Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 542

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The Japanese writer Ihara (sometimes Ibara) Saikaku was both a poet who wrote a prodigious number of seventeen-syllable haiku and the leading novelist of the Genroku Period (1600-1868) in Japan. The subjects of his fiction fall chronologically into three distinct types: those dealing with matters of love and the pleasure quarter, those dealing with life among the warrior class, and those dealing with the lives of the merchant class. Five Women Who Loved Love belongs to the first group, and all five of the short novels of this work are based on actual happenings. The work was first published in 1686.

In order to appreciate fully the prose fiction of Ihara, it is necessary to understand the nature of Japanese society during the latter half of the seventeenth century. Although Edo (Tokyo) was still the feudal capital (the residence of the shgun and the source of the real power), and Kyoto was still the residence of the mikado (the nominal ruler), Osaka witnessed the rise of a merchant class; but because of the rigid class distinctions and feudal laws maintained by the shgun and samurai, the merchants were unable to convert their economic power into political or social power. The official religion was Confucianism, and the ensuing laws ensured the maintenance of a rigidly stratified society with a hierarchy of classes, making it punishable by death to attempt to move from one class to another. The merchants thus sought an outlet for the frustration of their thwarted power and for their money in the ukiyo (floating world).

Ukiyo originally had a Buddhist meaning of the transitory life, death, and decay, and the works of Ihara always retained some of this original meaning. In the seventeenth century, however, the ukiyo became the term for the diverting quarters of town or the theater. The new heroes of this society were the actors and courtesans; the new values were love and money.

The five stories of Five Women Who Loved Love are linked by a common theme: the transgression of the social code for love. Each tale is divided into five parts or chapters, perhaps because of the five-act division of the drama, and the third part depicts a journey (also borrowed from drama). The plots are simple and, with one exception, tragic. The strength of the work lies in its evocation of character and subject. Each tale is linked to a particular locale, three to the major cities of Edo, Kyoto, and Osaka, and two to outlying provinces. In the first four tales, the transgression of the feudal law leads to death; in the fifth tale, however, the lovers live because they are both of the same social class. The five heroines are not languishing, leisurely ladies but rather women of character who have a part in creating their tragedies instead of being helplessly fated. Only Oman, the heroine of the last story, is allowed to live happily ever after, and she, in her charming determination to win her love, resembles in some respects William Shakespeare’s Rosalind. Throughout the work, Ihara seems to imply that there should be no conflict between love and society, especially one made along class lines. The conflict exists, however; the heroines choose love and accept the consequences without despair.