IN the following post (or two or three….who knows) I will attempt to write up the notes I made while reading Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s novel The Tale of Genji. And when I say “notes I made,” I mean looking at where I stuck sticky notes on a page and SOMETIMES I wrote something on them. Once I drew a stick figure of some sort- this was on page 185 and I have no idea why I did that, even after rereading those pages. Green was supposed to be referencing Genji as a character, blue a cultural observation and pink and yellow also had some sort of meaning that I instantly forgot! So here is the DISCLAIMER:
This is NOT a summary of each chapter. I am sure there are MANY summaries out there online. There are even decent abridged versions of the work you can read too. These notes are not comprehensive, very loosely organized and unfortunately don’t even reflect all my thoughts on the work and this won’t even cover many of my most favorite chapters or parts of the book. BUT if you don’t want any spoilers, you shouldn’t read this. If you are curious about the novel, maybe this could be interesting. If I happened to have my sticky notes and a pencil while I was reading it, I tried and marked something I wanted to think about later, or a point I would have enjoyed discussing with someone. If I was reading at night, or if I was really into it, I often didn’t even make any notes. I didn’t want to return the book to the library without parsing out some of what particularly interested me. Mostly, I will just be lifting quotes straight from the book and typing them up. I’m also not going to worry about correct format when quoting from the book, although I will try and include page numbers and at least the chapter. All of these quotes unless otherwise indicated are coming from the Seidensticker translation.
Themes- These are some of the themes that seemed to emerge while I was reading.
Marriage and courtship
Transience of life/beauty/passage of time
Music as form of communication
Chapter1: The Paulowinia Court
A few observations:
- Lady Kiritsubo (Genji’s mother) was set up as an object of perfection in beauty and manner. The only discredit to her could be that she was though upper class, “not of the first rank,” but in her status as an imperial concubine she was the favorite of the emperor and he “loved [her] more than any of the others, and thusly she was “widely held to have fallen into immoderate habits out of keeping with her rank.” This made the other women jealous, especially the Lady Kokiden (mother of the emperors first born and “Heir Apparent”). This resentment essentially resulted in Genji’s mother being bullied to death.
- A practical joke at the imperial court: The highborn would not walk from one area of court to another, but be born in a litter. One example of how Genji’s mother was harrassed was that some women conspired to have both doors of a gallery locked and she could only wander back and forth, (presumably on her litter) in distress.
- Since Genji’s mother died when he was three, he would continually have this perception of her as an (unattainable?) ideal which probably complicated his relationships as he tried to replace his lost mother with the many women he sought relationships with.
- Genji was intentionally denied access to the throne and imperial rank by the Emperor; BECAUSE Genji was his obvious favorite, the Emperor wisely protected him from hostility in that sense by ensuring the existing heir would become the next emperor and Genji would essentially remain a commoner. This leaves Genji as a character to escape political intrigues, yet still have the access, privilege and rank needed to embark on many romantic intrigues.
- Did I mention how often Genji is described as being completely gorgeous? He was described as being handsomer than the prince and was called “the Shining one.”
- Genji was married off to an older girl; a political union and neither was happy in their relationship.
- Fujitsubo, the first “unattainable” woman that Genji longs for is introduced. She is the daughter of a former emperor, famous also for her beauty AND resembles Kiritsubo. The emperor takes her in as a new imperial concubine, and Genji forms an attachment, and “wanted to be hear her always.” After his marriage, he was not allowed to “go behind her curtains,” and only could communicate with her by flute (when she played the koto).
Chapter 2: The Broom Tree
Genji, To no Chujo and two young courtiers discuss the qualities of women. This seemed to me as if it were setting the tone for some of the major themes of the work- the most obvious being love, courtship and marriage.
To no Chujo complains that the “flawless ones are very few indeed.” They have very specific standards for the ideal women. Here are some of the qualities of an ideal woman discussed. However, the main thrust of the discussion is to list all the faults that women have and lament the difficulty of finding the perfect woman.
