Sex and Existence: A Third Choice of Human Existence in Murakami Haruki’s Norwegian Wood
In Norwegian Wood, Murakami Haruki experiments to challenge the mainstream conceptions of sex, love and human existence, that he believes these three elements do not always coordinate with each other; and part of the reason why this novel is so celebrated even today is because it breaks what the media, the society, and the human instinct of “being normal”. “Death exists, not as the opposite but as a part of life” (25) is a famous quote from Norwegian Wood, and it provides a third perception of understanding life and death; similarly, a significant part of the novel discusses the relationship between love and sex, which Murakami sets different characters to perform a third way of human existence with different perspectives.
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To begin with, the best way to understand Norwegian Wood, is to not consider it as a romantic or teen novel, which normally conveys the idea that “love conquers all” (Hall Mar.16th); instead, treat it as an analytical novel which discusses the relationship among love, sex and human existence. The biggest reason that Murakami sets the main characters at young ages, such as sets Kizuki at his seventeen (and forever remains seventeen), Naoko at her twenty (and forever remains twenty), and Toru together with Midori at their twenties, is because that for post-pubertal young people, their bodies are mature enough to explore sexual world, but their minds are still not fully corrupted by the harshness outside school life, so that they have the ability to learn how to love by their bodies, yet appreciate love by their pure hearts.
Naoko and Midori are two intriguing female characters in Norwegian Wood. Both characters are somehow abnormal, such as Naoko’s psychological anxiety towards sex, and Midori’s unusual behaviour of standing naked in front of her father’s portrait. These behaviours are certainly not seen as standard code of conduct. In order to understand Naoko and Midori’s “abnormalities”, it is important to analyze these two girls’ contrary views towards sex, life and human existence. In traditional romantic literature, the common plot is that the hero and heroine together overcome many obstacles, and live happily ever after. Since after so many difficulties they have been through, the ending usually ends with them having a blessed life to death for sure, and it is assumed that their sex life will be harmonious as well. However, it is not the case in Norwegian Wood. Naoko has difficulties to have a penetrative sex with her lover Kizuki, but she succeeds in doing it with Toru, though it is the first and the only time she gets sexually aroused. Moreover, the reason for Naoko’s suicide also needs to be noticed, although the reason is made implicit in the novel. However, it is certain that Naoko does not die for love. During the twenty years of Naoko’s life, she encounters two deaths of her loved ones. The first one is her sister’s death. Naoko’s sister commits suicide at the age of seventeen, and Naoko as an eleven years old child witnesses her sister’s dead body. Then six years later, Naoko’s beloved Kizuki ends his life in the same way, by committing suicide. These two deaths strike Naoko drastically, but not fatally. She manages to get into the college, although avoiding talking about the past when she meets Toru a year after Kizuki’s death, it is too assertive to conclude Naoko’s suicide as to either follow her true love, or merely disappointed with the world. There are not many evidences of which event triggers Naoko to commit suicide, but it is for sure that her only climax gives her both the hope to carry on life, yet in the same time destructs this hope to live. The biggest fear of Naoko is her inability to perform sex with her lover as normal people do. Naoko constantly talks about that night on her twentieth birthday, and keeps question her inability to sex. This once in life sexual experience to Naoko is not only a natural physiological behaviour, but also contains the meaning of life, and this meaning is not merely limited to physiological needs, but being elevated to the meaning of continuing life. The first time Toru visits Naoko at the sanatorium, she speaks of her version of viewing the sexual intercourse with Toru:
“I [Naoko] was wet from the minute you [Toru] walked into my apartment the night of my twentieth birthday. I wanted you to hold me. I wanted you to take my clothes off and touch me all over and to get inside me. I had never felt like that before. Why is that? Why do things happen that way? I mean, I really loved him [Kizuki].” (112)
It makes Naoko so confused that why she and Kizuki never succeed in having a penetrative sex, but why she can have one with Toru; if she loves Kizuki, why her body does not let him in; or is that if she loves Toru, why is she unable to let Toru in for a second time? Naoko keeps pondering over these questions, and the second time Toru visits her, she “was less talkative than she had been in the fall” (237). When Toru tries to have sex with her again, he discovers that Naoko is still unable to get aroused, and she once again questions her inability to have sex:
“Why don’t I get wet?” Naoko murmured. “That one time was the only time it ever happened. The day of my twentieth birthday, that April. The night you [Toru] held me in your arms. What is wrong with me?” â€¦ “What if I never get better? What if I can never have sex for the rest of my life? Can you keep loving me just the same?” (239)
By shaping a character like Naoko, Murakami raises a hypothesis that what if sexual impulse does not occur coincidentally with love, does it prove that there is a third choice of performing sexless affection or affectionless sex? Whether or not this hypothesis works, Murakami offers a possibility that there could be a third kind of human existence in life, other than having impulsive sex, romantic sex, or no sex life at all.
