Months ago, my life became periled by an inescapable phase of existential thoughts. No matter what, I was always in an endless state of mystifying disparity, in which only by delving deeper in its loose ends could I relief myself from drowning. Nonetheless, I have now noticed that this so-called “phase” is eternal. For as long as I live, overthinking is the fuel to my wellbeing. It is, truly, one of the only ways I attempt to make sense of what inherently does not. Yet as long as I’m motivated to pursue what I might perceive as answers, I’m comfortable with that. So is the case with this article – an attempt to, once more, decode the perpetual queries of our existence. How refreshing! Yet how old…
You know what the best part of experiencing a hoard of ceaseless existential dilemmas is? Being assigned to read none other than Kobo Abe’s metaphysically restless novel, The Woman in the Dunes. It should perhaps be considered a crime to make adolescents – I say it again: adolescents, for humanity’s sake! – read a book so ingrained in the endless pursuit of meaning.
To avoid the mistake of undermining what I now consider to be a masterpiece, I allowed myself to partake in the art of overanalysis. (I apologize if I end up reminding you of that English teacher that thought – and probably still does if life is ever proving of being consistent – that the author’s description of a room’s curtains held deep meaning.) Even so, in committing myself to a journal throughout my digestion of this book, I am now ready to share what is an indispensable result of me trying to understand things that will never truly be unraveled. I guess, though, that this is what happens when we allow teenagers to read the words of those who have been desensitized by a world of war and the slightest understanding of pure evil. Kobo, after all, is exactly that. Yet just like him, I haven’t known a reality different from the one presented to me. Or…have I now?
Anyways, I really just had to put all of this somewhere, so I hope that – regardless of this sudden urge – you enjoy this personal examination of The Woman in the Dunes. You may or may not learn something. If you do, I know I was right in publishing this. If not, you might as well try reading Plato.
Ok, here we go!
1. Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.
The fact that the fly showed great adaptability meant that it could be at home even in unfavorable environments in which other insects could not live – for example, a desert where all other living things perished.
As an entomologist, the protagonist of The Woman in the Dunes is one necessarily experienced with a multitude of insects. Ergo, when the narrator decides to ponder on a fly’s “adaptability” in a foreign environment, the connection becomes clear: similar to the small creatures he studies, the man – who, up until Part 2 of the novel, is left unnamed – also acquires the trait of adaptation. As a result, Kobo Abe not only establishes an example of foreshadowing, as he plants the idea that, by acting upon his profession (which is the study of insects), the man becomes one, too. A beetle in a desert, then, may present the same change in behavior as the entomologist later does in the sand-filled village.
It was at this point that I noticed that, truly, Kobo Abe’s plot and characters are subservient to idea and symbol (which is why, for instance, our knowledge of the man’s name is irrelevant). In other words, the characteristics that constitute the protagonist serve as a symbol – and, perhaps even better, a justification – of his transformations within a new, potentially dangerous place.
Therefore, the only way for this unison to occur is – similar to the fly – through one’s adaptability to an environment that is premised on the nonexistence of competition for the constant adjustment of its structure. Thus, the analogy of the fly is a way that Kobo Abe masterfully links the protagonist’s profession to the idea that unification is, in the village, a tool used for progress.
2. Never-ending Tasks
The fact that the woman had not offered a word of explanation, that she had silently accepted everything with a strange submissiveness, lent substance to the danger in the situation.
Upon discovering that he’s trapped in the village, the man tries to understand the entire ordeal by establishing communication with the woman that lives there. However, she remains, throughout these chapters, highly timid and overall analytical of the male protagonist. With that, this reflection focuses on another of the author’s attributes in embellishing the story: his characterization. Although Kobo Abe makes relatively straightforward character descriptions, the above quote represents a more subtle approach.
Specifically, the use of the word “submissiveness” – one often linked to the oppression of the female gender – expresses that the woman in the story is, inescapably, manipulated by her position in relation to the man. Kobo’s characterization of the woman enables the entomologist to possibly harm her through the malleability of her objectives.
On a different note, this phrase led me to think about the book’s overarching idea of Sisyphean tasks. Mostly, the suspicion affected by both the man’s and the woman’s characterization towards each other indicates that – along with the village’s Sisyphean task of controlling the flow of sand – the protagonists also have their own Sisyphus-like activities to deal with. In doing so, the book argues that the absence of an end result is not solely a product of our environment, as it is of our inner dilemmas.
3. Flying Over Water
From the lower face of the cliff came an abrupt sound like the flapping of wings.
