The Book That Made Me Realize I Was a Mansplainer—And Saved My Marriage

The protagonist of Kōbō Abe’s ‘The Woman in the Dunes’ is a huge jerk, and reading about him made me realize that I was too

Novel Gazing is Electric Literature’s personal essay series about the way reading shapes our lives. This time, we asked: What’s a book that made you fall in love?

You already know the efficient neologism “mansplaining,” but let me tell you about it anyway. The word has bite, immediate resonance, self-definition, and even a dash of humor. It carries a critical weight behind it like a sledgehammer yet delicately situates a reader in context. It is powerful, one-word, informative. Merriam-Webster name-checks it in their “Words We’re Watching” section, claiming it is “clearly not going to be dropping out of use anytime soon.”

As you can tell from my mansplanation of mansplaining, I have a tendency to mansplain. Given that most men do annoying things much more than they realize, I probably mansplain more often than I think. And, just as a bullshitter knows one, a mansplainer knows his own kind, even if in another time and on another continent. Sometimes, it’s only another mansplainer who can save us from ourselves. This is why I am smitten with Kōbō Abe’s unlikable protagonist in his allegorical 1962 masterpiece, The Woman in the Dunes — not just because I recognize him, but because recognizing him helped me be a better partner.

Though the novel was a best-seller and translated into twenty languages, it was made even more famous by the 1964 movie filmed by Japanese-Renaissance director Hiroshi Teshigahara, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes and two Oscar nominations. The movie made a splash for its sexuality, the film poster showing a couple, mid-coitus, sprawled across sand. Like the film (also written by Abe), the novel Woman in the Dunes is remarkable for its profile of an inveterate mansplainer who meets his reckoning in a bright-but-bleak desert, a place that cleanses him and holds up a sandy mirror to see his own pompous face.

Jumpei is a teacher and beetle collector, obsessed with finding rare and beautiful things and killing them and showing his colleagues to make them jealous. The man is unenthusiastic about his job, his life, and thinks, “Rarely will you meet anyone so jealous as a teacher. Year after year students tumble along like the waters of a river. They flow away, and only the teacher is left behind, like some deeply buried rock at the bottom of the current.”

I too am a teacher and was one when I read this book in 2008 while living in Japan. I taught English and felt, as Abe’s narrator does and as I assume many teachers do, the Sisyphean exhaustion of pushing children up a knowledge curve only to watch them cartwheel back down. And, perhaps like many teachers, I thought I’d be doing something else at that point in my life (I’d wanted to be an outdoor guide). The conflict between my career fantasy and my often thankless reality caused me to internalize failure. This, coupled with standard, toxic, masculine expectations bred in West Texas, created anxieties I was only fleetingly aware of. Unconsciously, I went looking for an outlet.

I was already engaged to the person, Yumiko, who would be my partner for the next ten years and counting (she knew more than I, it turned out, about Sisyphean labor). I was still at that post-adolescent-still-really-adolescent stage of finding a well-fitting partner but doubting my luck, and I kept trying to fill that Grand Canyon-sized insecurity with obstinate proclamations of knowledge. My favorite tactic was talking over her. Abe’s book didn’t help me see commitment more clearly, but it did help me understand the kind of asshole I was being as we planned our wedding and Yumiko’s immigration to America.

Abe’s book didn’t help me see commitment more clearly, but it did help me understand the kind of asshole I was being.

At my most un-self-aware moment, I remember mansplaining something about the kanji alphabet to Yumiko. I’d been studying Japanese for a year, and one day there I was, in a car on the way to a venue we were considering for our wedding, trying to mansplain to a native Japanese person something I’d just heard on Japanesepod101. If I’d been listening to myself, I would have realized that I sounded just like Jumpei.

To cure his malaise, Jumpei takes frequent trips to wildernesses to collect bugs. He travels to the coast of West Japan, hoping to find a rare beetle he has not yet cataloged. Approached by seaside villagers, Jumpei asks where he can stay for the night, and they bring him to a house bundled in steep dunes that are hundreds of feet tall. A rope ladder must be used to descend into the home. There he finds the woman of the title. Then the rope ladder is removed, and he is not allowed to leave.

The villagers’ designs are for Jumpei to take up with the woman and help her shovel the sand that nightly cascades into her home, preventing the thatched dwelling from collapsing, which would directly lead to the collapse of the village nearby. Logically, the plot makes little sense. Why are the woman and the village forced to live among dunes? Why would the village collapse? Why would the man not be able to climb sand? Film director Teshigahara found constructing steep enough dunes to make the predicament believable almost impossible.

The plot creates a parable for coupled struggle, something Abe knew well. Before the publication of this bleak novel, which ironically made him rich, Abe was living hand-to-mouth, selling vegetables and charcoal with his wife, an artist, in recently fire-bombed Tokyo.