Midori is in the contrary of Naoko. She is described both by herself and by Toru as a “real, live girl with blood in her veins” (267), and she always seems to be happy and relaxed; however, she is not born to be this optimistic, but rather she chooses to be this way. Similar to Naoko, Midori has a tragic life of losing her loved ones: her grandfather, grandmother, mother and father. Midori’s mother dies of cancer, and before her death, she lives in the hospital for almost two years while Midori takes care of her everyday therefore has to delay school. Midori’s father loves his wife so deeply, that he says to Midori and her sister, “I [Midori’s father] would much rather have lost the two of you [Midori and her sister] than her [Midori’s mother]” (71). Then two years later, her father dies of the same cancer as her mother. Unlike Naoko, Midori is not defeated by so many deaths, instead, she manages to live her life bravely. Every time Midori appears in the story, her activities are not limited to talking: she and Toru often eat together, drink together, she cooks, smokes, and does all kinds of things; whereas for Naoko and Toru, what they mostly do is writing letters and walking. These vigorous activities save Toru from drowning himself with Naoko’s pain, and Midori’s strong vitality symblizes the only oasis in this novel of boundless depressed desert. Midori’s vitality puts her in a somewhat awkward position in society, considering the novel’s setting is in the 1960s Japan; she does not cry at her father’s funeral, she unreservedly discusses sexual fantasies with Toru: asking him to think of her while masturbating, she invites Toru to watch pornography at an adult theatre, and she is never shy of telling Toru her true feelings, of how much she desires him. Midori’s independent, modernized characteristics and her value of existence of careless to the normalcy contradicts to Naoko’s belief of perfect union of sex and love. To conclude these two girls, Naoko stands for the possibility of a third way of existence between sex and love, and Midori exhibits the possibility of a third existence of living without confinements.
Naoko and Midori are like the two opposites of a scale, and Toru is the one to decide which side weighs more. In the first chapter, Toru already makes it clear that what happens in the book are all memories: “I [Toru] was thirty-seven then, strapped in my seat as the huge 747 plunged through dense cloud cover on approach to the Hamburg airport” (3), and this chapter ends with the monologue of “Naoko never loved me” (10). By reading this monologue, it is obvious that even twenty years pass by, Toru is still stuck in the memory of Naoko’s suicide. Toru tries to save Naoko, by having sex with her, by loving her, but both the efforts of love and sex can not solve Naoko’s psychological problems, and Toru never gets to understand the world of Naoko’s. On the other hand, Toru is drawn to Midori’s vitality, and Midori always saves him, even at the end of the novel, Toru still seeks help from Midori: “again and again, I [Toru] called out for Midori from the dead center of this place that was no place” (293).
