathy. She is the only hero to be found here, and hers is a sad tale. I highly recommend this novel to anyone interested in Japanese literature, it might be the best Japanese novel I’ve read outside of Haruki Murakami. I don’t know what Kobo Abe’s intentions were when writing The Woman In The Dunes, but he created a novel that will stick in your mind for sometime to come. I’d give it 4 out 5 stars.

35 Novels from 35 Countries

  1. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (England)
  2. We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen (Denmark)
  3. The River Between by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (Kenya)
  4. The Stranger by Albert Camus (France)
  5. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño (Chile)
  6. Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia)
  7. The Heart Of Redness by Zakes Mda (South Africa)
  8. The Woman In The Dunes by Kobo Abe (Japan)
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