- of good family AND brought up well
- good reputation
- not too demanding
- be understanding and forgiving when the man strays, but not TOO lenient
- Someone who is learned, but doesn’t make too much of a show of it, feigning ignorance at times.
I like this analogy on p. 26
“Let us think of the cabinet maker. He shapes pieces as he feels like shaping them. They may be only playthings, with no real plan or pattern. They may all the same have a certain style for what they are–they may take on a certain novelty as times change and be very interesting. But when it comes to the genuine object, something of such undeniable value that a man wants to have it always with him–the perfection of the form announces that it is from the hand of a master. “
To no Chujo tells a story about a woman- introducing a character that becomes very important in later chapters.
Upon hearing all the flawed characteristics of women, Genji muses that Fujitsubo, the object of HIS desire, possesses (of course) NONE of the flaws, but “answered every requirement.”
Genji’s first romantic encounter is described at the end of the chapter. He essentially went through the unbolted door, and surprised the woman, who was already under the covers in bed. He carried her off to his own room, despite her objections.
Chapter 3: The Shell of the Locust
With the aid of her brother, Genji tries to encounter once more the lady from the end of Chapter 2. However, she tricks him in a way, because she smells his perfume (it will happen again in this book that perfume gives something away) and rushes out of the room, leaving behind her robe. Genji sees who he THINKS is his lady sleeping, but not until he uncovers her bedclothes and wakes her up does he realize his mistake. Of course he doesn’t want to lose face, so he just plays as if he had meant his nightly visit for her.
Genji takes the robe his original object of desire left, and this becomes the subject of some many poems the two write back and forth…a “locust’s empty shell.” (I like to think of this as a cicada, not a locust).
I felt this chapter contained some comedic elements with the mistaken identity of the woman.
Chapter 4: Evening Faces
Genji tells us a little more about the type of woman he wishes for:
“The weak ones do have a power over us. The clear, forceful ones I can do without. I am weak and indecisive by nature myself, and a woman who is quiet and withdrawn and follows the wishes of a man even to the point of letting herself be used has much the greater appeal. A man can shape and mold her as she wishes, and becomes fonder of her all the while.”
Isn’t this exactly what he does with Murasaki later in the novel…..shaping and molding her as he wishes??
Chapter 5: Lavender (Murasaki- the Japanese word for purple, or lavender as translated here).
A description on p. 86 reveals one disturbing aspect of Japanese culture, that of honorable suicide. The governor has turned away suitors that he deems unsuitable, thinking she is destined for a greater match.
Each successive governor has asked for her hand but the old man has turned them all away. He may have ended up an insignificant provincial governor himself, he says, but he has other plans for her. He is always giving her last instructions. If he dies iwth his grand ambitions unrealized she is to leap into the sea.”
Genji smiles and one of his men comments:
“A cloistered maiden, reserved for the king of the sea. A very extravagant ambition.”
This chapter is important, for Genji sees Murasaki for the first time, and even though she is only 10 years old starts to have designs on her: “What a discovery! The child must stand in the place of the one whom she so resembled.” Murasaki is Fujitsubo’s niece, hence the reference to the familial resemblance. So, here Genji can mold his perfect woman and thus fulfill his yet unattainable ideal. He does this essentially by kidnapping her.
This doesn’t mean he doesn’t still try for Fujitsubo, and although it seems he has already succeeded somewhat with her, his desire is unsatiated. His feelings are conflicted though,”…her efforts to turn him away delighted him even as they put him to shame.”
Feeling unfulfilled in his relationship with Fujitsubo, on the last page of the chapter (111), we see that Murasaki as a replacement is for him the “perfect companion, a toy for him to play with.”
Chapter 6: The Safflower
I really enjoy this new and unlikely relationship introduced here: Princess Hitachi, known as The Safflower, due to her red nose. Genji finds her unattractive and she is hopelessly out of date, however he is faithful to her throughout his life as far as not discarding her for the undesirable qualities as compared to his other women. His sense of honor- although unlike what I am used to- dictates that once he “takes” a woman, he must support her. After their romantic interlude, the narrator states, “No doubt he was having what people call second thoughts. Well, there was no alternative. He must look after her to the end.” And he does.
