Murasaki Shikibu's epic-length novel, The Tale of Genji, probes the psychological, romantic and political workings of mid-Heian Japan. The tale spreads across four generations, splashed with poetry and romance and heightened awareness to the fleeting quality of life.
The theme of evanescence unifies much of the action. Evanescence means, literally, "to dissipate or disappear like vapor," according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition. The characters in The Tale of Genji appreciate beauty to an extreme degree, an aesthetic known in Japan as miyabi. But this appreciation is tempered by an understanding of the impermanence of all things, especially life. The theme of surface phenomenon as illusory repeats itself throughout Buddhist doctrine. It is this prevailing attitude that gives the novel a tone of underlying sorrow, which can be translated into another Japanese term, mono no aware, or, loosely, "the pity of things."
Many characters throughout the novel, with this idea of fleeting human beauty and life in mind, take religious vows. Fujitsubo, Genji's old nurse, Ukifune, and others attempt to leave the material world. Murasaki and Genji seriously consider taking vows, though they ultimately don't follow through. These characters demonstrate their understanding that the time and things of Earth quickly give way. Murasaki depicts Genji as a...
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