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Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood: A Summary and Analysis

Updated on September 3, 2019
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Rhylee Suyom has hopped in three different worlds: the academe, the corporate, and the media. He enjoys being with nature and his family.

Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood

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Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood: A Summary and Analysis


Haruki Murakami is a Japanese well-known writer of several novels, short stories, and other non-fiction works. Born in Kyoto Japan, he was educated at Waseda University. Though he grew up in Kobe he moved to Tokyo to pursue his education and later opened his own jazz bar and together with his wife, they ran the bar for seven years. According to an anecdote he had his inspiration to write novels while he was watching a baseball game between the Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Carp. This was the time when the American player Dave Hilton was about to bat and then he hit a double, Murakami had the realization that he could write.

He had written his first novel, Hear the Wind Sing which earned him his first Gunzou Literature Award as a new emerging writer. This was then followed by two more novels, Pinball and A Wild Sheep Chase; these stories also formed part of “The trilogy of the Rat”. More novels came after that, with three short stories, an illustrated novella, non-fiction works and essays. He used the incident of the Hanshin earthquake and the subway sarin attack at Tokyo to interview the survivors, and the members of the religious cult which was held responsible for the incident. He wrote two non-fiction books for these interviews and these were later combined to form the book “Underground”.

As a celebrated writer he had also been awarded the Jerusalem Prize, an international award for writers. His influences in writing were Raymond Chandler, Kurt Vonnegut, and Richard Brautigan (Haruki Murakami, 2018).

The Norwegian Wood is a nostalgic novel Murakami had written in 1987. It was a story about loss and up-and-coming sexuality. The style of writing he used was on a first-person perspective of Toru Watanabe. Watanabe looked back on his days when he was still in Tokyo and studying. His narration allows the readers to catch a glimpse of his past and his relationships with two different women, Naoko and Midori (Murakami, 1987).

The setting of the novel was Tokyo but in the late part of 1960s; a time when Japanese students had been active at staging protests. This was the background scenario for the story of Toru Watanabe, it was Watanabe’s memory of the student movement then, which was hypocritical and weak from his perspective.

Story Analysis

The title of the story, which was Noruwei no Mori in Japanese was a translation of the Beatles song Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown). It was mentioned several times in the novel being a favorite song of Naoko. The essence of the word “wood” in the story does not refer alone to the material wood but pertain to a bigger object of interest which is the forest. This is evident in the story through the major significance the narrator mentions about settings in the forest and its imagery.

The Characters under the Lens

The characters in the story were only few, and they are the people who had made significant impact on Watanabe’s life in Tokyo. Toru Watanabe as the narrator in the novel is also the protagonist because he was telling his own story. He was just a typical student taking up a degree in drama; he had a keen interest on American literature. He is a best friend of Kizuki who happened to be the first boyfriend of Naoko. He committed suicide when he was 17 and this had a relentless impact both on Naoko and Watanabe. Naoko had been presented as a beautiful yet fragile woman, she got involved with Watanabe after his boy friend’s death. She has been emotionally unstable after Kizuki took his life and her sister also committed suicide at the age of 17. The other woman in the story which captured Watanabe’s heart is Midori Kobayashi or simply Midori. She is the outgoing and bubbly classmate of Watanabe. She showed a different way of coping up in losing a loved one. Her mother died of brain cancer, from then on, she and her sister had been helping their father in tending their small bookstore. She developed feelings for Watanabe as she got to know him better.

There are also the other characters like Reiko Ishida, the friend of Naoko whom she met at the asylum in the mountain where Naoko went to stay. Reiko was an accomplished musician who had bouts with mental illness, and this had brought her musical career down as well as wrecked her family. She has been giving advice to Naoko and Watanabe regarding their relationship. Nagasawa, was another diplomacy student who fostered friendship with Watanabe after the two had found a common interest on The Great Gatsby. He also had a girlfriend – Hatsumi but that does not stop him from hopping from one bar to another and picking up girls for a one-night stand. Hatsumi was very gentle and kind, she had been trying to offer advice to Watanabe too, when Nagasawa left she married and later she committed suicide too.

