The Choice of Identity

Thomas McCabe

The Choice of Identity word cloud

The opening of the 1964 film production of Abe Kobo’s The Woman in the Dunes begins with a gust of wind, the sound of cars, the noise of a train station and then a series of punching thuds like the fall of a stamp on paper.As the film credits cut in they are marked with groupings of Japanese hanko or personal stamps, used as the equivalent of a signature in Western culture. These images of personal stamps along with the official documents and commentaries that open and close the novel of the same name pose the identity of the individual as a construct of institutional definition and bureaucracy. The agency of the individual as a participant in the construction of their identity is suppressed by their obligations to an institution that in turn provides the appropriate documentation and designations to suit the particular nature of the citizen in question. It is this institutionally derived and obligatorily assumed definition of individual identity that both Abe Kobo’s Woman in the Dunes and Ayn Rand’s Anthem l seek to unravel by investigating the formation of identity outside of institutional constraint, identity that relies on personal definition.

Reading The Woman in the Dunes and Anthem as discussions of identity is not novel, but what this essay seeks to do is investigate the investigation: the structure of the virtual social experiments conducted by the two authors. In the former, Abe juxtaposes the man and woman in the sand pit as representations of institutional definition set against a more personally defined identity. In the latter, Rand allows the man, Equality 7-2521, to discover the remnants of a purposefully eradicated culture that leads him to question his lack of personal identity within his current communal society.

The sand dunes in which Abe's narrative unfolds reveal a prediction of what will result for both men: trapped in the bottom of the pit, the only way to survive the treacherous environment is for the man to abandon his theoretical understanding of the natures of sand and dunes, which constantly fails him, and aspire to an understanding created through experience in the same way that the woman is informed by her experience and thrives in the pit. Set apart from the institutions that previously defined him and made to shovel for the sake of the village the man cannot rely on his assumptions, but must use his experience to rebuild a new conception of sand and of himself. In the end, he allows himself to be intimate with the woman, against his prescribed notions of identity, which eventually leads to an opening for escape from the pit.As predicted, the break from institutional definition and the uptake of personal definition create the space for Abe’s male narrator and Equality 7-2521 to become fully self-actualized, which is the opportunity for escape, representative of a freedom of choice only afforded to a personally defined identity.Abe’s experiment predicts a conclusion through the metaphor of sand, juxtaposing the man and woman with their institutional and personal definitions of identity, concluding with the man’s personal definition of identity realized, and in total pointing to a freedom of choice not afforded to those rigidly fixed within an institutional identity.

To speak of Abe’s novel as an experiment that juxtaposes the two constructions of identity calls to mind what William Currie has described as:

…the conflict between the two kinds of kokyō, or “homeland”. There is the place where one was born, and there is the place or ground or foundation for living in such and such a way.The first meaning represents to Abe the everyday, the routine, the inauthentic life which one leads as part of the impersonal crowd of people that make up any community. It is this kokyō that one must reject in order to find the other kokyō: the true “home” of one’s existence. (Currie, 1)

His analysis of the novel discusses the role of sand as a central metaphor for the man’s search for this second kokyō.Unfortunately, the bulk of the analysis deals with how themes like the conflict of kokyō support this metaphor, rather than revealing what the use of sand in the novel says about the quest for the “true ‘home’”. However, for the purpose of elucidating a conclusion to this conflict, his description of these diametric identities as kokyō and his discussion of sand reflect the structure of what I have called Abe’s experiment.As Currie says, there is a necessary shift from an identity defined by the impersonal affiliations to his community to a personally derived

To read the novel as experiment is to follow the course of the shift reflected in Currie’s description of conflicting kokyō beginning with the initial, institutional identities that describe the man.The first indication that the man’s identity is first constructed by affiliation rather than personal construction comes from the fact that in the very instant he appears in the narrative he is absent.The first lines of the novel report him to be missing and the accounts of him that follow are testified by coworkers and other individuals to police in response to his disappearance. One account names him as one among many that go missing, a statistic. Murder is a possibility but changes to suicide once a colleague, “claimed that in a grown man enthusiasm for such a useless pastime as collecting insects was evidence enough of a mental quirk,” 一人前の大人になって、いまさら昆虫採集などという役にも立たないことに熱中できるのは、それ自体がすでに精神の欠陥を示す証拠だというわけだ(4, 6)[1][2].The only information given, and thus the only means to construct the identity of the man, consists of very few hard facts and all are contextualized by the personal opinions of the person reporting. For example, his coworker psychoanalyzes his insect-collecting hobby as evidence of some sort of mental disturbance and in turn labels him as suicidal.The identity of the man is not his own, is left to people who are acquaintances at best and is indisputable because the man is excluded from his own definition. However, even when the man physically enters the narrative his self-identification as an amateur entomologist is not a product of personal design but is the result of assimilating a prefabricated notion of what an entomologist ought to be.

