Did you know that listening to a song can take you back in time? Sometimes, music evokes such strong emotions in us, that we long to return to that particular point in our lives. Haruki Murakami’s novel Norwegian Wood is about one such song. Want to know what it’s about? Read on!
Norwegian Wood is about Toru Watanabe, who, upon hearing the Beatles song Norwegian Wood on a flight to Hamburg, reflects on his life in the late 1960s, when he was a student. Back then, his life revolved around two girls, Naoko, beautiful but emotionally unavailable, and Midori, outspoken but already seeing someone else. He tries to make more sense of everything that happened twenty years earlier by writing everything down.
Norwegian Wood is named after the 1965 Beatles song and many events in the novel seem to mirror the song (such as how Toru starts reminiscing while plane is descending at Hamburg, where the Beatles’ popularity really took off). Let’s analyse the novel through the lyrics of the song it took its title from.
The first couple of words of the Beatles song are not particularly out of the ordinary; they suggest a simple love song. The novel, which superficially reads like a simple love story, is very concerned with the idea of being normal. Toru keeps claiming he is a normal guy, but his friends assure him he is the exact opposite. Many of the conversations Toru has with his friends are about being normal, and about what it’s normal. Ironically, Naoko only feels like a normal person when she is admitted into a psychiatric hospital. It turns out, therefore, that Norwegian Wood isn’t as straightforward as one might expect. The second line of the Beatles song hint to this as well:
Ownership is one of the most important themes in Norwegian Wood. It becomes clear straight from the start that the relationship between Naoko and Toru is not an equal one. Naoko used to be with Toru’s best friend, Kizuki, until he committed suicide, and now Toru seems to be the anchor keeping Naoko into place, rather than being a real boyfriend. The same notion of inequality can be applied to Toru’s relationship with Midori, who seems interested in him at first, but completely erases him from her life after she feels betrayed by him.
Additionally, Toru is not quite good at having a normal (what’s normal anyway?) conversation, and that is why he tells everyone about his strange roommate, nicknamed Stormtrooper. Toru claims Stormtrooper’s story as his own, because he’s afraid he himself is too normal. Similarly, Reiko (Naoko’s roommate, a skilful guitar player who limits herself to playing other bands’ songs instead of writing her own) tells Toru about a girl who abused her, which eventually caused her breakdown. This shows that we always need other people in our lives, even though giving ourselves to them makes us vulnarable.
The last line of the Beatles song shows how everything must end, and how we will always wonder how things might have turned out differently. This sentiment is reflected in the novel when it comes to the finality of relationships, and life. In the novel, some characters take their own lives, and their friends have to deal with the consequences. Toru is determined to keep Kizuki and Naoko alive by making sure his life is changed because of their deaths, and by remembering them. However, he has to let them go so he can move on with his own life and to finally get the girl he wants. Like the narrator in the Beatles song, Toru has to light a fire in order to start anew.
While writing this post, I realised that nothing ever is as simple as it seems. Hearing the Beatles song for the first time, you may think it’s just a love song, but the opposite turns out to be true. Norwegian Wood, likewise, is deceptively simple; a man is reminded of the love he once felt for a girl who never truly loved him back. However, Murakami’s novel is all but simple; it’s about the finality of life, about growing up, about letting go, about having the ideals we had fall apart, and about failing to be in charge of our own lives.
Change happens because we make choices – or because we refuse to make any. Only later do we realise what the choices we made a long time ago have meant for us. And then, all it takes is one song to remind us of what could have been…
What did you think of Norwegian Wood? Which songs evoke strong memories in you? What’s your favourite Beatles song? Do let me know in the comments! Also, don’t forget to follow me for book-related posts!