I also liked the description of the “tree in the rain.” Lady Murasaki often has her characters quote poetry. Genji’s attendent explains, “I fear sir, that she is not your ‘tree in the rain'” In the footnote, this is explained.
My lady’s gate, my lady’s gate,
Is difficult to pass.
If I hold up my hands to keep off the rain,
Might she not let me in?
Like a cuckoo hunting a tree in the rain
Might I not go within?
However, Hitachi did “let him in”, and the description is again somewhat comedic to me, if one sets aside the whole issue of rape. [The issue of rape is a huge one for this novel, and I have thought about it a lot but won’t discuss it here].
Since Hitachi was so out of touch with what to do when such a gentlemen as Genji started courting her, her own attendants even spoke for her as Genji attempted to communicate with her through the screen. Genji ended up losing patience and slid open the screen and entered her apartment. “The princess’s young women were less disturbed. Such misdemeanors were easy to forgive when the culprit was so uniquely handsome. Their reproaches were not very loud, though they could see that their lady was in a state of shock, so swiftly had it happened.
In most cases in this novel, it seems to me that the woman who Genji desires to possess does NOT necessarily want to be deflowered. The attendants are often totally useless in defending their lady, and often aid Genji in his exploits. Here, it seems as though they figure they know what is best for her better than she does. And maybe they do.
OK, upon reviewing this chapter, I forgot this really funny and interesting part. This whole time, he didn’t even really know what she looked like! Obviously when he has these romantic encounters with women, they are usually it seems taking place in secrecy, in the dark. And since the high-born woman of Heian Japan is so protected, they are usually only visited with screens in between them and the suitor, and though they talk to each other and send each other poetry, they don’t meet face to face. After one evening with her, the daylight came and he finally gets a good look at her. I’m not going to type out the description ()p.124) but it is amusing in how her features and unfashionable clothing is described.
I’ve also gotten a bit tired of her poetry continually making references to her “wet sleeves,” meaning that her tears (since she misses Genji) dampen her sleeves??
Note: On p.130 the attributes of beauty in this time period are revealed:
Because of her grandmother’s conservative preferences, her teeth had not yet been blackened or her eyebrows plucked. Genji had put on one of the women to blackening her eyebrows, which drew fresh, graceful arcs.
Also on p. 199 describing the little prince (Genji’s son)
“Because his teeth were slightly decayed, his mouth was charmingly dark when he smiled.”
Chapter 7- An Autumn Excursion
Genji has an affair with a much older woman- Naishi. She’s gotten around it seems. After the first encounter, he turned away further invitations from her, “not wanting the world to see him as the boy lover of an aged lady.” There was an exchange of poetry which I found a bit more obvious than others:
Sere and withered though these grasses be,
They are ready for your pony, should you come.
Were mine to part the low bamboo at your grove,
It would fear to be driven away by other ponies.
So at THAT point of the story, nothing happened between Naishi and Genji. The emperor happened to look in and saw them and assumed they were “involved.” I liked the following quote– stating that Naishi didn’t “protest with great vehemence,” the narrator then comments wryly
“There are those who do not dislike wrong rumors if they are about the right men.”
- Note: The comedic element again comes out in this chapter when, after an amorous encounter with Naishi, the couple is surpised by Genji’s friend and rival To no Chujo. Genji grabs his clothes and hides behind a screen, but To no Chujo takes Genji’s clothes and in jest takes out a sword and pretends to be on an attack. They all end up laughing. To no Chujo doesn’t want to give the clothes back, to which Genji suggests that “let’s be undressed together,” and attempts to disrobe To no Chujo– in the end they walk off together laughing.
