1/ In the previous blog post, I wrote about a rough sex scene in The Woman in the Dunes.
Near the end of the novel, there’s a rape attempt that I’m not going to quote here.
Unpleasantness aside, I note that the first time Kobo Abe describes Niki Jumpei and the woman having sex, he goes on a long rant about spiritual rape and psychological venereal disease and the Mobius man and all such theoretical gibberish; the second time it’s rough, aggressive sex that is cut off because the woman’s in pain; and the third time it’s not sex but a rape attempt in front of an audience. No affection, no passion. The sex is always devoid of pleasure.
The teacher also becomes worse and worse over time—more selfish, more irrational and thoughtless, more violent and brutal, and more like an animal. His life is gradually reduced to basic needs, and he slowly turns into an animal.
Look at this moment when he’s caught by the villagers because he sinks in the sand and has to yell for help:
“His dreams, desperation, shame, concern with appearances—all were buried in the sand. And so, he was completely unmoved when their hands touched his shoulders. If they had ordered him to, he would have dropped his trousers and defecated before their very eyes.” (Ch.26)
That is intense.
It’s not surprising that a few chapters later, he’s so desperate to be allowed to go out of the hole and breathe some fresh air that he’s willing to have sex with the woman in front of the villagers, and when she doesn’t want to do so, he forces himself on her. After several months at the bottom of the sand dune, he no longer has any sense of privacy, any sense of dignity and shame.
2/ People generally talk about existentialist themes in The Woman in the Dunes, and in a way I can see why. Take this passage, when Niki Jumpei’s looking at a newspaper:
“There wasn’t a single item of importance. A tower of illusion, all of it, made of illusory bricks and full of holes. If life were made up only of important things, it really would be a dangerous house of glass, scarcely to be handled carelessly. But every day was exactly like the headlines. And so everybody, knowing the meaninglessness of existence, sets the center of his compass at his own home.” (Ch.13)
His life in the dunes is repetitive and meaningless, but wasn’t his life repetitive and meaningless before, as a teacher? Weekend every 7 days, exams every few months, and so on and so forth.
The novel also explores ideas such as existentialist angst, alienation, identity, despair, etc.
What I find a lot more interesting is the theme of bondage and exploitation, and the relationship between him and the village, or rather, the complete control the village has over him—they’re always watching, they always have the advantage, and they always win. This is a job that he has never chosen, which turns into lifelong servitude, a job that yields nothing useful, nothing beneficial for society.
3/ Look at this scene, after Niki Jumpei’s attempt to escape. The woman is outside shovelling sand, he is in the house watching a spider near the lamp, which he doesn’t understand—why would a spider be drawn to a lamp? Then a moth appears, attracted to the light, and Niki Jumpei, like the jerk that he is, burns it with his cigarette and the spider happily grabs the moth.
“He had not known there were spiders like this. How clever to use the lamp in place of a web. In a web it could only wait passively, but with the lamp it could engage its prey. However, a suitable light was the prerequisite of the method. It was impossible to get such a light naturally. […] Could this be a new species of spider, then, that had developed its instincts by evolving with man? […] But, in that case, how could you explain the attraction of a moth for light?” (Ch.27)
He then goes on:
“If a law appeared without reason, like this, what could one believe in?” (ibid.)
4/ In the end, the water trap gives Niki Jumpei power, or rather, the illusion of power. It gives him an occupation, a distraction, a sense of purpose.
Why then does he return to the hole? Habit perhaps. Like the woman, he’s now used to the life at the bottom of the sand dune. He gets out for a walk but the sea air that he has long yearned for isn’t as nice as he imagined. He has changed, and would have to “start from the beginning” if coming back to his old life and seeing the other woman and his former colleagues.
“The change in the sand corresponded to a change in himself. Perhaps, along with the water in the sand, he had found a new self.” (Ch.31)
But the main thing is the water trap. It gives him the illusion of power, the illusion of choice and freedom.
“There was no particular need to hurry about escaping. On the two-way ticket he held in his hand now, the destination and time of departure were blanks for him to fill in as he wished.” (ibid.)
In his life as a teacher, did he have the two-way ticket? Did he have the freedom to get out? He has longed to get out, only to fall into another trap, a more repetitive life, but now he thinks he has the choice—he accepts a life of servitude because of the illusion of choice, he just never chooses escape.