Abe is clearly interested in allegory. Though Jumpei has a name, he is almost always referred to in the book as “the man.” Likewise, his eponymous companion is simply “the woman.” This helps make the characters purified, sterile, like the sand they are surrounded by. Their namelessness helps the novel rise into parable.

It is ironic that Abe’s protagonist is held against his will, made to do arduous chores, and yet I am rooting against him. To survive, the woman and man receive supplies from masked, elderly villagers from above, who lower water, food, cigarettes, and sake, and haul up the sand. They sell the sand, cheaply, to construction companies to make cement. It is not clear whether the woman’s descent into the dunes was a trick or her choice, but she has accepted her condition, and would not escape. Her former husband and child are buried there, she tells the man. She participates in the capture of Jumpei because she must. “Well, life here is really too hard for a woman alone,” she tells him. Alone, she cannot shovel enough sand to stay ahead of the drifts. The woman has accepted fate, but Jumpei has not. That first morning, he refuses to help. Then he starts on the action that defines him in the book.

Mansplainers are legion. It might be, and probably is, that every man who has ever talked to a woman is guilty of it. But Jumpei takes this to another level. He argues with the woman, yells at her about her living, about her goals, her house, her body, her food, all the work she has to do to keep the sand from waving over her home. He mansplains radios. He mansplains the effects of heat. He starts to explain dishwashing. He mansplains why the villagers give them sake. He mansplains that she is a victim of the villagers’ action as much as he, even though she demurs. He says, “‘What are you hesitating for? Come on, I’m not the only one concerned. You’re as much a victim as I am, aren’t you? Well, aren’t you?’” He goes on to explain what he has no intimate knowledge of, but which she obviously does. Jumpei, in a feat all mansplainers should admire, mansplains sand:

I’ve done some research on sand; I’m especially interested in it. That’s why I made it a point to come to a place like this. Sand has a strange fascination for people today. There’s a way of taking advantage of this. The place can be developed as a new sight-seeing spot, for example.

He drones on, sandsplaining. The woman closes her eyes, bearing his diatribe, before revealing the reason his musings are ridiculous: There is nothing to invest in a tourism industry with. David Mitchell, writing in The Guardian, suggests that village in Woman in the Dunes is populated with burakumin, “hamlet people,” or Japan’s traditional lowest caste, often made to do work like shovel shit all day and butcher animals. They are engaged in a class war for survival that upper-crusters like Jumpei hardly acknowledge.

He mansplains radios. He mansplains the effects of heat. Jumpei, in a feat all mansplainers should admire, mansplains sand.

I didn’t catch this dynamic on first read, but it makes the novel snap into focus. The woman, whether or not she chooses to be in the dunes, doesn’t matter. She clearly is trapped, perhaps by the memory of her family, by her status as a burakumin, or by the concern she has for the other villagers. Yet the man is uncomprehending, uncompassionate, spiteful. She makes him meal after meal, sprouts an umbrella over his soup to keep out the sand, offers to wash him, love him. He never once thanks her.

It wasn’t Yumiko’s fault that I related to a character who’d been kidnapped into hostile terrain where dunes threatened to drown him daily. Like the woman of the dunes, who tries everything to make life easier for Jumpei, Yumiko was my stalwart defender and my saving grace. Yumiko was, when I met her, a cosmopolitan translator at a major Japanese automotive company. She could be compassionate to strangers to the point of tears, goofy as a sock puppet when it was the two of us, and tough enough on swindlers to make them wish they’d never met her — I regretted not recording one hour-long conversation in which she berated an asshole working for American Airlines, the kind of confrontation I avoid. Yumiko, as I know now with a decade’s hindsight, is the best person I was going to find for the matrimonial foxhole.

But still, I felt unmoored. Besides externalizing the hidden poison of failure and retrograde masculinity, I was also struggling with commitment; the idea of marriage spooked me and led me to behave even worse than I might have, despite how good I had it. As an undergraduate, I had planned (because I was the kind of guy who planned things like falling in love), to live in Japan for three years, have flings, travel, then return to grad school, meet a fellow academic, marry, and work at each other’s universities, encasing our life with bookshelf fortresses. Yumiko didn’t fit my plan. She wasn’t an academic, had entered my life before I was ready for fidelity. She stood, in testament, as a critique of my wisdom. In turn, I behaved foolishly. Like at the plush ring store with family when I openly mocked prices like an errant uncle at a used car lot. Or when I kept denouncing her wedding ideas because they were too expensive, but happily added to our costs based on my own whims. Or the time I screamed at her in the car for no good reason other than I stress-freaked and she wouldn’t agree with whatever silly point I was making.

Yumiko didn’t fit my plan. She stood, in testament, as a critique of my wisdom. In turn, I behaved foolishly.