Storm Trooper, the dorm mate of Watanabe who was obsessed with cleanliness, he also had neurotic behavior which annoys other people. Itoh, another dorm mate he met who had been fascinated like him of Boris Vian. Then there are also Momoko, the sister of Midori, Mr. Kobayashi, the father of Midori who was also suffering from brain cancer.

The Story Proper

The story began while Watanabe was in Germany, and the past came back to him as he listened to an old song, he thought about his life then, how much had happened and what events had made significant impact on his life. He had been living an ideal and happy life in Tokyo, seeing his best friend happy with Naoko. Until Kizuki committed suicide, both his life and Naoko took a sudden turn. He had felt the presence of death everywhere since his friend died while for Naoko having been so dependent on the presence of Kizuki in her life felt she had a missing part since then. As they spend more time together to survive the pain and sadness, taking walks on Sundays and sharing their feelings, their vulnerability led them to having sex.

After that incident, Naoko asked for time to be alone and went to a sanatorium where she met Reiko. While Naoko was away, the students in the university held protests and called for a revolution. But it failed, the strike suddenly came to an end and the students acted as if nothing happened which led Watanabe to be believed that it was all a demonstration of hypocrisy. With Naoko still at the sanatorium, Watanabe became friends with Midori, she was exactly the opposite of Naoko, she was free-spirited and emotionally stronger, and confident. This has attracted Watanabe, and since Midori feels the same, their relationship blossomed.

Meanwhile as Naoko stayed longer in the sanatorium, she and Reiko have talked a lot, Reiko shared to Naoko her past, her mental illness, her downfall and the details of her failed marriage. Watanabe had also met Reiko, and he had confided in her his conflicting feelings for the two women. He was torn at leaving Naoko and keeping Midori, as he does not want to hurt Naoko, he cannot find the strength to leave Midori too. When he heard of Naoko killing herself too, he wandered around Tokyo without any word to Midori. Midori wondered what had happened to him, but he has not kept in touch with her. When he came back, he met Reiko again who had already left the sanatorium and came by to visit. They had sex again and intimate conversation, upon which Watanabe realized that he still cares so much about Midori. When Reiko left, Watanabe tried to get in touch with Midori, the response of Midori asking him “Where are you now?” presents the ending of the novel (Murakami, 1987).

The Analysis Begins

The way it was described how Toru seemed like treading on winter all his life after he left Tokyo puts a deeper meaning of winter on his life. He had walked on a frozen landscape before with Naoko before she took her own life while seeking therapy at the sanatorium. The winter is a symbol for death in this story as most of the loneliness felt by Watanabe and the other characters have been caused by death – the death of Kizuki, Naoko, the mother of Midori, the sister of Naoko, and Hatsumi. Death is inevitable and natural but for most of the characters who came to Watanabe’s life they chose to take their own. It was not only in the culture where Watanabe lives but even in most that people still deny and hides from the effects of death.

People who are about to die are put in hospitals, care homes and hospices just to show how people evade to see death as it happens. As a coming of age story, Norwegian Wood, shows the readers how death has been dealt with, how people cope on their grief and loss. Like how winter sends people to hide or hibernate, the death of the people he had encountered sets off Watanabe. It shows how little the culture gives on dealing with death and the impact it leaves on the people. The series of suicide of the people he cared so much had left him horrified and trapped. The story is filled with grief and darkness, of sadness brought about by death, though there is a glimmer hope for Watanabe it was unknown, his hope for having a chance at life again was Midori but the novel ended without any clue if he had taken that chance of living life again with Midori or he chose to stay in hibernation filled with grief and loneliness (Walter, 2011).

Textual Evidences and Analysis

“I guess I don’t really understand you yet…I’m not all that smart. It takes me a while to understand things. But if I do have the time, I will come to understand you – better than anyone else in the world ever can.” (Toru, p.9). This was Watanabe saying to Naoko while they were taking their long walk in the meadows, it was his way of showing that his understanding of his affection for Naoko is on how he is trying to understand her. He wanted to understand her pain and loss because it was what brought them closer to each other. He was very positive in his thinking that soon he will be able to help her and understand her pain to be able to help her move on with life.