In our first encounter with the physical man, the narrator describes him as an ordinary public school teacher traveling on his vacation to a remote coastal area in search of insects. He is looking for any new species that he may be able to find, collect, catalog, and thus be able to publish; attempting to make something more of his mundane life. Labeling himself as an entomologist he aspires to a dream that is not his own but one inherent to, “the true entomologist’s pleasure…that of discovering a new type…His efforts…[will be] crowned with success if his name is perpetuated in the memory of his fellow men by being associated with an insect,” 昆虫採集には[...]新種の発言というやつである[...]人々の記憶の中にとどまれるとすれば、努力のかいもあるというものだ(10,12). In turn, his own definition comes more through the description and identification of a beetle than through the reliance on any quality of the man.He is more concerned with the the accomplishment of making it into the encyclopedia itself than he is about what insect he finds. One of the more ingenious aspects of Abe’s experimental design is the use of this get-rich-quick attitude of the man to lure him into the sand dunes and into the shifting reality of sand that exposes the artifice of his identity.The man’s initial understanding of the sand brings him to the bottom of the sand pit and juxtaposes him with the woman who resides there.

In search of beetles, the man takes a bus out into the alien scenery of rising and falling sand dunes. There is sand everywhere and he notes the encroaching dunes which threaten to swallow up the houses of the village he passes.He reasons that the constantly shifting sand creates the perfect environment to find the new ‘types’ of insect he is looking for. “These creatures [are] able to escape competition through their great ability to adjust,” 強い適応能力を利用して、競争圏外のがれた生き物たちだ (15, 18) taking on new variations that allow them to survive in what seems to be a completely inhospitable landscape. However, finding nothing this first day, he attempts to return home but is obliged to stay in the village over night after missing the last bus.With the promise of a bed for the night the man is led to a deep pit of sand with a small, dilapidated house nestled below. Climbing down a rope ladder he meets the single inhabitant of the house: a middle-aged woman who is only referred to as ‘the woman’. It is at this point: in his first interactions with the woman and in the blossoming realization of his entrapment that a new definition of the sand arises; a definition opposed to the man’s scientific understanding that has brought him to the sand dunes and that speaks to the future course of his stay at the bottom of the sand pit.

The man soon finds that his vision of sand only glosses its true identity as a shifting entity. The sand pervades everything in the novel, getting in every bodily orifice, working its way through the tiniest cracks in the walls, steadily sifting down in every direction, and always in need of more sweeping up.The terrain that at first glance seems too harsh for any life to survive, gives way to a system far too complex for the man’s textbook definition of sand to encompass. To the man, the sand is subject to a strictly scientific definition and a product of rational calculation. Citing an encyclopedia he reasons that, “the barrenness of sand, as it is usually pictured, was not caused by simple dryness, but apparently due to the ceaseless movement that made it inhospitable to all living things,”砂の不毛は、ふつう考えられているように、単なる乾燥のせいなどではなく、その絶えざる流動によって、いかなる生物をも、一切うけつけようとしない点にあるらしいのだ (14-15, 17). On the other hand, because of her experience living at the bottom of the sand pit the woman identifies not only the motion of the dry sand but a stationary modality of the sand that resists the singular definition of the man.

