Norwegian Wood Summary

Haruki Murakami

Norwegian Wood

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Norwegian Wood Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.

In Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami introduces the main character as he walks through an airport in Hamburg, Germany. Thirty-seven-year-old Toru Watanabe hears an instrumental cover of the Beatles’ song “Norwegian Wood.” He begins to reflect on his life in the 60s.

Toru grows up in Kobe, Japan, in a tight-knit circle of friends with his best friend, Kizuki, and Kizuki’s girlfriend, Naoko. They are all happy, but their peacefulness is shattered by Kizuki’s unexpected suicide on his seventeenth birthday. The two remaining friends are profoundly affected by Kizuki’s death: Toru feels the pressure of death everywhere he looks, and Naoko feels as though she has lost her soulmate.

Toru and Naoko both decide to go to university in Tokyo. They spend more and more time together, and on Naoko’s 20th birthday, they have sex. Afterwards, Naoko leaves him a note saying that she needs some time to herself, and she admits herself into a sanitarium. In the meantime, Toru meets Midori, student in his drama class who likes him. They kiss one night.

The students at the university stage a protest a short time later. Toru visits Naoko at the sanitarium, and there he meets Naoko’s roommate, Reiko, a woman in her late thirties. Reiko explains the philosophy of the sanitarium: people are not changed, they just learn to deal with whom they are. One night, Naoko comes to Toru and disrobes for him. He is amazed by her beauty.

We learn that Reiko was a piano prodigy, but she had a nervous breakdown. We also learn that Naoko witnessed her older sister’s suicide.

Toru returns to Tokyo, feeling uneasy. Midori takes him drinking, but Toru alienates her through his inattention. Toru has feelings for both Midori and Naoko, and so he writes a letter to Reiko to ask for advice. Reiko suggests that Toru pursue a relationship with Midori.

Naoko’s mental health takes a turn for the worse. This pushes Toru into a depression, but Midori helps pull him out of it. The two express their love for each other, but agree to let Toru sort out his feelings for Naoko.

Toru receives a letter with the news that Naoko has committed suicide. He spirals into a deep depression, and in his grief, he begins wondering Japan aimlessly. He spends a month away, then, feels compelled to return home to Tokyo. Reiko leaves the sanitarium and visits Toru. The pair holds a small funeral for Naoko, which features Toru playing every song he knows on his guitar.

Reiko stays with Toru, and despite their age difference, they sleep together. They share an intimate conversation, during which Toru realizes his deep feelings for Midori. Reiko leaves to return to her life in Hokkaido. A short time later, Toru calls Midori to express his love for her. The novel ends with Midori asking, “Where are you now?” as Toru wonders about the answer to her question.

The central theme of Norwegian Wood is the balance of life and death. Two characters choose death, suddenly, which shakes the other characters to their cores. This forces the surviving characters to examine their lives and the decisions they make. This process is rarely easy, and the characters fight through depression and confusion, seemingly always tempted to choose suicide over fighting through their mental and emotional challenges.

Midori brings Toru back into his life, especially after the death of Naoko. She serves as a connection to living and to life that quite-probably saves Toru from the same fate as his friends. As such, Norwegian Wood is a novel steeped in pain, with characters that are deeply wounded, but it is also a novel of healing through the power of love.

The title of the novel comes from the Beatles’ song Toru hears in the airport at the novel’s opening. The song describes an extramarital affair that co-songwriter John Lennon engaged in. The song also heavily features the sitar, an Indian instrument. The song is melancholy and is noted for its references to Eastern spirituality. Drawing upon the song for the novel’s title lends the book a feeling of reminiscence that permeates throughout the story. In both works, central characters work through the balance of past, present, and future, trying to formulate decisions for the future while coming to terms with their pasts.

Norwegian Wood was tremendously successful in Murakami’s native Japan, especially with college students. It has been translated into English twice.

The novel was adapted into a film in Japan in 2010 that stars Kenichi Matsuyama. Although the movie won awards from smaller film festivals, some critics have lamented that the film does not capture the spirit or the impact of the novel. The film was released in a limited fashion in the United States in 2012.