Friday 20 April 2018

Student bookshelf: The Tale of Genji

Aurelia Paul is a senior year student at Boston University, studying comparative literature and Chinese. In her fortnightly column Student bookshelf, she shares responses to texts she's reading in her classes.

Here she discusses The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, focussing on Genji’s fall from grace and Murasaki’s early feminism.

The Tale of Genji is sometimes called the world’s first novel. It is a classic work of Japanese literature that has been preserved since the early years of the Heian Period in the 11th century. It was written by the noblewoman and lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu.

Genji, a superbly handsome man, is the second son of Emperor Kiritsubo, and a low-ranking concubine, Lady Kiritsubo. For political reasons he is delegated to civilian life and he becomes an imperial officer. The Tale of Genji concentrates on his romantic life and describes the customs of the aristocratic society of the time.

In the Kocho chapter, Genji arranges for the construction of Chinese pleasure boats in Lady Murasaki’s (the author’s) garden where a party is held in honour of a Spring Festival visit by the Empress Akikonomu and her ladies. The following day Lady Murasaki sends eight of her prettiest attendants to deliver a message to the Empress. Four are dressed as birds and four as butterflies. The children approach the Empress with gifts of cherry blossoms and yamabuki (Japanese roses). Tamakuzara, Genji’s adopted daughter. is in attendance, and attracts his roving eye.

The Heartvine chapter concerns Genji’s sexual entanglements. He is now pursuing Lady Murasaki. Meanwhile his wife, Aoi, and one of his former conquests, the Rokujo lady make no secret of their jealousy for one another.

So, over to Aurelia…

I thought that the Kocho chapter of Tale of Genji was both exceptionally beautiful and somewhat disturbing. On one hand, the descriptions of festivals and gardens that ran through the chapter created deep romantic impressions, but on the other Genji’s attitude towards Tamakuzara struck me as intensely cruel and sexist. Perhaps, Murasaki Shikibu juxtaposed the episodes of the Spring Festival and Genji’s advancements towards his adopted daughter for precisely this reason: to make Genji’s behaviour seem all the more horrific and immoral against such contrastingly beautiful images.

In the Heartvine chapter, we once again see Genji inappropriately pursuing a young girl, and this time it is Murasaki. We are also presented with parallel descriptions of a festival, in this case the Kamu Festival, a summer festival, contained within the same chapter. The main difference between Heartvine and Kocho seems to be that in Heartvine, the celebrations of the Kamu Festival are already coloured by Genji’s wayward sexual behavior, because the jealous competition between Aoi and the Rokujo lady is publically played out at the procession. This competition is caused by the fact that Genji is married to Aoi yet is also romantically involved with the Rokujo lady. Despite his determining role in their conflict, Genji displays a callous attitude towards both these women, and he comments: “Why cannot the two of them be a little less prickly?”

Genji’s infuriating belief that he is blameless, coupled with his predatory actions towards both Tamakazura and Murasaki, led me to be disenchanted with his character. I think that this was Murasaki Shikibu’s intent, and we can take this as further evidence that she intended the Tale of Genji to be satirically critical of male behaviour in Heian Japan.

Details: The Tale of Genji is available in multiple editions and formats.