During the day the sand is dry and moves freely, but as she says, in the night, “the sand soaks up a lot of fog. When salty sand is full of fog, it gets hard like starch,” 「砂も、もうたっぷり、霧もすっていますからね......塩っけのある砂は、霧を吸うと、糊みたいに固まってしまうんですよ...... (36, 42) bringing to light an identity unrecognized by the man.While the man’s technical understanding denies the ability to exist in such a hostile environment, the village’s experience allows them to at least survive.Taking advantage of the nightly hardening of the sand, the village shovels to prevent their houses from being consumed by the ever migrating sand dunes.The true
nature of sand aspires to both definitions, and the recognition of a holistic identity provides the means to survive in the sand dunes.The opposition of the sand’s definitions reflects the conflict of identity the man is faced with and predicts that much like his technical definition, which fails in the face of actual experience, an institutional identity must be abandoned giving way to a ‘truer’ existence.

The triumph of experience in the sand dunes reflects the need for a shift in identity away from institutional prescriptions and towards an identity structured by personal experience. In terms of talking about the novel as experiment this is the prediction, the hypothesis put forward by observing the sand dunes. But what remains to be seen of this affirmation is how it applies outside the context of the sand pit. Immediately, since the man has found himself trapped in the pit it is understandable that his rigid definitions of sand must be altered if he does not want to be swallowed by an unkempt sand dune. However, if he was at least mildly satisfied with his life before the sand pit—he had a job, hobbies, a life—what benefits are there in completely extricating himself from institutional definitions? Susan Napier provides a starting point for answering this question in her book, The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature.

In a chapter named “The dystopian imagination”, Napier tracks the appearance and nature of dystopia in Japanese literature. She says that, “dystopian literature is ‘message fiction,’ and the message is one of alarm and warning,” (183). My task here is not to suggest that the novel fits under this classification as Napier even says that, “The Woman in the Dunes is more an allegory, an extended variation of Sisyphus, than a fully realized dystopian critique,” (202). However, in attempting to give a more compelling answer to what the sand, as prediction, indicates about identity in general, it is helpful to look at a work of ‘message fiction’ that creates its dystopian critique around the problem of institutional and personally constructed identity. Ayn Rand’s Anthem provides such a connection.

By observing the shift from institutional identity to self-affirming definition in Anthem we will be able to extrapolate the predicted oppression at the hands of rigid definition and the liberty that appears once identity is self-affirmed. Set in the future, Ayn Rand constructs her 1937 novella as the recorded history of a man, Equality 7-2521, a citizen of a worldwide and collective society that has obliterated the notion of the individual. The collective, as an institution, has complete control over every citizen from where they live and the job they have even as far as the exact schedule of their day. From birth, individuals are taught to think, speak, and write as the collective using the pronouns ‘we’ and ‘us’ in place of the singular ‘I’. Not only is the notion of individually defined identity removed, but also to even transgress from the wishes of the collective is punishable to the point of being publicly burned at the stake. The text seems to say that in the process of removing individual identity the collective has also banned any notion of modern technology.Candles are a new invention, scholars have proven that the earth is flat and that the sun revolves around it, and the oldest members only live into their forties; medical technology has been reduced to medieval bleedings.

The man, chosen by the collective to become a street sweeper comes upon an abandoned subway tunnel, a relic made by the ‘Evil Ones’ in the ‘Unmentionable Times’. Rather than reporting it to the proper authorities and staying away as is mandated, he knowingly enters and explores the tunnel.In short, he discovers electricity in the tunnel and thinking that he will be honored for his finding, brings it before a council of scholars.Instead, he is accused of transgressing the will of the collective, which is punishable by death, and rather than accept his punishment as prescribed, he flees into the forest knowing that no one will follow; it is forbidden.

Having come so far as to trespass into the tunnel, think independently, and finally leave without permission he steals across the wilderness. In the end he is met by a woman, Liberty 5-3000 who he first meets earlier in the novel and who shares a similar curiosity for breaking the rules. Against the mandates of the collective they both allow themselves to be attracted to each other and so when Liberty 5-3000 hears that Equality 7-2521 has left she follows after him. They travel far from the city that once held them captive and come across a house from the ‘Unmentionable Times’. From the books and other items they find in the house they learn about life before the creation of the collective and finally the word ‘I’.

