Woman in the Dunes (1964) screen capture

Is Kobo Abe’s strange, gripping novel The Woman in the Dunes, a testament to human predicament, perhaps a parable of damnation and confinement? Or, more simply, is it just about a man stuck in a pit of sand?

Echoed as the 'Kafka of Japan', Kobo Abe remains an important figure in contemporary Japanese literature. Contended through its recurring themes of surrealist settings, shifting perspectives, and grotesque imagery; the disorienting novels of Abe are often accommodated through both its metaphysical and symbolic implications.

The Woman in the Dunes remains an acute example of this, being published in 1962. It would eventually go on to win that year's Yomiuri Prize of literature; and through its esteemed success, was translated into 20 languages and adapted into an award-winning film in 1964.


In Abe’s novel, the plot and its characters are subservient to an anomaly. Our protagonist, Niki Jumpei, works as a reserved and slightly reclused teacher. Leaving behind his uncongenial relationship with his occupation, Jumpei – also an amateur entomologist in his spare time – arrives in a remote area of sand dunes, with the hopes of identifying a particular type of sand beetle. When night falls, and with nowhere to go, the villagers offer him shelter in a house at the bottom of a funnel-shaped pit of sand. Its only entrance, a rope ladder. Here he finds his company with the occupant of the house, a young and somewhat placid woman. Stationed in a bulwark, and almost immediately after settling in, 'the woman' spends the night shovelling sand into kerosene cans, which are then raised by the villagers: this prevents the village from being swallowed by the advancing sand dunes. Confused, and somewhat humoured, Jumpei thinks little of it. However, the next morning, as he packs his belongings, Jumpei finds the rope ladder to be gone. Now a conscript to such Sisyphean drudgery, the novel shifts in a simple yet expressive prose on one man's experience behind unjust imprisonment, and the interchangeable lines between purpose and insanity.

Disgruntled Optimism:

Populated in most of his work, Abe often attunes his characters as disgruntled loners, anti- socialites that perceive their lives as anything but buoyant. It is through these broken and fractured personalities that Abe can accommodate lengthy philosophical ruminations on self-image, loss, or identity. His characters tend to be more delineated through their thoughts and interpretations rather than of their personal histories or developments; we see this through an arrangement of different stories, like that of a loner private detective in The Ruined Map (1967); or the alienation of a plastic scientist in search of a new face in The Face of Another (1964). Jumpei is no exception to this. He shifts on the psycho-social, almost dystopian, themes that Abe is praised for. In the novel, he chooses not to cooperate with his colleagues at work, expressing this through his hobby of collecting insects alone. One could say that through his lone efforts - an expression towards the dangers of total independence - had he teamed up with others to collect insects, cooperativeness could have saved him. Of these values, he believes that his idea of independence is more important than that of cooperation.

Yet, as the story progresses, we see this narrative shift. Through such a situation, the subtle corrections of Jumpei's 'faulty' way of thinking come into motion. In fact, the importance of cooperativeness is expressed thoroughly throughout the book: first being expressed through a calligraphic plaque hung on the entrance to the village, with the motto 'love your home'; the same phrase is later ushered by the woman, consistent with the idea of collective labour. The motto suggests, albeit, the future of Niki's lifestyle. Upon being confined in the hole, and as the story progresses, Jumpei's stature towards this shifts with a fluid consistency. Whether this is due to the need for survival or perhaps growing respect for his counterpart, the themes of cooperation become all the more important. Though he is by no means charming, it is plausible enough for the reader to still believe and care for his escape.

Meaningless Labour

"Do you shovel to survive, or survive to shovel?”

In engineering escape plans, Jumpei endures the indignity of his confinement, but not alone. The ‘woman’, who possesses no other name, is there with him. This woman can be viewed as a symbolic figure, one as a convenient sound board for relaying Jumpei’s frustrations, hopes, and suspicions; another, for damnation, a strong adverse in philosophical and worldly views. Born in the village and, presumably, resigning in the house for her entire life, she exerts a more monotony existence throughout the story. As Jumpei wanders aimlessly around his confinement, with attempted resistance by refusing to work, the woman does so with willing contempt: she shovels the sand without question, capitulating it with a dire need or importance. He seeks only to escape, plotting and planning before seizing his opportunity with a makeshift grappling hook; she, however, remains grounded. The woman’s role in this narrative is a near-silent associate, neither actively charming Jumpei into her way of life nor grumbling his resistance. It is through this passivity that, in a symbolic way, almost forces the reader to view her character with sympathy. For the woman does not know what freedom is; she doesn’t feel the chafe of a life without it. Her adaptability to the drudgeries of such confinement is found less-so through question, and instead in ignorance. To her, this is all she has ever known; all she will know. Thus, she works without remonstration.