I’ve noticed that, often times, the book makes reference to the image of both birds and fish (or, more broadly, the air and sea). In the example chosen, Kobo Abe describes the sound heard by the man as one similar to the “flapping of wings.” Other instances – when the man feels he is “seasick” with all the sand, for instance – appear to perform the same function: connect the man’s situation to the idea of air or water. As a result, the author institutes several moments in which a juxtaposition between the object of comparison and its actual comparing figure is apparent. Kobo presents ideas related to birds and fish (amongst others, like “boats” and the “flow” of air) to compare the man’s arduous condition to them.
Most interestingly, I noticed this because, in my view, it would make more sense – if the author wanted to make animal-related connections that are reliable to the details of the story – for Kobo to cite insects instead of other creatures that are essentially unrelated to the protagonist’s profession. Consequently, the specificity of such comparisons serves not just to juxtapose the novel’s environment to its direct opposite, as it represents a greater, overarching purpose: establish the idea that freedom (birds) and satisfaction (water – after all, the story is very “dry”) are not related to the cyclical structure of life.
Ultimately, the man and woman are a part of fulfilling a task of Sisyphean proportions. One, in simple terms, that never ceases to continue, forcing those who are participants in “solving” it to continue, too. With that, the ongoing reference to birds and fish reminds the reader of what the man lacks in this situation – freedom and satisfaction; two essential attributes that seem to be necessarily absent in a Sisyphean task.
I am confident in concluding, then, that this characteristic of the book’s style goes even beyond the aforementioned analyses. Truly, the motivation behind the author’s mentions of “birds” and “fish” might essentially mean that the man’s motivation for water, for example, goes beyond the biological need of eliminating thirst. Truly, it is also a manner in which he can experience a degree of freedom that ensures his mental stability.
4. Don’t Stop Denying
Certainly he must be the strangest of all…he who was musing on the strangeness of things here.
I’d now like to consider what exactly is necessary for one’s mental endurance of a Sisyphean task. (How fun!) Mainly, the primary reason as to why I feel this specific examination to be important is due to the nature of the book – one in which, along with telling the main story, also describes the protagonist’s transformations in regards to his mentality within the novel’s symbolism and themes. Truly, The Woman in the Dunes is not only a mystery tale; it’s also an exemplifying work of existentialism; Kobo proposes an existential perspective of the text’s main ideas by acknowledging the changes that the man goes through in this new, strange environment.
Notedly, the excerpt above focuses on one of the man’s imbalances – one that harms his effectiveness (and, most importantly, his productivity) concerning the Sisyphean task he’s a part of: his refusal of self-denial. A couple of pages before this, the narrator (an omniscient one, in fact) recalls a lecture-meeting that the man attended. In it, the speaker said that “the only value of work lies in the strength of self-denial.” In other words, the lecturer explained that being willingly unloyal to one’s authentic responses to their condition is necessary at the workplace (which, to a certain extent, supports the idea that every job is minimally one of Sisyphean structure).
Hence, when the man is faced with the prospect of being trapped in the village, he knows – given he went to the lecture (it’s told as a flashback after all) – how to act: in a self-denying manner. Essentially, this is why the above phrase is so important; along with exemplifying the man’s mental state as undefined, it also represents the rest of society – one that never dares to ponder on its inescapable attributes. Indeed, the story is loyal to its very first words: “without the threat of punishment there is no joy in flight.”
Going further, I also think that the book’s “inevitability” amid the entire situation in the dunes – like that of constantly being unsure and fearful – justifies the rising sexual tension between the man and the woman. In fact, I believe that the entomologist’s growth in sexual desire surreptitiously supports the reality that he’s becoming more self-denying to perform better in his task. That’s because, in a ceaseless battle, one becomes more motivated to acquire rapid pleasure to avoid worrying about life’s inevitabilities. Kinda deep, I know.
5. Miserably Happy Lives
She was a stupid creature whose only merit was that she clung to her round-trip ticket…like him.
Halfway through the book, the story introduces us to a very unique idea: that of “round-trip” and “one-way” tickets. Fundamentally, a one-way ticket lifestyle is one that disregards the link, provided by time’s progression, that life is essentially lead by its flow. Kobo writes that, on the contrary, a round-trip ticket is, albeit wonderful, a symbol of “mankind imprisoned.” In other words, a round-trip ticket, due to how great of a lifestyle it proposes, is merely an unreasonable illusion. In reality, it diverts us from our social contract, leading us to an endless search for meaning – a trademark of humanity’s eternal zeitgeist. Most interestingly, the author (as he does multiple times throughout the novel) uses this philosophical, existential principle as a tool for characterizing the man.
