Monday 22 March 2021

Backlist books: The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

Backlist books is a column by Lucy Day Werts that focuses on enduring, important works from or about Asia. This post is about The Tale of Genji, the bulk of which describes the main character’s amorous relationships with at least a dozen different women as he ages and finally dies, at which point the tale starts to relate the (rather easier to follow) romantic ambitions of Kaoru, a member of the younger generation whose past is not what it seems and whose future is never actually decided.

The tale, perhaps the world’s first novel, was written by an unusually well-educated noblewoman and lady-in-waiting to one of the Fujiwara empresses, sometime around the year 1000, and provides scholars of literature and history with a wealth of information about life in Heian Japan. Although the narration is often frustratingly vague when referring to well-known poems of the time, to the common cultural practices of the day, and to the dozens of people who feature in the tale, the characters have human emotions and motivations that are not at all alien to modern readers. The translators who have laboured to bring the work to life in English shine their light on different aspects of the novel, each making it accessible to readers in a different way.

See below to find out what you need to know to decide whether you should read The Tale of Genji, or what you should know about it even if you never do!

Theme in The Tale of Genji

There are many events in the tale, but not a lot of plot structure. The events are dramatic in an episodic, soap-opera kind of way, but the events do not obviously culminate in any sort of climax. What, then, was the point of creating the fictional world of Genji, or Genji himself?

A major theme seems to be the goal that several characters have of renouncing the world, acting so as to lighten the burden of sin, and otherwise preparing for the next (better) life. It may seem strange that the wealthiest, most powerful members of the imperial family could view their lives as burdened by suffering, but perhaps that is the whole point: no matter how luxurious a life a human leads, it is still a life. According to (my understanding of) Buddhism, life is full of suffering, and the ultimate goal is to escape the cycle of rebirth, to escape the necessity of having to live.

In fact, this theme in The Tale of Genji is like the theme of The Nine Cloud Dream, a 17th-century Korean novel set in China.

Setting in The Tale of Genji

Although many of the characters in The Tale of Genji want to step out of their world, we the readers meanwhile enjoy stepping into it. Settings are often more alluded to than described, but with the help of hundreds of poems, such hints as the narration gives, a few illustrations, and a bit of imagination, it is not difficult to find oneself immersed in a world where everyone lives in a residential complex with gates and gardens, messengers and servants, and wears layers of robes that all but envelop the body; where sick people are treated by application of loud prayers and precious little actual medical knowledge; where young women who allow themselves to be seen standing are considered foolish and reckless; where only the unbearably ill-bred actually say what they are thinking rather than imply it indirectly or just keep silent. It is a strange and beautiful world, a joy and an achievement to journey through.

Style in The Tale of Genji

If you are expecting the tale to involve ninjas or samurai battles, or indeed any details whatsoever about war, weapons, or any kind of man’s work, you will be disappointed. Here there is no open conflict, only intrigue, almost all of which is romantic and not political. The tone is wistful, in keeping with the theme. Men constantly cry, write poems, and pluck flowers to give to the women they visit. Once in a while they receive a promotion, participate in a procession, or drink, dance and play music at an all-night garden party. The style of the narration itself varies between translations, some being more verbose (and thus more accessible), and some hewing more closely to the original text, which seems to have left a great deal to the reader to infer.

For help choosing a translation, see Which English translation of The Tale of Genji should I read?

About Murasaki Shikibu

Scholars are not certain of the actual name of the woman who wrote The Tale of Genji. The author is conventionally known by the personal name Murasaki, the name of the most significant female character in the novel, and Shikibu, a reference to the Ministry of Ceremonial Affairs where her father held a position. Her father permitted her to study Chinese even though it was not thought appropriate for women to do so. In addition to The Tale of Genji, Murasaki left behind a volume of poetry and a diary.