“Death exists, not as the opposite of life but as a part of life.” (Toru, p.25). When his best friend Kizuki died, Watanabe and Naoko found themselves at a loss. They tried to escape from this reality of death when they decide to go to Tokyo where no one knows them, and they do not know anybody too. It was their way of coping up with death, if they move somewhere else, they can start a new and forget what happened in Kobe and may be escape death too. And Naoko realized this later as she said (p.111) “The dead will always be dead, but we have to go on living.” Having spent most of her life together with Kizuki, she still longs to be with him, and their separation caused by Kizuki’s death had left her with no choice but to stay alive and be with Watanabe.

“Because we would have to pay the world back what we owed it, “she said, raising her eyes to mine. The pain of growing up. We didn’t pay when we should have, so now the bills are due. Which is why Kizuki did what he did, and why I’m here. We were like kids when we grew up naked on a desert island. If we got hungry, we’d just pick a banana; if we got lonely, we’d go to sleep in each other’s arms. But that kind of thing doesn’t last forever. We grew up fast and had to enter society. Which is why you were so important to us. You were the link connecting us with the outside world. We were struggling through you to fit in with the outside world as best as we could. In the end, it didn’t work, of course.” (Naoko, p.128). This was how Naoko explains to Watanabe how she and Kizuki lived their life together, shielded from the realities and pain of growing up. Therefore, the novel is also like a coming of age story, it shows the struggle of growing up, Naoko got used to the way life has been with Kizuki, with both providing for each other. How they survived through intimacy and dependent on each other. But she realized it too that should Kizuki would have lived, they would both be unhappy because they were not used to surviving the world as adults. Everything was provided for them, and for her this is what prompted Kizuki to kill himself. He was afraid to face the world as an adult and do all his responsibilities. He is not yet ready to do it and if he were still alive both of them unprepared for the world will indeed be unhappy because intimacy can never pay the bills nor provide food on the table.

Intimacy is also made an important part in the novel, the hand job, blow job and sex Watanabe had with Naoko, the intimacy, kisses and sex with Midori and the frequent one-night stands he had with random girls. All of it became Watanabe’s way of connecting himself to life and keeping him away from his own depression. It was on the other hand a way for Naoko to keep Watanabe to remember her since they only meet a few times since she came to the sanatorium. On the part of Midori, the intimacy with Watanabe was her expression of her feelings, of how she wanted to be cared for and her physical needs for intimacy. Like Naoko she was also inept in expressing her thoughts and needs and sharing intimacy with Watanabe was somehow her way of saying that she loves him and needs him.

But Midori understands that Watanabe was still confined in the world with Naoko. There were times that she avoids Watanabe or refuse to talk to him because she feels that though he was physically with her, he was still bound into that world with Kizuki and Naoko.

“I have a million things to talk to you about. All I want in this world is you. I want to see you and talk. I want the two of us to begin everything from the beginning” (Tori.) This was Watanabe’s message to Midori, the morning after he had sex with Reiko. The death of Naoko had been the last death in the story, it was also the last thing that will bring an end to the chapter of Watanabe’s life that has related to Kizuki and Naoko. He attended the funeral and paid his respect to Naoko. He was again in grief and decided to leave Tokyo but this time he had already realized how much he cared for Midori. Whereas when he came back earlier, he had been blaming himself for the death of Naoko. He blames himself for failing to wait for Naoko because he had chosen to be happy and enjoy life with Midori. It was not until he had sex and an intimate conversation with Reiko did, he realize again how much he loves Midori.

Watanabe kept on traveling in order to earn money which is what life expected from him now that he is already an adult. it was part of growing up, but his travels kept him connected to the past as memories still haunt him. He still sees vivid images of Naoko, he still felt her presence, though she may not exist in flesh anymore, she still had the psychological effects on him.