With this, the excerpt in question reveals a bunch about the entomologist (and the woman, for that matter). Specifically, Kobo’s inclusion of “clung” suggests, in my view, that both are attached to an illusion – being, as a result, solely motivated by it (something that goes inherently against what society expects of us). Notably, the man is particularly interesting in this regard because he comprehends, contrary to the people in the village, what it means to have both “tickets,” which leads him to make crucial analyses of the local people. For instance, the narrator states that “one could not do without repetition in life, like the beating of the heart, but it was also true that the beating of the heart was not all there was to life.” Thereby, according to the man, the people living in the village don’t understand that there are other possibilities (a statement that I definitely agree with – especially for those who were born there). On a different note, this moment almost perfectly connects to Plato’s famous “Allegory of the Cave”; as we later learn, the man is one of the prisoners that, even when conforming, recognizes what’s out there.
Thus, all of this made me think that, critically, nothing can truly stop humans from experiencing the occasional (and terrifying) philosophical crux of human existence: do we work to survive, or survive to work? And, in essence, I believe there’s a very unique reason as to why this is – our endless search for meaning is not a natural condition of being alive. Rather, it is actually inherent of nature’s design. Therefore, whereas many philosophers have argued that we are actually flawed (meaning we can’t explore our full potential), others – as I agree with – argue that it is, in fact, a responsibility imposed by the perception of the physical world that nature itself puts upon us. With that, although objective truth might exist, we can’t see it…ever.
6. To Catch a Crow
If he were to melt into a life of simple repetition, there might possibly come a time when they could be quite unconscious of him.
According to modern society’s “instruction manual,” the type of work that can be considered effective is one that people disregard its repulsiveness and treat it as a respite from the uncertainties of life. Therefore, being busy should, in an ideal, efficient job, equate to a distraction from existentialist thought and behavior. With that, in setting a crow trap named “Hope,” the man makes clear that he’s seeking a distraction from his Sisyphean task in the dunes. Although birds usually represent freedom, the crow is more uniquely a symbol of death – or, more broadly, of negative feelings as a whole. Consequently, the crow alludes to the man’s ongoing search for meaning, doing so through the pursuit of the ability to feel something that is not a product of his work.
However, this lifestyle – a Sisyphus-based one – leads to an incredibly repetitive quotidian. Ironically, this repetition devalues those things that constitute, as previously mentioned, “effective work.” That’s because, given the man’s case (i.e., he understands how a reality outside of the village functions), he becomes depersonalized due to the repetition present in his life. (Different from the people native to the village, the entomologist knows he’s being depersonalized.) Hence, the man inevitably becomes enthralled by existential ponderings. Due to repetition – supposedly a characteristic of truly effective work – the protagonist’s work is deemed less productive because of his pursuit of external meaning.
In truth, this is why, as a manner of becoming focused on his Sisyphean work, the man sees the normalities of his life as motivating factors for working harder. The narrator explains that the simplicities of existing in a contemporary world, “far from quieting him, had had the effect of pushing him towards a new repetition of them.” Thereby, the man’s strategy (one adopted by millions of people to cope with the ambiguity of life) is to take refuge in moments of instant gratification – an addictive process that is motivated not only as a method of self-denial, but a way to escape from the feeling of loneliness imposed by society’s depersonalization of him. Having said that, one could conclude that, by the end of the book, the man quite literally becomes another version of Sisyphus himself; working endlessly for an uncertain goal, all while changing in accordance to his surroundings. As Kobo writes, “the change in sand corresponded to a change in himself.”
7. Kobo Got Style
Consequently, the next step would be for the headmaster to visit the police and inquire about forms for requesting an investigation. […] Full name: Niki Jumpei. Age: thirty-one. Height: five feet five inches […].
Now, I’d like to take a look at the author’s style. Not the brand of sunglasses he used to wear per se (which was definitely no Ray-Ban, by the way), but the manner in which the syntax is manipulated in favor of transmitting the most essential ideas of the novel. And yeah, I know that this can be a little boring but bear with me (that is, of course, if you’ve gotten this far already).
You see, there are some examples of personification, irony, and especially characterization that were particularly striking to me in these chapters. In regards to the quote mentioned, the addition of a missing person report as the very first mode in which we know what the man is called supports the idea that his name is irrelevant to the story as a whole.
As a result, the author alludes to a bigger meaning: in not willingly presenting his name – as part of, say, the relationship between the two central characters – Kobo Abe makes clear that we aren’t in the man’s exact situation because, perhaps, we might already be stuck in one very similar to it (gosh, this one hits particularly hard sometimes).
