Murasaki’s original handwritten manuscript is lost, but fragments of the text exist from the twelfth century, by which time it had become the subject of scholarly interest. The Tale of Genji has been praised for its brilliant realism of setting and depiction of the everyday life of Heian aristocrats. Through the influence of this novel, the era’s refined emotions and sensibilities have affected Japanese writers for hundreds of years, whether in fiction, poetry, or theater. Murasaki’s views on the art of the novel are presented in The Tale of Genji’s “Fireflies” chapter, which rebuts the prevailing Chinese attitude that “frivolous” literature was dangerous. The passage begins by praising romances that teach about how people once lived. Murasaki’s Genji himself explains that the art of the novel goes beyond a romantic story of someone’s adventures; it happens, he says, because of the storyteller’s passionate desire to save and share experiences, both autobiographical events and things that have been indirectly encountered. Genji adds that the storyteller must go beyond the theme of virtue and also illustrate vice and folly. Anything may become the subject of a novel, he declares, provided that it is part of mundane life.

Shinto rituals are important in Genji’s world and reflect the prerogatives of imperial succession. Buddhism plays an even larger role, helping to explain the novel’s premise—that life is suffering as a consequence of thwarted human desire. In order to interrupt the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, Buddhism teaches that one may negate desire, which creates enlightenment. This is the challenge before...

(The entire section is 683 words.)