Norwegian Wood


Haruki Murakami

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Norwegian Wood Summary

As thirty-seven-year-old Toru Watanabe lands at the airport in Hamburg, Germany, the plane he’s on begins playing an instrumental cover of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.” The song hits Toru hard, and he finds himself flung back into memories of his youth.

In 1968, Toru is a freshman at Waseda University in Tokyo. The school is in the throes of a student revolution, but Toru avoids politics as he settles into his dorm. One afternoon, Toru runs into Naoko, an acquaintance from his hometown of Kobe. Naoko is the former girlfriend of Toru’s best friend from high school, Kizuki, who killed himself during their senior year. Toru and Naoko spend the afternoon walking and talking, but their conversation never drifts to the topic of Kizuki. As the months go by, Toru and Naoko meet every Sunday. Though they grow close, they still never discuss Kizuki. In spite of his friendship with Naoko, Toru feels aimless in other aspects of his life—his only other friend, Nagasawa, is a hyper-motivated student with hopes of joining the Foreign Ministry, a fact which makes Toru’s ambivalence seem even more profound. Nagasawa, a serial womanizer, starts inviting Toru out on the town to get drunk, pick up women, and bring them to hotels for sex. On Naoko’s 20th birthday, Toru goes to her apartment to celebrate with her. Naoko is in a strange mood. She spends the evening talking nonstop, with extreme rapidity. When the perturbed Toru tries to leave, she breaks down in tears. She begs Toru for comfort, and the two have sex. Toru is surprised to realize Naoko was a virgin. Toru asks Naoko why she and Kizuki never slept together and Naoko breaks down once again. Toru doesn’t hear from Naoko for weeks. He visits her apartment and learns she’s moved; he writes her at her parents’ house in Kobe but doesn’t hear back. In July, Toru at last receives a letter from Naoko explaining that she’s moving to a sanatorium in the hills of Kyoto.

In September, classes begin again. Early in the semester Toru meets a vibrant girl from his History of Drama class, Midori, when she asks to borrow his notes. Though Midori is a bit flaky and misses the meeting she arranges to return Toru’s notes, Toru finds himself interested in her. The two begin spending time together—even as Toru continues writing to Naoko. One afternoon, after Midori cooks lunch for Toru, the two share a kiss on her rooftop. Toru tells Midori that he likes her but is involved in a complicated romantic situation. Midori says that she has a boyfriend, anyway, and the two agree to just be friends.

A few days later, a letter arrives from Naoko. She explains life at the sanitorium, Ami Hostel, and describes the beautiful wooded landscape, the emphasis on physical work in the property’s lush gardens and animal sanctuaries, and the ensconced atmosphere. She tells Toru that she’s ready to see him. Without hesitation, Toru packs a bag and begins the journey to the hostel. Upon arriving, Toru meets with a woman whom he believes is Naoko’s doctor—but soon, “Doctor” Reiko Ishida reveals that she’s Naoko’s roommate. She’s called a “Music Doctor” because of her skills at piano and guitar, and further explains that at the Ami Hostel, the lines between doctors and patients are blurred—all patients have the responsibility of caring for one another. The paramount value at the hostel, Reiko explains, is honesty, and asks Toru to agree to be vulnerable and open with Naoko heal. Toru agrees, and Reiko brings Toru to her and Naoko’s room. That night, Reiko plays guitar while Naoko and Toru talk about what happened between them. Naoko eventually admits that she’s afraid she’s unable to truly love anyone and breaks down in tears. Toru and Reiko go for a walk, leaving Naoko alone to process her emotions. While walking, Reiko tells Toru about her own past. Once a promising pianist, Reiko’s mind snapped days before a big competition. She spent time in and out of mental hospitals, eventually recovering enough to begin teaching. She married one of her students, a man her own age, and they settled down happily—but when Reiko took on a young schoolgirl as her new pupil, her life took a turn for the worse. Reiko suggests they go back and check on Naoko, promising to finish her story the next day.

Back at the room, Naoko apologizes for her outburst, and the three of them get ready and go to bed. In the middle of the night, Naoko comes to Toru’s bedside, unbuttons her nightgown, and reveals her naked body to him. In the morning, she appears—or pretends—to have no recollection of this. Reiko and Naoko bring Toru on a walk through the mountains. Reiko stops for coffee at a small shop, urging Toru and Naoko to spend some time alone. In the woods, Naoko brings Toru to climax using her hands before revealing that her sister, too, committed suicide as a teenager—Naoko found the body. She urges Toru to live his life without her, stating that she’s too damaged to love another person, but Toru promises to wait for Naoko. That night, Toru and Reiko go for another walk and Reiko finishes her story. She explains that her pupil was a pathological liar who seduced Reiko by pretending to be sick, wheedling Reiko into the bedroom, and performing sexual acts upon her. Reiko cut the tryst off—but her enraged pupil spread rumors that Reiko had raped her. At that point Reiko’s mind snapped again and she retreated to the Ami Hostel, where she’s been since. Reiko says she’s afraid to reenter the world, but Toru tells her he believes in her. The next morning Toru returns to Tokyo, feeling a little sad himself about returning to the “outside world.”