Jumpei goes through something of a similar arc. He stays with this woman and initially refuses what he interprets as sexual advances. She sleeps completely nude in the living room the first night, with only a towel on her face. He finds her sand-coated body irresistibly erotic. But instead of confronting his feelings, he yells at the woman, taking his frustrations out on her.

In the midst of all this anxious lashing-out, reading Woman in the Dunes was like holding up a mirror. The desert is so stark and bleak and bright that as it scours Jumpei, it also shone brightly into my eyes, which recognized themselves. This was not a pleasant experience. Denial exists because realizing you’re an asshole is painful. Early on in my reading, I noticed connections between Jumpei and me, our teaching and escaping into nature, our feeling trapped and compensating by positioning ourselves as superior to a person who tried very hard to care for us. As a reader, I wanted to reach into the book and pinch close Jumpei’s lips. I wanted to whisper, you didn’t even like your old life and now you’re in a support system with a hard-working, benevolent partner! But of course I couldn’t do that, and the power of literature is that sometimes the change I want to enact on like-minded characters, I can make on myself.

So, I began shutting up when I would otherwise speak — chewing on what Yumiko said, trying to understand, only responding when I’d run through my mind a few times anything that would otherwise have triggered my mansplation. Yumiko suspected something had changed when I became less hostile in our wedding preparations. When dinner conservations were more cordial, like-minded. She herself, of course, had grown doubts about me (who wants to marry an inveterate mansplainer?), but the change solidified whatever spark she’d originally seen. No one else was going to be as patient as she’d already been with me. I don’t want to suggest that it saved my marriage and possibly my life, but I might have to.

This was in 2008, right around the time Rebecca Solnit wrote that article in TomDispatch.com that would help make the term “mansplaining” vernacular. The term “mansplaining” was brand new; Solnit’s essay, “Men Explain Things to Me,” inspired its coinage that year. I didn’t know the term, but I knew what I was — thanks to Kōbō Abe, who laid what I was doing bare before me.

The Woman in the Dunes alone wasn’t enough to cure me. Solnit’s work has also been especially illuminating, but so has reading The Toast (R.I.P.) and essays like “Men Recommend David Foster Wallace to Me.” That is the thing about being an ally, with our lovers and with our colleagues. We former and current mansplainers have to remain vigilant with ourselves lest the sores of our privilege erupt on our tongues and cause us to speak ill. To slip back into privilege-speak, to harangue, to harass, feels powerful, like Anakin Skywalker crossing to the Dark Side, though it’s important to note that he lost his love in the process. I’m happy to report that I haven’t lost mine. I haven’t yet been the man from American Airlines on the other side of the line from my wife, having my mansplanation served back to me.

The power of literature is that sometimes the change I want to enact on like-minded characters, I can make on myself.

Which is what happens to Jumpei — his obnoxious mansplaining sandwich is served back to him by the end. One brilliant aspect of the book is that Abe gives the game away at the beginning. A brief first chapter lets readers know Jumpei went missing, was hardly missed, and was never seen again. Readers know he will never leave the confines of the dunes because they provided a purifying cleanse to his sickness. That he, after declaring over and over he’ll never submit to the villagers’ and woman’s plotting, in the end embraces his lot and the woman who wants to work by his side. He begins to look forward to eventually raising a child, keeping a home, and forming part of the wayward village. Jumpei is never heard from again because really, he isn’t the same person.

Like any good allegory, Woman in the Dunes is ambiguous. At the end, when the pregnant woman is lifted away to receive medical care, the villagers forget to raise the rope ladder, giving Jumpei a means of escape. He stares at it but declines, instead choosing to remain in his home. Other critics have found this ending bleak. They read in the novel a struggle and failure for existence beyond soul-sucking labor. I see his decision to remain in the dunes as a spark of belonging, of responsibility, of a desire to stop escaping and becoming a better man — which is what I hope I’ve done with Yumiko, who was kind enough to give me space to recover from an inward sense of failure and the bullshit West Texas breeds into its men.

There is an elemental quality to the book. At one point, still hopeful of escape, Jumpei says to himself, “Men have escaped through any number of concrete walls and iron bars.” But we know from the opening chapter that our protagonist will never escape. He will be absorbed by sand, which he came from and to which he will return. The woman shows the man how to clean dishes using only sand. Later, the man recalls a blackjack, sand packed into a leather sack, “striking power comparable to that of an iron or lead bar.” Sand as cleanser, sand as weapon. Eventually, the sand erases him, the “he” that was impetuous, self-absorbed, limiting, ungrateful.

I like to read into this that men’s initial, natural state is not as mansplainers, that the toxic part of masculinity is an aberration. That when pushed against elements, or returned to them, we become better allies, better partners, better lovers; that a book can cleanse like sand wiping guck off a dish, and also serve as weapon, slapping the head of the errant mansplainer that pokes its head from the hovel of dunes.

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