- Note: A very important plot point arises in this chapter. Fujitsubo had become pregnant by Genji, however they were able to keep this a secret- from all, but especially the Emperor. In this chapter, Fujitsubo struggles with her feelings of guilt. The son is born and although his likeness to Genji is observed, no one guesses the truth. “Though Fujitsubo was in constant terror, it appeared that no one had guessed the truth. How, people asked, could someone who was not Genji yet be as handsome as GEnji They were, Genji and the little prince, like the sun and moon side by side in the heavens.”
- on his affair with Fujitsubo, “What a frail, fleeting union theirs had been! (136). (Theme of transience)
Chapter 8: The Festival of the Cherry Blossoms
Failing in his effort to have another liason with Fujitsubo (her door was tightly closed), Genji comes across another possibility. “The hinged door at the far corner was open too. All was silent. It was thus, he thought, that a lady invited her downfall.” When he slipped in, he heard a young woman’s voice and he caught at her sleeve. She was frightened, but he carried her down to the gallery and closed the door, “Her surprise pleased him enormously.” When she called for help, he said, “It will do you no good. I am always allowed my way. Just be quiet, if you will please.”
The narrator states that once she recognized him by his voice, she was somewhat reassured. Upon questioning how it is appropriate for Genji to essentially go around raping all of these young women- as it seems that all of these encounters follow the same formula, the way it is described here is a bit revealing, as far as the cultural expectations.
“Though of course upset, she evidently did not wish him to think her wanting in good manners. It may have been because he was still a little drunk that he could not admit the possiblity of eltting her go; and she, young and irresolute, did not know how to send him on his way.” It only says though that they “exchanged fans,” so I don’t think anything physical happened between them on that occasion. However, it is fun to note that exchanging fans (upon which poetry is written) = writing love letters= writing emails= texting……..
I enjoy the detail that Murasaki Shikibu gives to describing clothing. For an archery meet and a wisteria banquet, Genji dressed “with great care,” wearing a “robe of a thin white Chinese damask with a red lining and under it a very long train of magenta.” I especially loved the description of the women’s kimono sleeves on p. 156:
The shutters were raised and women were gathered at the southwest corner, where the wisteria was in bloom. Their sleeves were pushed somewhat ostentatiously out from under blinds, as at a New Year’s poetry assembly.”
Chapter 9: Heartvine
In this chapter, the plight of one of Genji’s longtime mistresses, Lady Rokujo is highlighted. She had been offended by the lack of attention given to her by Genji. The emperor remonstrates Genji, advising him:
“You should treat any woman with tact and courtesy, and be sure that you cause her no embarrassment. You should never have a woman angry with you.”
This shows to me the manner in which a nobleman- the emperor being the highest example of this- can skillfully handle multiple relationships as was accepted in the time frame of the novel, and in the authors time as well. Having polygamous relationships was acceptable and tolerated by the women, however the men were supposed to abide by certain codes of conduct- treating the women involved with respect and doing everything you could to reduce embarrassment with the women involved. Genji was not always adept at this, allowing his impulses to take over better judgment.
Chapter 10: The Sacred Tree
Here we again see how Genji is thrilled to be molding his perfect woman in Murasaki:
He smiled. Her writing had improved. It had come to resemble his, though it was gentler and more ladylike. He congratulated himself on having such a perfect subject for his pedagogical endeavors.”
Chapter 13: Akashi
At this point, Genji is now in temporary exile (because of yet another romantic exploit) and is living on the Akashi coast. Dreams have been mentioned with some importance in the text at this point. I noted the following:
The emperor had a dream: “His father stood glowering at the stairs to the royal bedchamber and had a great deal to say, all of it, apparently, about Genji.” After talking about his dream to his mother, who dismisses it, the narrator states, “Perhaps because his eyes had met the angry eyes of his father, he came down with a bery painful eye ailment.”
I found it interesting how the dream world affects the world of the living, not just in messages, but the “angry glare” being thought to have actually caused a sickness in the Emperor. The Emperor cannot help but feel that he would continue to suffer as long as the “innocent Genji” was in exile and wished to restore Genji fully to his old rank and offices.