In not specifying his name, then, a subtle point is made that the man represents, well, us! “He thought he had worked for a consdierable time, but his digging had apparently had no results at all,” Kobo writes. And, truly, we have certainly all been there – feeling as if our effort isn’t paying off the way we want it to.
With that, there are some other literary techniques – notably irony and personification – that make subtle references to a larger meaning (like the lack of the man’s name and our ceaseless working routine). For instance, the house the man and the woman stay in is personified on Chapter 7: “The whole house seemed to let out a soulful shriek, as if mortally wounded […].” Thus, the author, along with not specifying the man’s name, also imposes emotion on the house he resides in, possibly arguing that the stability of the entire system – of the living standards of both the man and the woman, for example – is more important than that of the individual. The man can be neglected its name, but one’s house can’t be neglected its resilience.
Another example of personification is, more clearly, the sand: “only the sand was his enemy,” Kobo writes. Although it is relatively more subtle, the status of an enemy is labeled on, well, humans. Thereby, the bigger picture can be seen once more: the sand, similar to society, establishes an atmosphere in which you only work for the sake of being able to do exactly that.
Lastly, the instance of irony is best encapsulated in an intriguing phrase: “an avalanche of sand.” Out of all the possible emphasizing terms – “hoard,” “reservoir,” “mountain,” etc. – Kobo chose the most ironic one, reminding readers of snow rather than sand. Still, I see this choice as deliberate, since the imagery becomes way clearer.
9. Our One-Sided Reality
I rather think the world is like sand. The fundamental nature of sand is very difficult to grasp when you think of it in its stationary state. Sand not only flows, but this very flow is the sand.
According to mathematics, a Möbius strip is an object whose main property is its unorientable nature (and yes, this has to do with the book). It has no discernable end nor start, and its movement is its only mathematical certainty. On the chosen quote, it is interesting to note how the manner in which sand plays a role in the book – and just sand in real-life, in fact – is similar to the “Möbius circle” mentioned by the story’s moments of flashback. Notably, the man asks himself, in a meeting with some co-workers before going out into the dunes: “Had he meant that his man’s union life and his private life formed a Möbius circle?”
Stated differently, his co-worker’s life became an indistinguishable mix of a series of circumstances that involved it. At a moment’s notice, his life – just like the man’s journey in the dunes – became based on the neverending flow of its Möbius structure. Therefore, all of this goes to say that, in a Möbius-like existence, all that you do is premised on its flow; its ability to be the same no matter what aspect of your life is being dealt with at any particular moment.
In the above excerpt, I was reminded of one of Bruce Lee’s concepts in his mastery of Kung Fu. He used to say that, similar to sand, you have to act like water, for it has the unique ability of becoming something else, or part of its environment. “Water in a teacup,” he once said, “becomes the teacup.” Famously, he told people to always act like this substance (“be water, my friend,” he said). With that, the same can be said of sand and its flow: whatever it surrounds becomes that. Indeed, its flow is its life. The sand, then, necessarily provokes a Möbius-structured life to the man, in which he finds himself pursuing something that is linked to an even higher pursuit, and so on.
That said, the man eventually understands what his fixed condition should be while living a “Möbius life,” and that is, as he expresses, having to “experience a new sensation in order to appreciate new pain.” That’s because, according to the sand’s flow and the life it provides to the villagers, there is no definitive end to one’s pursuits, and pain is a crucial part of the motivating process attached to the arduous trajectory of, well, surviving. In abiding by this idea, the man becomes confident that he can one day escape, as he becomes comfortable enough to wait (since that’s what life is really about for him). Therefore, life becomes, according to him, more meaningful as we have less knowledge of it.
10. Where’s the Exit?
The single guard, like a withered tree in the wilderness, had stood guarding an illusion.
Towards the last chapters of the book, I understood that very much like the insects he sticks needles through, the man is a trapped animal. Indeed, he is a non-human creature who, according to the novel, “finally sees that the crack in the fence it was trying to escape through is in reality merely the entrance to its cage – like a fish who at last realized, after bumping its nose numberless times, that the glass of the goldfish bowl is a wall.” Interestingly, although the author’s metaphors masterfully describe the man’s condition, they also establish an irony between the ideas it represents and the context of the story. For example, whereas the man is a trapped “insect” of sorts, Kobo Abe alludes to freedom by continuously referring to fishes (and birds, too) even though they are trapped in his metaphors.
