From its beginning, the novel is immediately framed by the question of memory: the elder Toru is painfully reminded of his time with Naoko by "Norwegian Wood" playing on the airplane speakers, an experience that transports him back to a scene which, strangely, is absent of him, Naoko, and anyone else. Closely connected to interpersonal understanding, memory is one of the central aspects of love that nearly all of the characters feel: Naoko's second and most important request to Toru is that he remember her; Reiko asks that Toru remember her and Naoko as she leaves for Asahikawa; and Midori and Hatsumi both demand love in terms of remembrance. One might also link memory to the pain of loneliness that seems to be felt even by the dead, such as Kizuki, and Naoko too by the end of the novel: it is not simply that they live on in Toru's memory, but also that they continue to be loved.
Life and Death
In a way the central problem of the novel is the existential question of staying alive—put bluntly, this comes to something like, "Why not commit suicide?" All the characters face this question, but especially those who are one relation away from death, so to speak, due to a family member (Naoko, Midori) or loved one (Naoko, Toru) who has died or even taken their own life. Toru realizes early on in his relationship with Naoko that the two of them are seeking for something absent and lost, namely Kizuki, and because of this their love seems to pull them away from life into the other world that is death. However, Midori acts as a counterbalance for Toru, pulling him back into life just as Reiko does for Naoko—and for Toru, following Naoko’s death.
The problem of time emerges more explicitly in Toru's and Naoko's reflections on how Kizuki, having died, will stay seventeen forever, whereas their own ages change every successive year—that is, until Naoko dies and becomes frozen at twenty-one. That the novel begins with Toru's stating his age as thirty-seven is not insignificant, because although we cannot know how he has spent the past 17 years, we know that he has continued to live for that time and presumably matured, considering that he is still alive. Perhaps more than the usual bildungsroman, Norwegian Wood emphasizes the painful inevitability of growing up and how it is tied to the ceaseless march of time: almost every event that happens in the novel is given a date, so that the reader can feel the passage of particular lengths of time along with Toru, who often remarks about how another month or another year has passed.
For a novel set in one of the most politically turbulent times of modern Japanese history, Norwegian Wood seems surprisingly apolitical. Toru usually views both the fascists in his dorm and the radical leftist student protesters at his school with the same indifference-bordering-on-disdain and keeps to his quiet private life. Aside from the constant background that politics sets for the story, two episodes illustrate Murakami's largely derisive attitude towards his contemporaries: first, the drama professor's striking statement to the protesters taking over his class that there are no problems more important than those dealt with in classical Greek tragedy; second, Midori's complaint about the Marxist student groups, which were nothing more than hotbeds for arrogant and sexist poseurs. In both cases, Murakami argues for the primacy of the experience of ordinary lived life over highfalutin slogans and ideas.
One shouldn't forget that the novel itself is framed within the elder Toru's attempt to write about his memories. At the end of the first chapter he writes of how the painful clarity of his memories of Naoko prevented him from writing of her, but how the passage of time, a double-edged sword, blurred those memories and enabled him to write. Similarly, Toru writes a great deal of letters, mostly to Naoko but also to Reiko and Midori, over the course of the novel, and he also has a great many conversations; as he realizes during an intense spell of depression when he is unable to see anyone, his letter writing is the last thing holding his life together, regardless of his not receiving any replies. Although Toru usually finds a way to express himself due to his honesty and straightforward sincerity, Naoko has trouble translating her feelings into words to share with others, and this serves as the essence of her pain. The way that characters speak in the novel often tells us more than explicit descriptions of their personalities or emotional states.
Sickness and Deformity
Naoko, as the only character with clear psychological issues, becomes the center of questions of what it means to be sick. Toru himself observes how her body becomes at times healthier or sicker, corresponding to the state of her mind, such as her brokenness when she sleeps with him and her perfection when she reveals her naked body to him. In the peculiar environment of Ami Hostel the hidden truth is revealed that all people are sick in a way, since so long as one is human one has certain vulnerabilities. Whereas in the real world these vulnerabilities are concealed, leading to people's misunderstanding and hurting each other, at the sanatorium all learn to communicate and appreciate themselves and others, which in a sense neutralizes the sickness.
Fate and Fairness
It is no surprise that there are several references to classical Greek tragedy—including one particularly explicit portion in which Toru discusses the figure of deus ex machina—considering the strong sense of inevitability and the inescapability of fate in the novel. As an inborn optimist, Toru believes that so long as he keeps walking forwards with Naoko that they can overcome any pain and difficulty; however, Naoko senses that she and Kizuki were destined to pay for having lived a utopian kind of life. Conversely, Midori expects life to recompense her with a future brimming with love in return for the toil and lack of affection she was burdened with most of her life.
Norwegian Wood Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Norwegian Wood is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.