The next day Toru runs into Midori, who invites him out. The two of them drink heavily and Midori expresses her desire for Toru. Toru laughs off her advances, but when she asks him to get together again on Sunday, he accepts her invitation. On Sunday, Midori comes to Toru’s dorm to pick him up. On the walk to the train station, Toru asks Midori where they’re headed, and she reveals that they’re on their way to visit her father in the hospital, where he’s dying of a brain tumor. Midori casually apologizes for lying about her father—she’d told Toru he lived in Uruguay. Mr. Kobayashi is profoundly ill and barely able to speak. Toru, impressed by Midori’s bedside manner but sensing how worn out she must be, offers to spend the afternoon looking after her father. While Midori is out, Toru cares for Mr. Kobayashi, who cryptically mentions something about Midori and a ticket to the Ueno Station. When Midori returns and Toru asks her about the message, Midori recalls running away from home as a child and departing form the Ueno Station before her father brought her home. Midori tells Toru that her father was probably asking Toru to take care of Midori and asks him if he’s going to. Toru promises Midori he’ll always care for her. A few days later, Midori’s father dies, and Midori stops coming to class. Distressed by her absence, Toru begins writing to Naoko again.

Over the next several months Toru continues seeing Midori and writing to Naoko. At the winter break, he goes to visit the Ami Hostel. He and Naoko engage in sexual activities in the little alone time they manage to steal, and Toru asks Naoko to move in with him when he gets an apartment of his own in the spring. Naoko expresses concern about being able to emotionally or physically participate in a relationship, but Toru promises to wait as long as it takes. Toru returns to Tokyo and rents a new apartment in a suburb shortly after the new year. He writes to Naoko about the move but fails to tell Midori—when he finally does call Midori, Momoko answers and states that Midori is angry about Toru’s failure to communicate with her for several weeks. Months go by—Toru hears from neither Naoko or Midori and spends most of his time alone.

In April, a letter from Reiko arrives explaining that Naoko is in a fragile state and may be moving to a specialized facility. A few days later, Toru hears from Midori, too—she tells him she’s ready to talk. A few days later, the two reconnect and spend the afternoon eating lunch, shopping, and catching up. At the end of the afternoon, Midori hands Toru a letter. He reads it on the train—the letter, written while the two were sitting on a park bench that very afternoon, expresses Midori’s frustration with Toru’s aloofness and his failure to genuinely open up to her. She tells Toru she doesn’t want to see or speak to him anymore. In May, Reiko writes Toru to tell him that Naoko, who has been hearing voices, has been transferred to another facility. She includes Naoko’s new address, and Toru writes to her there, though he doesn’t hear back. One day in June, Midori approaches Toru after class and tells him she’s ready to talk. She invites him to lunch at a department store, and, after eating, tells him she’s in love with him. Toru admits he loves Midori, too, but still can’t “make a move” toward being with her because of his situation with Naoko. Midori warns Toru that if he doesn’t recognize that he has a chance with a “real, live girl” and choose to be with her, he’ll lose them both.

In August, Toru receives word that Naoko is dead—a letter from Reiko explains that after during a visit to the Ami Hostel to collect some of her things, Naoko slipped off into the woods and hung herself. Torn apart by grief, Toru writes to his employer and to Midori telling them that he’ll be away for a while, then packs a bag and boards the first train out of Tokyo. Over the next several weeks, Toru wanders from village to village, aimless and penniless, dogged each night by horrible visions of Naoko telling him that death isn’t so bad and inviting him to join her. After a chance encounter with a fisherman who has also lost a loved one, Toru realizes he needs to pull himself out of his grief. He heads to the nearest train station and buys a ticket back to Tokyo.

Soon, Toru hears from Reiko—she is planning on leaving the Ami Hostel, and wants to know if she can visit Toru on her way north toward a new life. Toru agrees, and happily meets Reiko at the station the following day. She tells him of her plan to teach music at a school in Asahikawa, a village in the far north of Japan. That night, the two of them hold their own ceremonial funeral for Naoko, playing her favorite songs, including several renditions of The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” late into the night. After the little ceremony, Toru and Reiko have sex, and the experience is joyful and ecstatic. The following day, Toru brings Reiko to the train station and promises to visit her one day. Toru rushes to a payphone and calls Midori. When she picks up, he tells her he’s finally ready to be with her—she is all he wants in the entire world. After a pause, Midori asks Toru where he is. As he looks around at the “shapes of people” walking by all around him, he experiences a profound moment of confusion and calls Midori’s name, shouting for her from a “place that [is] no place.”