Reiko had the same effect on him just as Midori. Midori was able to share her full of life attitude with Watanabe and whenever he was feeling the pangs of depression Midori was able to bring him back to life. This was also the same effect Reiko had on Watanabe that is why when Reiko said that she is coming to Tokyo Watanabe agreed to see her. While he was still grieving for Naoko, Reiko was there for him to talk him out of it. He had felt her calming presence while they were walking and talking. It was the same feeling he had when Naoko and he were walking the streets of Tokyo during the time they were also grieving when Kizuki died.

Naoko left all her clothes to Reiko, if Reiko did not see any significance about it, Watanabe did. He saw it as a way of Naoko conveying the message on the similarities of her body to that of Reiko. It was for this reason too that the two found it to be natural for them to kiss and have sex. Reiko had taken it seriously when Naoko jokingly told her “Oh, I’d let you have him once in a while” (Naoko, p. 162), while the three of them are sitting outside on the balcony watching the rain.

There are a lot of symbolisms in the story. One of which is the firefly, Watanabe saw the firefly like Naoko, it was bright and full of life but has felt like lifeless and caged after the death of Kizuki; the light glow pale in the dark just like Naoko feeling lonely amidst her grief. The moonlight is not used in the novel to show something magical. It has been a symbol to show how Naoko had been consumed by her longing to be reunited with Kizuki. As she revealed herself in flesh under the moonlight it reflects already her character assuming the unnatural world she is bound to enter.

The two women had also different ways of expressing their needs; Naoko was into walking and talking. She and Watanabe had been closer during their walks and conversations. Whereas for Midori she expressed her longing for the world and her needs through eating. Most of her encounters with Watanabe had something to do about eating.

The long walks of Watanabe and Naoko do not show any direction to where they are bound. It was the same for their feelings, they lack the direction, though they seem to thread on an endless expanse of Tokyo there were not able to reach any destination. The same way they were not able to sort out their feelings after the death of Kizuki, because they refused to talk about it, they were not able to process well their feelings and grief. Walking was not able to sustain them, and in the end, Naoko also killed herself, despite the talks and intimacy she had shared with Watanabe she was not able to get over the yearning to be with Kizuki again.

There are several instances already that bring back to Watanabe how his relationship with Naoko and Kizuki had been before his friend died. Before he used to enjoy their company all three of them, him, Kizuki and Naoko, he found himself drawn to that similar situation again when he visited the sanatorium and he was in the company of Reiko and Naoko. Then there was the time he went out to dinner with Nagasawa and Hatsumi. He was there enjoying the company of two people who are intimate to each other but has been ruined by death. Kizuki killed himself and there was no explanation in the story why, it was just an assumption on the part of Naoko that he was afraid of growing up and the responsibilities that comes with it. While in the case of Hatsumi it could possibly be due to her depression on the way Nagasawa does not pay any attention to her feelings and how he had been constantly hurting her buy his womanizing (Gradesaver, 2018).

Conclusion

The context of the story reveals the conflict in resolving the meaning of life. It was about the struggle of the three – Watanabe, Naoko and Midori on overcoming their loneliness, getting over the painful memories and growing up. While admittedly he feels happy with Midori and loves her, Watanabe cannot leave Naoko, it was more of a duty for him to be by her side. The sexual intimacy they share is not enough to make him love her. He had been into a series of emotional incidents, one that led him to his grief and loneliness and then discovering happiness and life again and yet he had not been strong enough to make his choice.

In general, the story gives a nostalgic effect because it had been narrated from the perspective of Watanabe. The innocence of the characters from Naoko to Hatsumi and Midori has shown the transition from teenagers to adulthood, as they learned to express their needs and wants through intimacy.

References

Gradesaver. 2 December 2018 <https//www.gradesaver.com/norwegian-wood>.

Haruki Murakami. 2 December 2018 <https//www.harukimurakami.com>.

Murakami, Haruki. (1987). Norwegian Wood. Japan: Kodansha, Print.

Walter, Damien G. (2011). "Winter Reads: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami." The Guardian 6. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/dec/06/winter-reads-norwegian-wood-haruki-murakami


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Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood

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