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 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...
(The entire section is 1081 words.)
Chapters 1-41 Summary
The Emperor and Kiritsubo give birth to the novel's hero, Genji, in 11th-century Japan. Kiritsubo, the Emperor's true love, is of the lower ranks of court. The slander and petty jealousy of the other palace wives contribute to the mental anguish which results in her early death, when Genji is but three-years-old.
Genji from the start impresses everybody with his unparalleled beauty. He is exceptional in every way. He is raised in the court. Despite his father's unflinching devotion, indeed because of it, the boy receives the name Genji, which classifies him as a commoner. The Emperor knows that without influential maternal relatives, Genji's position as a crown prince (or a son picked to become future Emperor) would be tentative, especially after his own death. Since the Kokiden faction will most certainly cause his son problems, it seems more practical to secure for him a court ranking (a political but not royal position) and to encourage his studies. A Korean soothsayer's prediction that the boy will never become emperor plays a part in this decision.
Genji, or Minamoto, roughly translated means ''commoner.'' It carries negative connotations, that the bearer of the name has been dispossessed of a potential birthright because of an embarrassment or scandal. But the name Hikaru Genji, by which he becomes known, means "the shining prince."
The Emperor's grief over Kiritsubo is eased when he meets her look-alike, Fujitsubo. She...
(The entire section is 1779 words.)
Chapters 42-54 Summary
Nine years have passed. Kaoru, distinguished by a strong and distinct odor, declines to pursue any romantic relationships, though he is desired by many court women. He becomes curious about the circumstances of his mother's flight to the nunnery. Niou does pursue romantic relationships. He, in fact, deliberately competes with Kaoru.
Kobai, To no Chujo's oldest surviving son, takes over as head of the Fujiwara clan. He has married Prince Hotaru's widow, Makibashira. They have a son together, Hotaru's first. He tries, as is tradition in the Fujiwara clan, to marry his daughters into the imperial family. Higekuro has died and left Tamakazura with two daughters. He has instructed her to marry them into the imperial family. After some competition for the daughters, the retired Emperor Reizei, who has long been interested in Tamakazura, accepts Himegimi as a replacement. She bears him two children. His other women, Chujo and Akikonomu, become jealous. The present emperor, angry that he wasn't given first choice of daughters, settles for Wakagimi. This turn of events turns people against Tamakazura, who is accused of arrogance in thrusting two daughters into the imperial line.
Prince Hachi, the Eighth Prince, is introduced. Living in exile, his wife, late in her life, gives birth to two daughters then dies. He lives a pious life in a meager cottage at Uji, though his parental responsibilities prevent him from taking religious vows. Kaoru begins...
(The entire section is 833 words.)