The inherent warning that Napier describes in this case is the danger of allowing an institution to become the full arbiter of identity. This warning is taken to the extreme in Anthem, and personal constructions of identity are removed completely, limiting the individual to the will of a collective that has reverted to an archaic existence. Finding his escape and his identity then only answerable to his own personal definition, Equality 7-2521 says,

I look upon the history of men, which I have learned from the books, and I wonder. It was a long story and the spirit which moved it was the spirit of man’s freedom…There is nothing to take a man’s freedom away from him, save other men. To be free, a man must be free of his brothers. (101)

In the resolution of the dystopian nightmare of the collective, Ayn Rand provides the solution to the opposition of identities in The Woman in the Dunes. The ‘freedom’ that is promised within institutions like the cosmopolitan society the man is segregated from or the scholastic communities that he subscribes to cannot match the freedom that comes from liberating himself from his fellow man. What then remains are the results of Abe’s experiment of juxtaposing the man and woman in the sand pit and whether the promise of a truer sense of freedom, as predicted in the image of the sand, will prove true for the man.In much the same way that the discovery of a new technology and the acknowledgement of his sexual desires help to motivate Equality 7-2521 to leaving, the man in The Woman in the Dunes is also able to remove his attachments from the cosmopolitan life he once led and in turn is afforded the opportunity of a truer freedom.

A large majority of Abe’s novel is dedicated to the man’s attempts to escape the pit, but what eventually sets him free is the loosening of institutional ties to his identity and the uptake of personal definition. This happens in two ways: the first is his invention of a device that is able to draw clean water from the sand, and the second is his sexual encounters with the woman, resulting in his ability to quit the sand dunes. The final section of the novel comes upon the man already having been captive of the sandy village for about three months. Not only have the looming sand walls and patrolling guards of villagers prevented him from escaping thus far, but he also now participates fully in the task of shoveling sand. The villagers have, on more than one occasion, stopped the flow of food and fresh water into the bottom of the pit when he refused to continue working for their cause. In another scheme to escape, he constructs a type of sand trap meant to lure in crows. He reasons that if he were able to capture one he would be able to tie a note to it with the hope that someone would find the note and come to his rescue (212). He never catches a crow, but his new technology is revealed to have an extra function he had not originally anticipated.

The ability of the sand trap to capture fresh water becomes a similar means of instigating the creation of personal identity as the discovery of electricity is for Equality 7-2521. In the process of changing the uneaten crow-bait, the man finds the trap is full of fresh water. The possibility of not only capturing fresh water from the sand, but also storing it gives the man the ability to rise above a reliance on the village’s rations, thus freeing him from their control over his actions.What becomes unique about this attempt at escape from the sand dunes is that up until this point all his other actions rely upon the power of another.

As with the crow trap, he puts his hope in a rationalization that does not actually manifest as he assumes it will; salvation never appears from outside the sandpit. But as Equality 7-2521 takes his discovery and runs from the institution that would destroy it, Abe’s man begins to experiment in secret with this new understanding of surviving in the sands: one of his own creation and assertion. Interestingly then, “the technology upon which [the water pump] depends is not osmosis: [it] is a rhetorical device. If it gives the man an advantage over the villagers, it is not a practical one, but an advantage of imagination,” (Bolton 190). Again, he gives up hope in an outside party to create a means to personal definition as the sole bearer of an understanding of the water pump; all born from his own imagination.However, the final means of removing his identity from institutional definition, creating a self-affirmed identity and ultimately creating the opportunity for an escape is his sexual relations with the woman.

The man, overcoming any fears he had of breaking his prescribed understanding of fidelity and integrity, gives way to his desire for the woman; this is the eventual opening for freedom.In the first days of his capture he suspects that the villagers and the woman have caught him in some sort of conspiracy to force him to cooperate.

He couldn't relax his guard. Her charms were like some meat-eating plan, purposely equipped with the smell of sweet honey. First she would sow the seeds of scandal by bringing him to an act of passion, and then the chains of blackmail would bind him hand and foot.


(91, 100)

As Carl Cassegård describes, “In… this fear of desire, we have the state of inauthenticity… [His] authenticity would consist in his ability, through a ‘free choice’, to affirm his desire for the feared sandwoman without having to sacrifice his self-integrity,” (158-9).To confirm the arrival of this ‘authenticity’—in other words personal definition—and also access ultimate freedom of choice is his coupling with the woman.