Most importantly, I mention this to explain how interpretive the above statement is – and essentially how, even though this is true, it can be summarized in one idea: the guard that lives outside the village protects the illusions that go through people’s minds (and especially the man’s). In other words, an all-encompassing view of the excerpt chosen is that, essentially, the “illusion” that the guard looks out for is ingrained in the minds of those in the village. It proves, in my view, that part of the process of adapting is to support certain illusions for the sake of one’s sanity.
Speaking about adaptability, the reader itself must – given the ambiguity of this quote – brainstorm its varying interpretations. Mainly, my inference is that the fire tower (where the guard stays) is “guarding an illusion” for it only ensures that the villagers know they’re being watched. It is, truly, a psychological tactic more than anything else (especially knowing that the sand obstructs the village’s view of it). The second conclusion I arrived at is that the man is representative of the guards since he’s protecting the notion that constant disapproval is better than acceptance.
11. The Thing that Devours All Things
You can’t spend time vertically. It’s an accepted fact that time really goes horizontally.
Along with the sand, the appearance of the wind in certain parts of the book alludes to the flow of time itself (“the wind was good for something,” he says). There are certain parts when the progression of time is a tool for physical transformation, connecting to a larger idea that “time heals all.” Interestingly, the man seems to be conscious of this fact – after all, he sees the transformative effect that the wind has on the sand’s surface; it cleans it, ensuring that it remains smooth and able to flow the way it’s supposed to. With that, just like the man’s footprints on the sand, he recognizes that the passing of time allows for things to heal. Even so, the problem in the protagonist’s life in the dunes arises not from his hopeless reliability on time, but the way he uses it – which leads me to the next point.
Through a general perspective, the man is overly-fixated on the means in which he can escape, and not the escape itself. This may seem obvious, but he’s not considering the circumstances that could entail his life once he reaches the point of escaping completely. With this, even though the man agrees that “indeed, time did seem to run horizontally,” the way he conducts himself is drastically different from the natural flow of time. Once more, his main mistake is that he is fixated on the details of what is, to him, an unknown atmosphere instead of utilizing those very same aspects to his advantage. In fact, perhaps this is why he is portrayed as an entomologist. That way, this error is less random – after all, his profession is based on analyzing his surroundings.
Consequently, the entomologist can only rely on instant gratification for him to avoid the negative aspects of conducting a vertically-structured life. Kobo writes that the beauty of sand “belonged to death,” describing that “it was the beauty of death that ran through the magnificence of its ruins and its great power of destruction.”
The sand’s flow, then, makes reference to the inevitable progression of time to an inescapable faith, which is essentially a product of our preoccupation in the means rather than the end; the vertical rather than the horizontal. Gosh, could this book be more existential?!
Loneliness was an unsatisfied thirst for illusion.
The meaning of this quote struck me as soon as I read it. It is so concisely presented that the realization came almost immediately. In essence, the illusion that the excerpt refers to is of our hope that life is less lonely with more people around us. Instead, even with accompaniment, every life is individually periled by the prospect of existential crises. In other words, company does not defy one’s loneliness. Therefore, it’s an illusion: we are all alone, whether as an individual unit or in groups. The illusionary effect comes from the flawed sense of hope that arises from feeling lonely, and I think nothing better represents this sentiment as the village – a community stranded in the middle of a desert. The narrator notes that “from the standpoint of the villagers, they themselves were the ones who had been abandoned. Naturally, there was no reason why they should be under obligation to the outside world,” meaning that, truly, the people in the village are isolated – both physically and psychologically.
The underlying effect of all of this loneliness is that the man has to necessarily abide by societal confines. For him, “it sounded all right to talk of hibernating, but had he changed into a mole and lost all desire to show his face in the sunlight again for the rest of his life?” And, to answer this question, I say “yes,” it’s true – especially when he can feel good with the stupidest of things. Truly, his inability to cause change is due to an increasing sense of personal apathy. Thereby, he – as I’d imagine everyone would, too – is attracted to things that instantly gratify him. For example, even when he tries to deal seriously with things, he, say, recalls “the expression on the horse’s face [and is] again seized with moronic laughter.” In a life of repetition and Sisyphean tasks, we are attracted by the things that provide us with an immediate sense of satisfaction.
Hence, the idea of thinking less and conforming more sounds cruel, yet it serves as a major coping strategy for the man. He even thinks, as he idiotically laughs: “There was no one anywhere around who would have cared whether he laughed stupidly or not.”
At the end of the book, the entomologist learns the necessary ability of self-denial. For him, not caring leads to a minimal degree of freedom; the bare minimum in order for him to be able to live comfortably. And, indeed, he loved Big Brother. (Oops, wrong book.)
You made it! Congratulations!
…I think it’s time for me to sleep now.