Study Guide

The Tale of Genji

by Lady Murasaki Shikibu

The Tale of Genji Themes

Themes

Overview
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.

Evanescence
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 complex character with a keen awareness of the sorrow of his existence.

The Law of Karma
The concept of moral causality is used to explain events of the novel. Fate is related to past lives. Good actions will be rewarded and bad actions will be punished. In this formula, there is no escaping justice. For example, Kaoru seems to be the victim of severely bad luck. He knows, though, that he surely did something to bring on this ill fortune. "His thoughts on the road were of long ago. What strange legacy had brought him and the Eighth Prince together? A bond from an earlier life, surely, had tied him to this family and its sad affairs, and made him see to the needs of this last foundling, even."

Genji, of course, is highly sensitive to the cause-and-effect quality of his actions. His regret often predicts future retribution. He also worries about others. "The bishop talked of this ephermal world and of the world to come. His own burden of sin was heavy, thought Genji, that he had been lured into an illicit and profitless affair. He would regret it all his life and suffer even more terribly in the life to come."

According to William J. Puett, in Guide to The Tale of Genji, "To the Heian mind karma neatly accounted for the apparent inequities in the world: why one man, despite his virtue, seemed to have nothing but troubles to live with, or why another was blessed with continuous satisfaction. It was also employed to explain such strong emotional affinities as when one falls in love at first sight, for people once bonded together in a previous life were likely to be pushed together by force of karma."

Substitution
Throughout The Tale of Genji, male characters seek consolation for lost or unattainable loves in women of similar composition. Genji's father, the Emperor, is inconsolable after the death of Kiritsubo until he finds a woman, Fujitsubo, who almost exactly resembles her. Genji himself falls in love with Fujitsubo, a mother replacement. Later, he falls in love with Murasaki because of her resemblance...

(The entire section is 1449 words.)