“But this means you exist only for the purpose of clearing away the sand, doesn’t it?”

The point of stylistic interest here is the symbolism that Abe offers us. If we compare his illustration of the sand, and its labour, to our own current world, certain themes and meanings can be attached. In order to survive, both Jumpei and his counterpart are forced to shovel sand. Though unfulfilling, if he doesn’t comply both the village and the pit will be consumed by the dunes; additionally, they would be without food or water. In a sense, this could be ascribed to our own lives. For many of us – though, not all – we require work to survive. Though it might be through unfulfilling, tedious employment, we grapple to these things in order to live. For the reader, the novel flaunts these symbolic and literal points liberally. In essence, we too are in a sandpit. It might not be surrounded by dunes or walls sixty-feet in height, neither guarded by ruthlessly regressive villagers; but it is contained through the mandating nature that is work. We might spend a lifetime doing a job that feels just as meaningless as shovelling sand – to the universe, if not to ourselves – perhaps even feeling ensnared by it. As we read about Jumpei’s predicament, existentially, we are reading about ourselves.

Unendurable Sand

Unbeknownst to some, the third major character within this book might not be sentient, but that does not mean it provides little credulity to its impact. The sand, put plainly, exists as a number of symbolic interpretations fixed by Abe, some more obvious than others. Sand gets in the food, beneath the sheets, scattered all throughout the house, in clothes, and is even used to clean the dishes. The sand of these dunes, laden with its dampness, rots almost everything it touches: the wooden beams that keep the house secure, the fabric of their clothing, and eventually, the characters morality itself. Due to the sands ferocity, we see Jumpei combat a range of flaunting issues.

“Sand, which doesn’t even have a form of it’s own. Yet not a single thing could stand against this shapeless, destructive power. The very fact that it had no form was doubtless, the highest manifestation of its strength, was it not?”

The sand is the prison, literally and symbolically. The idea that Abe is conveying here is that human beings, in order to live and to exist, must create a fixed and solid centre. Differently to the sand, which is often described as nomadic and inhospitable to all living things. Our centre could be through residence, employment or community. Existentially, it is through this centre in which we form our routine, a motion that is cyclically repeated throughout our life. Like the woman, who is described as ‘animal-like, thinking only in terms of today, no yesterday, no tomorrow, with a dot of a heart’; we repeat our actions in order to survive. Though by shovelling the sand she does not accomplish anything, least at all fulfilment, it is the only means through which she lives. This is similar to the Greek Sisyphus. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is condemned to an eternal suffering, and is conditioned to rolling an immense boulder up a steep cliff, only for it to roll down every time it neared the top; repeating this action for eternity.

Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill in Tartarus

In closing, humans must condition themselves to a fixed centre, a point of stability and order, each implicitly demanded to the paradox that is self-imprisonment. The existential condition of the woman and, by the stories end, Jumpei.

In the first half, Jumpei exerts a great defiance to his confinement. He accuses the woman of being a slave to the village, to which she shows little interest or contempt to the idea; almost as if she has found happiness in it. To Jumpei, her actions seem pointless, unimportant, and a waste of energy. However, by the stories end, we cast a different light on our protagonist. For Jumpei accepts his situation, and lives with a modest comfortability of his surroundings.

In relation to Abe's work, a central and recurring theme is that of social displacement and loss of identity. Tanin no ka (1964; The Face of Another) illustrates a scientist's graphic attempts to develop a mask that covers his disfiguring scars; Hakootak (1973; The Box Man) places its stage upon a man who withdraws from his community though the shelter of a cardboard box, in which he creates his own idyllic society. Contended in these works are the labyrinthine structures that Abe places in a precisely detailed and bizarre fantasy, one that allures the reader in highlighting the fragility of an identity that we usually take for granted.