ENG2205 Week 5: The Tale of Genji

We now move into Asia and specifically the Home Islands of Japan.


Lady Murasaki is a pen-name–unlike Homer, Murasaki was a real person, though her exact identity is unknown. It is possible she was named Fujiwara no Takako who was an Imperial Lady in Waiting in the Heian Period in Japan.

The Heian Period lasted from 794 to 1185 and is the last period of classical Japan, before the rise of the military caste, the Shogun and samurai, in the Kamakura Period. The Heian Period is marked by a great interest in Chinese cultures, Buddhism, and Taoism in Japan, as well as the power of the central court at the capital city of Kyoto.

We see some of this appreciation for Chinese culture and especially the power and domination of the Imperial Court reflected in The Tale of Genji through the stories and especially the original language–just a century later, Murasaki’s text was considered archaic and very difficult to read for contemporary Japanese readers, and translations into modern Japanese and other languages began there. The translation into English was first completed in the 1920s by Arthur Waley, a British sinologist and East Asian scholar. It remains a popular work in Japan and across the globe.

The Tales of Genji is in most respects the first modern novel, and certainly among the very first examples of a long prose narrative in recorded literary history. Because the characters are known mainly by their titles or positions (apparently, at that time, it would have been the height of rudeness to name a person instead of their honorific or title in Murasaki’s time), it is a difficult novel to read, unlike, e.g., Don Quixote our next reading, which is the first novel written in a European language, that is perhaps easier to read because the central characters of Quixote and Panza are the focus of the whole story which evolves with them, whereas Genji has a list of some 400 characters and a more episodic structure. While Genji gets older and the story moves along, there is not always a clear cause and effect relationship between chapters and episodes.

The Novel Itself:

Our text opens with the circumstances of the Genji’s birth and childhood–this is a pattern one can see in many novels in other languages, cultures, and periods to come–e.g., the first formal English novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67), e.g, begins with his conception (how Shandy knows about his conception is a bit of a joke–the whole of Sterne’s novel is a mockery of novelistic discourse, then only just begun in England) and follows his youth and growth into adulthood.

For the Genji, life begins with his mother at Court, and while there is no doubts about her being well received there and honored by the Emperor, The Emperor wishes to make the boy the ‘First Prince,’ but there is no power behind the child’s case–politics is all important, in other words, even for an Emperor. But the boy is raised in the palace, studying with the Emperor himself, but the suspicions grow that the boy is favored too much by the Emperor, so the child is sent away–he is given a new name, Gen, and becomes a commoner, eventually marrying a woman named Lady Aoi or the Lady Hollyhock.

But he doesn’t love her–and he begins to have affairs–perhaps it’s a repeating theme too often played in this course, but I think this text demands we ask the question again: ‘what is the overall sense we get of femininity here?’ What does The Tale have to say about the place(s) for women, women’s intelligences and abilities, what is of value in women and especially their appearances, and how does it compare, in this regard, to what we’ve seen from Gilgamesh onward? See, e.g., pages 522 onward in Ch. 2 of The Tale. Would you say that The Tale of Genji is sexist to our contemporary eyes? Does it compare in terms of seeing women as complicated and intelligent as seen inThe 1001 Nights?

What about the Genji himself? What kind of character is he? What does his story tell us about men in Heian Period Japan? How is he similar and different from the other protagonists we’ve seen before–certainly, he is no warrior like Achilles, Hector, or Gilgamesh, nor does he strike me as all that intelligent like Shahrazád.

The style of the novel as we have it is formal–I might say it is more suggestive of a Victorian Era novel, but the formality of the prose seems appropriate to the subject and content of the story.

What details in the work stand out to you? For me, it’s the timelessness of the story–seems like we could substitute in ‘President’ or ‘Prime Minister’ and other titles and this story could be set in today’s world. Money, power, and influence remain intriguing topics for story-telling, don’t then?

What else do you like/dislike in the work? Would you like to read more of this book? If so, why? If not, why not?

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