The Tale of Genji seems to invite analysis, and more than a thousand books interpreting it have been written in Japan. Since it has been translated into a number of Western languages, interpretive books and essays have appeared, and continue to appear, around the world. Probably nothing in the twentieth century has contributed more to its status as a world masterpiece than its translation into English by Arthur Waley, completed in 1933. Some scholars have criticized the freedoms that Waley took with Murasaki’s text, but they all acknowledge that his translation is itself a classic of English prose. In 1977, Edward Seidensticker produced a more accurate translation, and English readers are fortunate in having both versions in print. For readers intimidated by such a long novel—The Tale of Genji is nearly twice as long as Leo Tolstoy’s Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886)—abridged versions of both translations have been published.

Analyses of The Tale of Genji usually deal with the cultural breadth of its three-generational narrative and the psychological depths of its characterizations. Western commentators have admired Murasaki’s romantic idealism, especially as it is combined with keenly observed social detail. In Japan, it has been especially admired for its expression of classic aristocratic values, values that continue to be reflected as major themes in Japanese literature.

Its most prominent themes are an intensely melancholic sense of life’s beauty that grows from an awareness of its impermanence (mono no aware), the pain of unrequited love and the resignation of those bereft of love through separation or death, the impact of the passage of time on character, and the harmonizing of human moods and feelings with the seasons and other manifestations of the natural world. Other notable themes deal with social disillusionment, the limits to personal realization set by social circumstances, and the ultimate triumph of fate over desires and aspiration. For Buddhist Murasaki, fate reflects the working out of karma—the belief that behavior in successive phases of a person’s existence has consequences in this life. Genji frequently blames his bad fortune on his misdeeds in former lives.

Because The Tale of Genji is so long, Murasaki is able to dramatize the themes of her novel under various circumstances and over long stretches of time. The novel’s three-generation time span makes backward glances to better or more promising days almost irresistible and manifestations of cultural decline, as well as personal loss, inevitable. The first third of the novel deals with the young prince Genji’s triumphs and misfortunes as he contends for position in court and fulfillment in love. Although his father is the emperor, his mother is a relatively low-ranking concubine, and that makes Genji’s court position shaky. This fact, and some indiscretions in his many amorous adventures, force him into self-exile when the emperor dies and his son by his principal wife ascends the throne. Genji’s triumphant return to Kyoto and the great love of his life, Murasaki, when he is nearing his thirtieth year, is perhaps the high point of his life. Murasaki’s languishing death in the fortieth chapter (two-thirds of the way through the novel) sends Genji into seclusion. Two chapters later, he is dead, and the final twelve chapters, which take place eight years after Genji’s death, deal with his world in decline. The main setting for these last chapters has shifted from the capital, with its dazzling pageantry, to a gloomy rural district on the Uji river several miles from Kyoto.

The love themes of The Tale of Genji have probably attracted more attention through the ages than those of social and personal disillusionment, although they are closely related. The patterns of courtship and love in the Heian court were every bit as elaborate and intense as those depicted in the medieval romances of Europe. Love affairs in the Heian court, like those in King Arthur’s court, involve impassioned correspondence, seduction, adultery, and other forms of betrayal.

Yet unlike European medieval courts, which idealized the fealty and sacrifices of the chivalric lover, the Heian court tolerated a good deal of what Westerners would consider promiscuous behavior. As the people in traditional East Asian cultures did not...

(The entire section is 1812 words.)