Genji was pardoned and returned to the city. While in exile he did have an affair with a monk’s daughter, the Princess Akashi and she had a child by him. He promised her he would bring her to the city. I enjoyed this description of their last encounter, where she wept and played the koto together.
“The waves moaned in the autumn winds, the smoke from the salt burner’s fires drew faint lines across the sky, and all the symbols of loneliness seemed to gather together.”
THOUGHTS ON FUJITSUBO: Chapters 10, 19 and 20
“A rack of cloud across the light of evening
As if they too, these hills, wore mourning weeds.”
Upon observing the gray clouds on the day of Fujitsubo’s funeral, Genji uttered the above poem and the narrator states: “There was no one to hear.”
My theory is that Fujitsubo may have in the end essentially starved herself to death. The strength of her character I suppose lies in her efforts to take what control of her life that she could in a system where female power was limited. It seems ambiguous to me whether she was initially truly interested or happy about the affair she had with Genji, since the beginning of their romantic liaisons weren’t described in the novel, just alluded to. However, based on his pattern of behavior and her many efforts to refuse him later, I assume that his attentions were probably always unwelcome.
Here is a horrifying example: In Chapter 10 it says,
“She even commissioned religious services in hopes of freeing herself from Genji’s attentions and she exhausted every device to avoid him. The was appalled, then, when one day he found a way to approach her. He had made his plans carefully and no one in her household was aware of them. The result was for her an unrelieved nightmare” (p.195-196).
He sought to comfort her, but she “was unmoved,” and ended up having sharp chest pains. I think she was probably having a panic attack. Her servants hurried in to assist her and “Genji was reeling from the grim determination with which she had repulsed him.” I can only imagine (or compare other translations?) whether this means that she was ABLE to resist him, or it was just that during whatever sexual activity that may have taken place it was very obvious to him that she was not in favor of it. Genji was “half-conscious” and was pushed into the closet with his clothes (which signifies that most likely there had been some kind of intercourse). Fujitsubo was then having fainting spells while Genji listened from the closet. Normally, in order to avoid suspicion, he would have left by this hour, as “day was breaking,” but since he was in such a dazed state, he wasn’t being very reasonable.
Even though this whole situation is deplorable, it does set up a little bit of a comic scene. Evidently, Genji stays in the closet the WHOLE day: “Towards evening Fujitsubo began to feel rather more herself again. She had not the smallest suspicion that GEnji was still in the house, her women having thought it best to keep the information from her” (196). Again, the servants not being much help or just thinking they know best- although they were trying to find ways to take Genji away without anyone finding out AND they didn’t want him to accost her again: “He must not be allowed to bring on another attack.”
He slipped out and looked at her as she sat in a severe state of depression. Her beauty, her resemblance to Murasaki struck him as even being superior in her calm and mature dignity and “no longer in control of himself, he slipped inside her curtains and pulled at her sleeve.” His fragrance gives him away and “in sheer terror she sank to the floor.” Then there is a dramatic scene where he pulls her toward him and she attempts to escape but her hair gets all tangled up in her robe. (Drat that fashionable ankle-length hairstyle!) Then he assaults her with WORDS only, as the text states, “she held him off till morning. He could not force himself upon her. In her quiet dignity, she left him feeling very much ashamed of himself.” He makes dramatic exclamations about how he is so upset he must die, and his love for her will be “an obstacle on my way to salvation….and the sin will be yours as well.”
If I am reading this correctly, Genji’s twisted and selfish logic is that she is causing him to sin by allowing his love for her to be unrequited. And she is the one who has born the immense sin of the secret illegitimacy of the heir!
She just sighs and utters a poem, shifting the blame back onto him, or at least reminding him that they share the burden of sin:
“Remember that the cause is in yourself
Of a sin which you say I must bear through lives to come
A truly tragic character, Fujitsubo’s life seemed only one of despair. Yet she still had a very good way in which to escape Genji. The first act of control she took was to become a nun . This occurrence, in which the woman declares her intention to “leave the world” and become a nun, (Bhuddist) happens several times with different women throughout the novel. In that era, I believe it was one of the few ways in which the woman could exert power (Theme: Female power), and in essence was the only way that a woman could divorce her husband. Upon declaring her intention, the woman would cut her hair. In times of great sickness, it was also hoped that becoming a nun would prolong one’s life.
