The Unwitting Anthropologist

by C. Omaña Villanueva

The NGY Review, February 23, 2020


Kobo Abe’s most famous book outside of Japan is examined here. Abe has been compared to Kafka, which is partly explored here. The Woman in the Dunes is considered a metaphor for life, whether that life was in post-war Japan or today. The aim here is to make sense of Abe’s very challenging and often detailed language. A multidisciplinary technique is used, incorporating a famous but dated theory from Anthropology to analyze the culture of the sand community where the main character is imprisoned. The theory, the layer cake model of culture, was developed by Leslie A. White in the 1940s and 50s. This analysis finds that much of the main character’s experience can be explained by the layer cake model. The model also reveals an alternative interpretation of the book which is not discussed in this paper but should be a focus of future studies. In addition, Kurt Vonegut’s famous lecture on a story’s shape is used as another model to measure the story. What is found is perhaps Abe’s original question about the book: is everything meaningless? 

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