Summertime is a good time to revisit existentialism. For those who need more than sun and surf, reading about the inevitable futility of life may be just the remedy for all the giddiness around you.
Abé tells the story of a an insect collector who travels to a remote seaside village to chase bugs. In his determination to catch a particular beetle, he wanders into a village and is unknowingly trapped by the local villagers. He is given lodging at a young widow’s home for the night, and finds he cannot escape at daybreak. He is held captive with the woman at the bottom of a vast sand pit, and sentenced to shoveling sand constantly brought in from the windblown dunes.
The novel intertwines both suspense and existentialism, as we follow the man in his efforts to escape that are consistently thwarted. His relationship to the woman is complicated, as he tries to dominate her and keep himself from falling for her. He is both repulsed and attracted by her. Ensnared physically by her sex, he is disgusted with her unwillingness to fight for her freedom. It is only until he realizes the futility of the situation that he to cowers to the powers that be.
And who are those powers? His foes are nature (the sand dunes that threaten to envelop the village), which is uncontrollable, as well as the villagers, who have set up a system of slavery utilizing the disadvantages that nature has provided.
The book is fascinating both for its narrative (Like Albert Camus’s The Stranger, the writing is precise and exact: there is not one word over the necessary), searing clarity, and for its underlying theme as the man plots and fails to escape time after time. It supports the theory that food and shelter are primordial, and that only after the most basic human needs have been met can man begin to pose and ponder intellectual questions. His spirit is broken, and in this he realizes the futility of his situation. When proposed with freedom, his decision is stunning. One passage reads as such: "Suddenly a sorrow the color of dawn welled up in him. They might as well lick each other's wounds. But they would lick forever, and the wounds would never heal, and in the end their tongues would be worn away."
As in Camus’s essay "The Myth of Sisyphus", man pushes a boulder to the top of the mountain, only to have it kicked back down by the gods. Man starts again from the beginning. It is futile, yes, but by continuing, man’s humanity is proved. It’s in this realization of futility and man’s unwillingness to accept it from which existentialism draws its lifeblood.
This classic Japanese novel written in 1960 exemplifies the modern existentialist movement that began in France. As both were devastated by World War II, Abé and Albert Camus’s work take on particular significance regarding futility. In The Stranger man is sentenced to death and in The Woman in the Dunes he is sentenced to live. Neither possibility makes a difference.
A film (of the same title) based on the novel was made by Hiroshi Teshigahara and won the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1963.