“The most frightening thing in the world is to discover the abnormal in that which is closest to us.”

woman in the dunesThe Brown Baggers met on Thursday, February 20 to discuss Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes.

Considered one of the greatest Japanese novels of the twentieth century, The Woman in the Dunes is a surreal, existential exploration of the individual in a modern, post-WWII society. Abe’s protagonist, who remains unnamed until the end of the story, is an amateur entomologist exploring the seaside for new species of beetles. When he is invited to stay with one of the villagers for the night, he is led down a steep sand dune to find a woman living in a run-down house half-buried by sand. During the night, two shovels and a bucket are delivered from the top of the dune and the woman begins to dig the sand that has fallen into the pit. When a ladder does not appear the next day to carry the man out of the pit, he realizes he is imprisoned with this woman and they must shovel the sand every night or else die of dehydration. In this nightmarish allegory similar in tone to works by Abe’s idols Franz Kafka and Edgar Allen Poe, the man comes to terms with living in a world of “ceaseless and mindless labor.”

Abe leaves much of the story’s ending open to interpretation and the Brown Baggers had a lively debate over the allegory’s lessons. The main character, who we later learn is named Niki Junpei, is a self-involved person who believes he can outsmart his captors. However, his arrogance slowly abates when he accepts to work for the greater good rather than himself. The group also questioned whether or not Junpei connects with the community by the end of the novel. Is he content where he is at or will he attempt to escape again? Some believed that now that Junpei has a routine and thus a purpose, he is satisfied with his new life.

The group was also unsure what to make of the character who shares her home with Junpei and is referred to only as “the woman.” They were confused by her erratic behavior and felt that her portrayal as a second class citizen, although accurate for the time period in which the novel was written, reads as outdated and misogynistic to today’s audience. 

Despite the lingering questions, many of the Brown Baggers enjoyed this challenging book. The Woman in the Dunes continues to intrigue with its mysteries and forces readers to question the role of the individual in modern society.

Film version (English subtitles not available)

Also mentioned:

Jean-Paul Sarte – No Exit

David Guterson – Snow Falling on Cedars

The Brown Baggers will meet again on Thursday, March 12 to discuss Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming.

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