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The Thinker's Guide to Norwegian Wood
Norwegian Wood: The Popular Japanese Coming-Of-Age Novel
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami is stunning, nostalgic, coming-of-age novel taking place in the 1960s during the free economic and social growth of Japan. The novel involves a young college student named Toru Watanabe and his relationship with the beautiful Naoko. After the death of his best friend, Kizuki, Toru's life spirals downward as he isolates himself from others. Naoko, experiencing more death and pressures than she can handle, falls into a depressive state and moves to a sanatorium in hopes of recovering. As she falls further into her dark world, Toru begins to reach out to others and becomes drawn to an independent, fierce and liberated woman.
A movie version of Norwegian Wood was also released in 2010.
WARNING! Some spoilers ahead. Be careful if you haven't read the book!
"Death exists, not as the opposite but as a part of life."
"But who can say what’s best? That’s why you need to grab whatever chance you have of happiness where you find it, and not worry about other people too much. My experience tells me that we get no more than two or three such chances in a lifetime, and if we let them go, we regret it for the rest of our lives."
Relations to the Song - Norwegian Wood by The Beatles
Toru Watanabe is the main character of the story who labels himself as "ordinary". He is an average college student majoring in drama who enjoys reading classic American literature. Unlike other students his age, he does not have main goals nor does he have intentions of becoming successful. He is in love with Naoko since she was the only person close to his best friend, Kizuki. Toru proceeds to live life searching for fulfillment ever since Kizuki committed suicide. Although he finds no satisfaction in sleeping with other women, he does so to pass time. The way Toru speaks shows much of his personality. In one event, Midori discusses her life with Toru. Her passionate claims about certain ideas and lifestyles did not trigger any personal feelings from Toru as he only replied back in blunt, neutral statements. Despite Toru being one of the less intricate characters, he plays a major role as a gateway to reality, most especially to Naoko. He absorbs life as it is and reflects that life to others. Being the "normal one" of the characters, he has no major flaws that prevent him from moving on with his own life.
Naoko was the girlfriend of Kizuki and the new lover of Toru Watanabe. She is gentle and beautiful but also emotionally fragile and susceptible to the world around her. Naoko became friends with Toru because of Kizuki but spoke little to him until after Kizuki's death. She became vulnerable and slept with Toru out of confusion. Later, she abandoned him to stay at a sanatorium for mental illnesses in the mountains due to the pressures and responsibilities of life. Naoko is still emotionally attached to her deceased boyfriend and this flaw became a huge obstacle in her relationship with Toru. In later chapters, readers find out that part of her background not only included the death of Kizuki but also the death of her successful sister who committed suicide without reason. These events are responsible for her depressive nature which affected her emotional stability in the long run. To Naoko, Toru was her only connection to the outside world which she feared the most. Naoko plays a big role in Toru's life as she was his only memory to his best friend and grew to love her just as much as he did.
Kizuki was Naoko's first boyfriend and Toru's best friend in high school. He was a capable talker and could have used his talent to manipulate his environment. However, he preferred to stay with Toru and Naoko and not be sociable with the outside world. Kizuki's competence and spirit to make a person's own life feel more interesting. Also having the skill to make people feel comfortable, he had no problem at all spending time with Toru and Naoko. Kizuki took his life away at the age of seventeen without warning. He not only personally affected his best friend and girlfriend, but also the relationship between them. Ever since Kizuki's death, the relationship between Toru and Naoko became unsteady and their problems became centered around his suicide.
Midori Kobayashi is a strange, outgoing classmate of Toru who acts as a foil to Naoko's character. Midori is one of the few people whom Toru reaches out to in a life of solitude and isolation. Unlike Naoko, Midori has a unique, extrospective way of thinking that shows her character in a straight forward way. She is fiercely independent and impulsive of her actions which is refreshing to readers when compared to the other melancholic, pensive, and introspective characters. In the novel, she becomes close to Toru due to the fact that he does not "force her to do anything". People in the real world always force and manipulate each other to reach their goal and Midori does not appreciate the same tactics being used on her. Toru also becomes interested in her as a lover due to her vivacious attitude and unique thinking. Despite this, his mutual obsession with Naoko impedes their growing relationship. In the same way Toru acts as a gateway to Naoko, Midori acts as the threshold to Toru's new life after moving on with his ex-lover.
Nagasawa is a prestigious diplomacy college student and a friend of Toru Watanabe. He has a charismatic and leader-like quality that draws people in and follows his orders. Toru claims that "his greatest virtue was his honesty" considering that he never hides his mistakes. Despite Nagasawa's success, he deals with his own complex ideals and personal relationships. He often brings Toru with him to bars for one night stands. Ironically, his major complication deals with his dishonest relationship with a long-term girlfriend. Unwilling to break his own habits, Nagasawa is conflicted. Toru refuses to confide in him. Nagasawa acts as the epitome of someone who Toru would never want to be. Although he is quite acknowledged in many ways, Toru never opened his heart and discussed his problems with Nagasawa. Through Toru's college years, Nagasawa becomes another person with much bigger flaws than Kizuki or Naoko.