There are four stages of Toru’s sexual development: to desire sex, to understand sex, to control sex, and to enjoy sex. The first stage of desiring sex, is reflected by the first half of the novel, when Toru starts to have sexual relationships with his first girlfriend in high school, with Naoko, and with other strange girls. Toru starts this relationship without envisaging it because of Kizuki’s death, since he “was unable to find a place for myself [Toru] in the world around me” (24), and immediately after graduation, he is devoted to leave Kobe without considering this girl’s feeling. The desiring of sex happens after Toru having sex with Naoko. As Toru recalls in his letter to Naoko, he honestly writes that “the warmth and closeness I [Toru] felt for you [Naoko] at the moment was something I had never experienced before” (41). To Toru, this is an extraordinary experience, because the other girls he has sex with are not the ones he has feelings with. Previously, when Toru has sex with strange girls, he always feels empty the next morning after; however, after his sexual intercourse with Naoko, he gets to taste the glamour of reaching climax both physically and mentally, he thereby feels hunger for women bodies: “My [Toru] body was hungering for women. All the time I was sleeping with those girls, I though about Naoko, about the white shape of her naked body in the darkness, her sighs, the sound of the rain. The more I thought about these things, the hungrier my body grew” (43). The first time when Toru goes to visit Naoko at the sanatorium, Naoko shows him her naked body at night, and it triggers Toru to recall their first night:
A sense of imperfection had been what Naoko’s body had give me [Toru] that night as I tenderly undressed her [Naoko] while she cried â€¦ “I [Toru] am having intercourse with you [Naoko] now. I am inside you. But really this is nothing. It doesn’t matter. It is nothing but the joining of two bodies. All we are doing is telling each other things that can only be told by the rubbing together of two imperfect lumps of flesh. By doing this, we are sharing our imperfection.” (131)
This whole passage of “imperfection” that Toru speaks forms a contrast to Naoko’s “perfection theory”, Naoko insists that if she is going to see Toru again, she wants her “body to be clean of all this when I [Naoko] meet him [Toru]” (246), and this hints Toru’s incomprehension of Naoko’s world.
The second stage of Toru’s sexual development is to understand sex. Since Toru experiences several sexual activities with strange girls, he tastes the loneliness and emptiness that come after climax; at the same time, he knows that Naoko is getting further away from him after them having sex. Toru gets hurt by sex, and therefore, he chooses to not to have sex with Midori, because he realizes that “you’re [Midori] the best friend I’ve [Toru] got now â€¦ I don’t want to lose you” (250).
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The third stage of Toru’s sexual development is to control sex. Toru passes the first two stages, he becomes more familiar with sex, just like tobacco, and he does not want to be controlled by it. As he says to Midori, “I [Toru] don’t like having something [smoke] control me that way” (70), and same for sex, he does not wish to let sexual impulses to overtake his love towards both Naoko and Midori; instead, he wants to remember that momentary experience he has with Naoko, and his commitment to Midori, so he does not let him have sex with other girls.Â Â The second time Toru and Midori lie down in the same bed, he still suppresses his thought of having sex with Midori, because he finds out that he falls in love with Midori:
“I [Toru] loved Midori, and I was happy that she had come back to me. The two of us could make it [having sex], that was certain â€¦ It had been all I could do to suppress the intense desire I had to strip her [Midori] naked, throw open her body, and sink myself in her warmth â€¦ I loved Midori. And I had probably known as much for a while. I had just been avoiding the conclusion for a very long time.” (267)
The fourth stage of Toru’s sexual development is to enjoy sex. In the last chapter of Norwegian Wood, Toru has sex with Reiko. This time, their sex is relaxed, enjoyable, and meaningful. As Murakami’s hypothesis of sex could be based on love, and it could also be independent without love, the sex between Toru and Reiko is the best proof to make this hypothesis established.
To conclude Toru’s character as a whole, he represents Murakami’s perception that sex is the basic element that exists in life, and it can be independent without love. Only with this view implanted to Toru’s character, he can love Naoko and Midori without the disturbance of sexual desire, and gives both Reiko and himself a new start with sex.
The traditional treatment of sex in literature is to either blur or eliminate its description, in order to weaken its influence on love; whereas in Murakami Haruki’s Norwegian Wood, his descriptions of sex is simple but explicit, which declares his perception to sex as modernized and positive. Norwegian Wood starts with an end, and ends with a start, this paradoxical beginning and ending fits the “life death opposite” theory proposed in the book perfectly. By offering these paradoxes, Murakami offers a third choice of human existence, that his ideal lifestyle is never a two-point and one-line dynamic; instead, by examining and combining the extreme commonness and abnormality, a third choice of living is formed. No matter what this third existence is, it is a lifestyle that is unique, as Reiko says “What makes us most normal, is knowing that we’re not normal” (148).
Word count: 2599
Hall, Nick. ASIA 364 Modern Japanese Literature 1868 – the Present. University of British Columbia. 16 March 2017. Class notes.
Murakami, Haruki. Norwegian Wood. Trans. Jay Rubin. New York: Vintage International, 2000. Print.
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