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‘Norwegian Wood,’ nihilistic world

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“Norwegian Wood” is deservedly praised for its profound depiction of love and coming-of-age, but this praise might be misdirected. Though most readers would agree the central conflict of the story lies in the twisted and falling love between the characters, the author, Murakami, in an interview reminded the readers that love and coming-of-age are only two superficial and incomplete dimensions of his work. It’s out of commercial reasons that the publishing houses advertised those two popular themes. Love and coming-of-age provide the stages to the inexpressible, existential pain felt by our characters, while death constitutes their recessionals. 

Similar to other protagonists of Murakami, Toru is an ordinary young adult living in one corner of a tumultuous world. When other students, in revolt, shut down the school, shouting out fancy yet nonsensical words like, “crashing down industrious educational complex” and condescendingly criticizing others with political words they don’t themselves understand, Toru remains steady in his small corner and tightens himself — it’s not out of resignation, but out of a mature insight that penetrates the anxiety of his time, parallel to the actual student revolts in Tokyo in late 1960s.

The ridiculousness of student revolt, together with the social hyperactivity disguised as some politically correct movements, is a theme Murakami returns to in his other books. His comments on this unthinking social hyperactivity in “Kafka on the Shore” — lack of imagination, arrogance, empty jargon, usurped dream, and rigid ideology — contrast so perfectly with Toru in “Norwegian Wood,” a modest yet incredibly sensitive and sharp young adult. His modesty and ordinariness are never in terms of mediocrity, but of his authenticity as a person, and the problem Toru confronts is not political nor social, but the one fundamentally human. That’s precisely why all students in revolts recover so quickly from the political unrest, not even leaving a scratch on their life, while Toru is left utterly shaken at the end, like a man stripped naked to face the malice of his fate. 

Naoko is the girlfriend of Kizuki, Toru’s best friend who commits suicide without leaving a message. While Naoko’s life slowly drowns in the sorrow for her lover’s death, Toru is determined to save her at all costs. Naoko embodies the fragile purity and sincerity Toru longs for, but to his ignorance, she is already bonded to death, all struggles in vain.

Compared to other works by Murakami, “Norwegian Wood” bears a surprisingly straightforward storyline, yet its emotional complexity causes a subtle discomfort to linger. On the one hand, the tragedy immerses us in a mixture of sadness, agony and confusion; on the other hand, our sadness, together with our characters’ pain, remains strangely abstract, like a hair on the tongue that we try to remove but cannot.

The book deals with the inexpressible, as when Naoko repeatedly murmurs, “I can never say what I want to say,” and, “All I get are the wrong words,” or, when Toru asks himself, “What did I want? And what did others want from me? But I could never find the answers.” 

With Kizuki’s suicide, Toru realizes that “death exists, not as the opposite but as part of life,” which Toru feels as a “knot of air inside [him],” revealing a deep and intense contradiction of being — both inexpressible and incomprehensible. The more Toru tries to capture in words the significance of Kizuki’s death, the more closely he examines the value of life. As words lose meaning after excessive repeatings, Toru eventually finds nothingness in his examination of death: “All I’m left holding is a background, sheer scenery, with no people up front.” 

Kizuki’s death, and eventually Naoko’s death, throws Toru into a world devoid of value — the “field well” described by Naoko. “Nothing marked its perimeter — no fence, no stone curb. It was nothing but a hole, a mouth wide open.” It was a devastating truth — once we have seen the existential, nihilistic nature of our reality, we can hardly shake it off and pretend to live without that knowledge.

Toru consequently savors every last flavor of life, trying to reestablish the meaning of his life and to build the “illusory castle” that Naoko is healing in her sanatorium. His hope is “smashed” when he is told that Naoko perhaps will never get better, “leaving only a flattened surface devoid of feeling.” In the end, Toru suddenly realizes that he is “a caretaker of a museum — a huge, empty museum where no one ever comes, and I’m watching over it for no one but myself.” “A wave of nausea came over me,” precisely the same sense of “utter alien” characterization, “being en soi,” that pervades existentialist Sartre’s novel “Nausea.” 

The source of Toru’s suffering — the universal suffering of humans — is perhaps our very attempt to establish values in a valueless society, our very fantasy to pursue meanings in a meaningless universe, and our very obsession to be human in an inhumane world. We never asked to be born, yet we are thrown into a world devoid of meaning and struggle to find meaning our entire lives, aimlessly and tirelessly, like the condemned “Sisyphus” (Camus), who ceaselessly rolls a rock to the mountaintop knowing the rock will fall back again and again, to pursue the same monstrous lie of life — Meaning. Value. Truth.

On the surface of “Norwegian Wood,” there is this confrontation of human desires against the forces of the society; and under those alien forces lies this singular mechanism of Nature, which we politely name as Fate. Yet the contradiction is never between our consistent selves against some external power. The conflict is singular — the contradiction is already rooted in one’s existence. The characters can realign this contradiction only through illusion and by victimizing themselves — a tragic truth, from “Oedipus Rex” and “Macbeth” to “Norwegian Wood,” that characters suffer, not through fatal flaws, but through their magnified strengths that serve only to pursue the tragic end.

In existential sorrows, the characters become “The Stranger” (Camus) to themselves with “No Exit” (Sartre) but death. “Norwegian Wood,” a primarily existentialist novel, should be celebrated among existential literature. In the end, the love is only a stage on which these characters, like us, battle against no one but themselves, calling out, as Murakami writes, “from the dead center of this place that was no place.”

Contact Owen Shen at owenshen ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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