In the time following his discovery of the water-drawing capability of the sand trap, the man, having gained a hold of his personal identity, finally gives into his once hindered desires for the woman.As a result, she becomes pregnant but suffers what one villager diagnoses as an extra-uterine pregnancy that warrants her removal from the pit (238). In their rushed evacuation, the villagers inadvertently leave behind the rope ladder and the man unattended. His abandonment of institutionally motivated fear and the affirmation of his personal desires create the opportunity for him to escape. Nevertheless, the notion of a true freedom actually comes in the equal opportunity he is afforded to stay.

Carl Cassegård says, “he seems to opt for a new life with [the woman], staying on voluntarily in the village despite an opportunity to escape,” (158). William Currie suggests the man, “found new life in the discovery that he could produce water from sand with his own invention,” (16). Susan Napier notes that, “the protagonist is finally given a chance to escape but decides not to,” (202). Another critic, John Whittier Treat states that, “Once he ignores the rope ladder dangling before him, he has clearly chosen that variety of monotony over the other,” (466). But against all of these readings I would posit that the course of the experiment yields the conclusion that the man has gained the ultimate freedom: the choice to stay or to go. To return to society as the man, Niki Junpei, as it is revealed in the final pages, to remain in the village and continue is work on the once sand trap now water pump, or to escape and take on any number of new identities at the will of his personal desire.

In any case, “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,” べつに、あわてて逃げだしたりする必要はないのだ。いま、彼の手のなかの往復切符には、考えてみれば、戻る場所も、本人の自由に書きこめる余白になって空いている。 (239, 266). True freedom, created from relinquishing the hold of other men on his identity, is created in the space of a newly formed identity, born out of personal desire and the individual creativity.

The juxtaposition of the man and woman in the sand pit as a social experiment exploring the opposition between institutional and personal definitions of identity affirms the hypothesis first put forward in the image of the sand. Furthermore, Equality 7-2521’s discovery of the remnants of an earlier culture lead to a corresponding confirmation of the hypothesis. Institutional definition must be abandoned in favor of personally constructed identity which in turn affords the self-affirmed individual the ability to gain a true sense of freedom of choice. The true nature of the sand forces the man to change his previous understanding of it in order to survive. In turn, this same abandoning of institutional definition and the creating of a more personal identity in his sand-trap project and self-affirmation of his desire for the woman produce a means of escape. In the same way, the oppressing routine of his collective life drives Equality 7-2521 to wander, finally leading him to the tunnel where he comes across previously lost knowledge that acts as a catalyst to his eventual abandonment of the institution. As his former society provided him with all facets of his identity, the choice to escape becomes the ultimate act of self-identification. While the triumph of Equality 7-2521 is a compelling case for loosening the hold of institutions over identity, it is not always the case that an individual is afforded the means to make such an escape. Turning to the close of Abe’s novel the man has become a member of another institution in the structure of the village, but the opportunity for escape in itself is a far more important conclusion to be drawn from the experiment than any notion of him choosing one life over the other. We may speculate about whether he stays or leaves, yet what is certain is that his original institution no longer recognizes his existence saying that, “Niki Junpei is hereby declared missing,”仁木順平を失踪者とする (240, 268).





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Random House, 1991.

Bolton, Christopher. Sublime Voices: The Fictional Science and Science Fiction of

Abe Kōbō.

Cambridge (Massachusetts) and London: Harvard University Press. 2009.

Cassegård, Carl. Shock and Naturalization in Contemporary Japanese Literature.

United Kingdom: Global Oriental, 2007.

Currie, William. “Abe Kobo’s Nightmare World of Sand.” Approaches to the Modern

Japanese Novel. Ed. Kinya Tsuruta and Thomas E. Swann. Tokyo: Monumenta

Nipponica, 1976. 1-18.

Napier, Susan J. The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature: The Subversion of


London: Routledge, 1996.

Rand, Ayn. Anthem. New York: Signet-Penguin, 1995.

Treat, John W. “The Woman in the Dunes.” Masterworks of Asian Literature in

Comparative Perspective: A Guide for Teaching. Ed. Barbara Stole Miller. New

York: M.E. Sharpe, 1994. 457-469.



[1] All references to Abe’s text are cited with the page number of the English translation followed by that of the original Japanese. (Eng., Jap.)

[2] All translations appear in E. Dale Saunders’ translation, The Woman in the Dunes, 1991.