On Kobo Abe’s “The Woman in the Dunes”

7 Feb

The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe begins quietly, and its decent into madness is so subtle you may not even notice you’re losing your sanity, too, right along with Niki Junpei, while trapped at the bottom of a sandpit.

Not many writers can convey claustrophobia and desperation the way Kobo Abe can. In his iconic The Woman in the Dunes, Abe paints a nightmarish picture: a teacher with a bug-collecting hobby goes looking for a rare beetle in the sand dunes of the ocean shore, and finds himself trapped in a pit like the prey of an ant-lion. His only means of survival is to dig through the night to keep from being buried alive by the sand storms during the day. With him is a solitary, unnamed woman who has lived in a shack at the bottom of the pit her whole life and knows nothing but the endless labor of shoveling sand. Neither man nor woman can escape their Sisyphean task. They can barely survive. They cling to fragments of their shattered sanity. Welcome to the freaky, freaky mind of Kobo Abe.

Written in a close third-person perspective, The Woman in the Dunes gives readers a peak in the mind of the teacher, Niki Junpei. He is the only character who receives a name. He is a man who falls from a life in which he obsesses over beetles to a life in which he obsesses over escape. Junpei’s best means of escape is entreating the villagers who live on the surface of the sand, controlling supplies of water and food to Junpei, the woman, and dozens of others trapped in various pits along the shore. Junpei’s communication with the villagers waffles between threats for illegally detaining him and quiet, apparent submission. His refusal to dig the sand is met by the villagers withholding food and water, and all attempts to escape fail. Slowly Junpei’s will dissolves, under the constant gaze of the villagers and rotted away by the constantly shifting sands around him.

“More than iron doors, more than walls, it is the tiny peephole that really makes the prisoner feel locked in.”

I find the book difficult to describe, because it’s like trying to retell a bizarre dream you had. No one can understand the feeling of surreal eeriness, the unexpected and unbelievable scenarios of one’s own dream. Likewise, Junpei refuses to accept the nature of his enslavement for much of the story because of how unlikely it all is.

Eiji Okada

The 1964 film adaptation of The Woman in the Dunes, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, was nominated for best director and best foreign language film by the Academy. Eiji Okada played the frantic, desperate Niki Junpei.

The Woman in the Dunes is suspenseful and frightening, but it goes beyond a simple horror story. Amid the fear and claustrophobia that Junpei experiences, Abe embeds scenes of absolute sensuality. The sand, a character in and of itself, is pervasive. It’s in the man’s and woman’s hair and mouths and eyes. It sneaks into the food they eat. It collects in the folds of their clothing, and slowly rots the wood of their shack. It chafes the skin and grinds on the tongue. With his senses constantly assaulted by the sand, it’s no wonder Junpei and the nameless woman become entangled in a dangerous, violent relationship. These are Abe’s talents: displaying horror on multiple levels, taking normal activities and transforming them into mortal dangers, making you feel desperation along with his characters. This is no light read, but I encourage everyone to check it out. Just be prepared for The Woman in the Dunes to take you to a dark place and leave you there with no ladder out.

“Assuming that man has a soul, it must, in all likelihood, be housed in the skin.”

If for any reason, read the novel to see the illustrations of Machi Abe.

If for any reason, read the novel to see the illustrations of Machi Abe.


One Response to “On Kobo Abe’s “The Woman in the Dunes””


  1. LitBeetle’s Top 10 Books of 2014 | litbeetle - January 6, 2015

    […] bottom of a sand pit where he must continuously shovel sand to keep from being buried alive.   Read the Review   Buy the Book   Go to […]

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