Kobo Abe begins his novel, The Woman in the Dunes, in a hamlet where the residents beguile Niki, the protagonist, to climb down a steep sand slope with a rope ladder. The rope ladder, though a seemingly simple tool, continues to make an appearance physically, in plans, and in desire. The rope ladder in Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes is a changing symbol used to intensify Niki’s understanding of his imprisonment, his feelings of hope, and his freedom.
Upon arriving in the desert in hopes of finding interesting insects, Niki willingly descends the ladder during the night at the invitation of the village leaders. The next morning, he wakes up the woman, asking her about the ladder which “had vanished from the place it had been the night before” (46). Niki’s source of escape has been taken from him, causing the rope ladder to become a strong symbol of his imprisonment. The rope had not seemingly “vanished,” the rope had been removed by someone else. Because of how it was supported, the only people who could have removed it were those up above: the village leaders. Niki’s imprisonment was not accidental, and the loss of the ladder strongly highlights that.
The ladder plays a primary role in his imprisonment because “[he] can’t get out of a place like this without a ladder” (49). Niki is trapped by his situation, as there is no way for him to climb out of the hole that he put himself into. He is stuck completing a Sisyphean task, no matter how much sand he moves, the reaction is overwhelming; billions of “1/8 mm” grains of sand pour down the slopes, erasing all previous work (13). Niki’s obsession with the size of the singular pieces of sand reveals an important character trait that heightens his feelings of imprisonment. Unlike the woman, Niki views himself as an individual, not as a part of a greater whole. Counter to this, the woman views herself as a one grain in the dune. Alone, she cannot shovel all the sand away, but with her help, the village will continue to stand. Niki, during his process of escape, feels alone, causing him to focus on the sand in its “individual” form. Sand as in its singular form cannot do much, but sand collectively holds immense power. By including the ladder in Part One, Abe is using a common, everyday item to reinforce the reality of Niki’s imprisonment. Niki’s two-way ticket to freedom, his pathway out of this Sisyphean hell, is a simple object that is not hard to come by. However without the ladder, freedom seems elusive and unattainable. Kobo Abe made the authorial decision to remove the ladder from Niki’s possession in order to create mounting tension. His efforts will manifest in later, when he creates a grappling hook/ladder in order to escape and then finally, when he accepts his imprisonment as a type of freedom.
The conditions of freedom are confined by the ladder, as a distinction is made that that it is a “rope ladder” (32). This detail characterizes the rope ladder as a malleable and...