Reiko Ishida is Naoko's roommate in the mountain sanitorium who acts as a joyful and rather optimistic therapist between Toru and Naoko's relationship. She is also a musician whose accomplishments were wrecked by mental problems throughout her life. Reiko acts as an older sister to Naoko and cares about her to the point of using Toru as a tool of healing. Being older than the two of them, she is much more experienced and advises them on future choices. As an understanding character, Reiko helps Toru out with his decision between Midori and Naoko, instructing him to move on with life and do what makes him happy. In Toru's times of sorrow, Reiko clears his thoughts and guilts about the events that happens around him.
"No, even I know better than that. I'm looking for selfishness. Perfect selfishness. Like, say I tell you I want to eat strawberry shortcake. And you stop everything you're doing and run out and buy it for me. And you come back out of breath and get down on your knees and hold this strawberry shortcake out to me. And I say I don't want it anymore and throw it out the window. That's what I'm looking for."
Review and Analysis
In a Deeper Perspective
I kept seeing quotes of this book everywhere! The funny thing was, the quotes were just so strangely worded that I understood it and got me interested. Like that cake quote. You know what I mean? Okay. Maybe not. Well, I suppose you can compare the main character of this book to Murakami himself. He does have a way with words that seem to draw you in regardless of whatever he's talking about.
It wasn't until everyone was raving about 1Q84 that I got my hands on this book. I was so excited, I even started playing "Norwegian Wood" by the Beatles in the background to set the mood up. One of the book's special qualities was its simplicity and straightforwardness. Being a high school student, I was actually pretty surprised by mature content's prominence, however, Murakami portrayed it in such a beautiful and introspective way, that I can't possibly deem it as too inappropriate to read.
The author writes in first person view to show an in-depth perspective of Toru's everyday life. Murakami creates a world within another world to show the conflicts within Toru's mind. Deeply analyzing and observing what Toru sees allows readers to understand how he can find the "truth" and the "answers" to his questions. Readers can compare the book to Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar". The way the novel was written questions the readers' own happiness. Are we as normal as we think we are? How do we know if we've already fallen to the pits of insanity?
Norwegian Wood, being a coming-of-age novel, touches on the realistic problems not only of adolescents in 1960s Japan but also students of any age who are burdened by the overwhelming decisions and opportunities when entering adulthood. Toru Watanabe is tied in with all these themes as he tries to find the "answer" or the "truth" by interacting with each character from the story. Toru is split between two worlds. He is trying to find the right way between being a teenager and adult. He is constantly playing with the ideas of life and death. He has to pick between two girls. Each choice all has to do with retreating or advancing in life. His choices affect whether or not he'll fall as a person just like his best friend Kizuki and his lover Naoko. The two girls he is deciding upon acts as symbols of growth. Naoko is death-obsessed and constantly depends on Toru to hold onto her sanity. Midori's quirky but true ideals opens Toru to new philosophies that have never occurred to him before.
The relationships between the two girls are different, however, each one benefits the protagonist in their own way. Relationships are a major theme within the novel as Toru often pushes people away since Kizuki's death. Midori became a person he reached out to while battling the choices of isolation and togetherness. If not for the relationships he creates,Toru would have fallen into Naoko's depressing world. The suicide of Kizuki and Naoko's sister blurred Toru's sense of understanding about death. Toru finally claims in the end of the novel (he also says this in the beginning), "Death exists, not as the opposite but as a part of life," referring to both the death of his best friend and Naoko. Toru learns to nurture death as something to learn but no amount of knowledge of death provides no help in facing the next sorrow that life throws. Despite this sad truth, death became a catalyst for Toru's growth into adulthood. The ambiguous ending of the novel proves to readers that our protagonist has neither fallen or found a balance in life. Toru's tribulations will continue to exist, however, hope will provide him comfort.
At some parts of the novel, I actually felt terrible because the characters were so easy to relate to.
The book feels more like a memoir or an autobiography rather than a fiction novel. Imagine walking through a nice, winter scene with slopes of pure snow and falling flakes. Breathtaking, right? Then suddenly, a bunch of regretful, past memories plunge into your head. The moment completely changes. That's how Murakami portrays the characters and the story itself. He finds the reality within this beauty which morphs into something even more special.
After I read Norwegian Wood, I felt like I just added another philosophy into my ideas and morality. It's an interesting read and should be considered before putting it back on the bookshelf.