Lady Murasaki Shikibu was the daughter of a famous provincial governor and the widow of a lieutenant in the imperial guard. As a lady-in-waiting to Empress Akiko, she was completely familiar with Nipponese court ritual and ceremony, and her knowledge of palace life is everywhere apparent in the adventures of her nobly born hero, Prince Genji.
The Tale of Genji is undoubtedly the finest example of medieval Japanese storytelling, and in it one can trace the growth of Japanese literature. In the beginning, Murasaki’s romance is an adolescent affair, very much in the fairy-tale tradition of the old Japanese chronicles. As it progresses, it becomes a full-blown prose romance. It resembles the medieval prose romances of western Europe in that both genres focus on the love affairs of their heroes. The Tale of Genji, however, reflects the qualities of Japanese culture. Here are people whose main occupation, far removed from the arts of war and chivalry, is to live well and enjoy nature and art in all forms. In place of the idealized woman, these romances present the idealized man, in whose life women play distinctly subordinate roles.
The Tale of Genji is a long, elegant, wittily ironical court romance that is in some respects a prototype of the novel. The book is divided into parts consisting of the title section and sections titled “The Sacred Tree,” “A Wreath of Cloud,” “Blue Trousers,” “The Lady of the Boat,” and “The Bridge of Dreams.” Although Arthur Waley’s translation from the Japanese has made the work accessible to a greater audience, few Western readers generally venture beyond the first section, “The Tale of Genji,” although Murasaki’s style actually improves as she proceeds. The first chapter crudely imitates the manner of old court romances, but the characterizations become richer and more complex over the course of the book, and the work’s overall design—depicting a moral picture of the emperor’s court of Murasaki’s time—becomes apparent.
The Tale of Genji presents an incomparable re-creation of life in eleventh century Japan, faithfully depicting the smallest details of the customs, ceremonies, and...
(The entire section is 908 words.)