Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Except for a short diary, The Tale of Genji is Murasaki’s only literary work, but it is generally considered Japan’s most important literary achievement. While it is difficult to summarize its eleven hundred tightly printed but loosely plotted pages or to consider the nearly one hundred characters that move through this vast novel in a brief discussion, one can say that it focuses mostly on the life of its introspective hero, Prince Genji. The novel traces rather obliquely his rise, as the son of a minor consort of the emperor, to a position in society second in importance only to the emperor. It deals much more directly, however, with Genji’s life as an adventurous exploration, even a quest, for the ultimate possibilities that can be realized in the cultivation of personal relationships—wisdom, excitement, love, friendship, rivalry, and the private and shared experience of beauty and joy, triumph and tragedy. Somehow, to the extent that one person can be fulfilled as a human being living by the values of the Heian court, Genji succeeds.
Genji’s career consumes more than two thirds of the novel, during which he struggles to establish and maintain his position in court. Probably more significant to him, as well as more interesting for the reader, however, are his intimacies with a number of women. While still an adolescent, he falls in love with Fujitsubo, his stepmother and the emperor’s consort. Their very secret affair results in the birth of a boy who, because he is presumed to be the emperor’s son, eventually becomes an emperor himself. At about the same time that Genji is attracted to Fujitsubo, a marriage is arranged for him to the sister of his best friend, To no Chujo. Genji’s relationship with his wife, Princess Aoi, is probably the least satisfactory in his long experience with women. Aoi dies shortly after giving birth to their son, Yugiri, when Genji is about twenty-three years old. After Aoi’s death, Genji’s most important relationship, and the main focus of his affection for the rest of his life, is Murasaki, the young niece of Fujitsubo. Since the Heian aristocracy was not only exclusive but also small, each character in the novel is related in one way or another to every other character.
Despite his abiding affection for Murasaki, Genji is intimate with...
(The entire section is 950 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
When the emperor of Japan takes a beautiful gentlewoman of the bedchamber as his concubine, he greatly displeases his consort, the Lady Kokiden. The lot of the concubine, whose name is Kiritsubo, is not easy, despite the emperor’s protection and love, for Kokiden’s influence is very great. Kiritsubo therefore has little happiness in the birth of a son, although the child is beautiful and sturdy. The existence of Kiritsubo’s son makes Kokiden even more antagonistic, for she fears that her own son might lose favor in the emperor’s eyes and not be made heir apparent. Because of the hardships of her life among the other women of the court, Kiritsubo languishes, her health fading away until she dies.
After his mother’s death, Kiritsubo’s young child is placed by the emperor under the protection of the clan of Gen; the emperor also gives the child the title of Prince Genji. The boy, spirited and handsome, becomes a popular figure at the court. Even Kokiden cannot feel a great deal of ill will toward him. Genji wins a secure place for himself in the emperor’s eyes, and at the age of twelve he is not only elevated to a man’s estate but also given in marriage to Princess Aoi, the daughter of the minister of the left, a powerful figure at court. Genji is not impressed with his bride, nor is she entirely happy with her bridegroom, for she is four years older than he.
Genji is appointed a captain of the guard, and in this capacity he spends much of his time at the emperor’s palace. Indeed, he is rarely together with his bride in their apartment in her father’s home, for with his good looks, accomplishments, and position, Genji can have any woman he wants. His wife becomes very cool toward him, but Genji cares little about what Princess Aoi says or does.
One of Genji’s first love affairs is with a young gentlewoman named Fujitsubo, who, like his bride, is a few years older than he. His second romantic adventure takes place at the home of a young courtier, Ki no Kami, who is honored to have Prince Genji at his home. Genji goes into the room of a pretty young matron, Utsusemi, and takes her to his own quarters. Because of Genji’s rank and pleasing self, the woman does not resent this. To keep in touch with her afterward, Genji asks that her brother be appointed a member of his train, a request that is readily granted. When Utsusemi realizes that the affair cannot long continue, she breaks it off; Genji calls her his broom tree, comparing her to a Japanese shrub that at a distance promises shade but is really only a scrawny bush.
A short time later, Genji enters Utsusemi’s room in an effort...
(The entire section is 1081 words.)