Ah, the rest of the chapter is heartbreaking, especially the description of her conversation with her son.
“What will you think of me if I do not see you for a very long time and become very unpleasant to look at?”
He gazed up at her. “Like Shikibu?” He laughed. “But why should you ever look like her?”
She wanted to weep. “Ah, but Shikibu is old and wrinkled. That is not what I had in mind. I meant that my hair would be shorter and I would wear black clothes and look like one of the priests that say prayers at night. And I would see you much less often.”
“I would miss you,” he said solemnly, turning away to hide his tears. The hair that fell over his shoulders was wonderfully lustrous and the glow in his eyes, warmer as he grew up, was almost enough to make one think he had taken Genji’s face for a mask. Because his teeth were slightly decayed, his mouth was charmingly dark when he smiled. One almost wished that he had been born a girl. But the resemblance to Genji was for her like the flaw in the gem. All the old fears came back.
The birth of her and Genji’s son and the awful secret he embodied (being thought to have been the son of the current emperor, making the child the heir to the thrown) became a burden she carried throughout her life and I think resulted in her death. The second act of control was that I think she starved herself to death. In the book group where this book was discussed, the Japanese woman mentioned that that was one technique women used in order to commit suicide. It may have been that she was already sickly, as evidenced in the text. On page 339 it describes that throughout her illness the only thing she does is pray and one of her serving women remarks, “She will not touch the tiniest morself of food, not the tiniest bit of fruit. We are afraid that there is no hope.” And indeed, there was no hope…”And as he spoke she died, like a dying flame.”
In Chapter 20, Fujitsubo returns as a specter. Towards the end of the chapter, Genji has a long conversation with Murasaki about his affairs with other women. His candor in describing them, what he likes about them and how he feels and treats them is interesting in the sense that it shows the kind of awareness expected of all of the women in the polygamous court system. They know about each other, they know their places and what is expected of them.
However, he falls asleep thinking not of all the other women he had described, nor of the beautiful woman at his side, but of Fujitsubo: the unattainable.
“He had a fleeting dream of her. She seemed angry.
“You said that you would keep our secret, and it is out. I am unable to face the world for the pain and the shame.”
He was about to answer, as if defending himself against a sudden, fierce attack.
“What is the matter?”
It was Murasaki’s voice. His longing for the dead lady was indescribable. His heart was racing and in spite of himself he was weeping. Murasaki gazed at him, fear in her eyes. She lay quite still.
“A winter’s night, I awaken from troubled sleep.
And what a brief and fleeting dream it was?”
Arising early, sadder than if he had not slept at all, he commissioned services, though without explaining his reasons. No doubt she did blame him for her sufferings. She had tried very hard, it seemed, to do penance for her sins, but perhaps the gravest of them had remained with her. The thought that there are laws in these matters filled him with a sadness almost unbearable. He longed, by some means, to visit her where she wandered alone, a stranger, and to take her sins for his own. He feared that if he made too much of the services he would arouse suspicions.
So many aspects in the novel speak to impermanence the transience of life (this also being elements of Buddhism) – that everything has an end: the constant description of the changing of seasons, the love affairs, life itself- the deaths of many of Genji’s women are described. However, this dream shows that the burden of sin is a permanent one, as she carries it into the next life. Genji as well cannot escape this burden.
Important side note: At the end of Chapter 20, it is revealed to the cuckolded emperor that his son is not his, but the product of the liaison between Genji and Fujitsubo. His reaction and his subsequent talk with Genji is an interesting one. I’m not going to summarize it, so anyone who has actually read this post so far and is curious, you will have to just read it yourself!!
Also, if anyone did read this post through to the end, I would love to see a comment.