Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Japanese Geisha
Prior to the mid to late 1700s, geisha (professional entertainers) were primarily men who sang, played music,...

(The entire section is 204 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In his literary debut, Arthur Golden parlays his academic training in Japanese history and culture into a Dickensian first- person narrative of a geisha girl’s rise to prominence in pre-World War II Japan. As a product of meticulous research, Memoirs of a Geisha provides a detailed portrait of a little-known but much mythologized profession. In other respects, the novel has its weaknesses: The characterizations are often two-dimensional and thin (as was true for Charles Dickens’s work at times), set scenes can take on a touristy aesthetic (Sayuri never forgets she is speaking to an American audience), and the style suffers from a forced metaphorical lyricism. Golden knows how to maintain dramatic tension during the narrator’s struggle to free herself from slavery and attain geisha status, but her role as a passive observer of Japanese culture flattens the novel once she grows up.

In spite of these lapses, the novel shows Golden’s grasp of the 1930’s Japanese milieu, which helps the reader immerse him- or herself in a landscape interestingly apposite to the familiar American culture, a secretive world where geishas are obliged to keep quiet about what they learn from powerful men. Practitioners of a profession that has no real equivalent in America, geishas resemble cultured call girls who train for years in the fine arts of dance, music, makeup, fashion, and socializing. Compared to other Japanese women, geishas are exotic cultural creations. Their kimonos, the colorfully decorated robes, are often worth as much as a fine art object. Their white makeup accentuates their skin so as to make their necks and other exposed areas more erotic. Their hairdos are elaborate enough to require geishas to use little wooden cradles for their necks when they sleep, so that these coiffures are not disturbed. In many respects, geishas are the fantastical creations of male desire, and there is an odd dissonance between their artistic ability and their more debased utilitarian function as hostesses and flirts. Ever the master at maintaining appearances, the geisha knows how to act, disguise her true emotions, and use her social wiles to further herself. The geisha possesses the writer’s ability to play a role in much the same way that a man may inhabit a female persona in drag, which perfectly suits Golden’s technique. On the job, geishas mostly attend teahouse parties, serve sake (Japanese wine), play drinking games, and entertain boorish businessmen with self- conscious glimpses of their wrists or a lewd joke. Compared to the many apprentice years of learning dance and singing, their actual work can resemble drunken fraternity parties.

Nitta Sayuri begins her story as Chiyo, a peasant girl in the small fishing village of Yoriodo. A local fish merchant sells her and her sister into slavery in Kyoto. While her uglier sister is forced into prostitution, Chiyo is suddenly orphaned out to an okiya, or geisha house, where she must work to pay off the price of her purchase and any other expenses she incurs in her apprenticeship toward becoming a geisha. If she fails, she will work in drudgery as a maid for life. The premier geisha of the okiya is Hatsumomo, a beautiful but viciously competitive woman who supports everyone else in the household by attending teahouse parties into the night. Hatsumomo has limitations as a character, as nothing is shown of her but her wicked side, but her instinctual loathing for Chiyo’s threatening young beauty enlivens the novel. Hatsumomo entices Chiyo into trying to escape the okiya. Not knowing the consequences of her actions (she is only twelve years old), Chiyo tries to escape and join her sister by climbing over the rooftops of the adjoining okiyas, but she ends up trapped and further in debt than ever. In despair of ever breaking free from her bound servitude, she runs into the chairman of an electrical appliance company, and his unexpected act of kindness persuades her to seek her freedom through becoming a geisha instead of by escaping.

Chiyo decides to rough it out and, with the help of another, nicer “older sister” geisha named Mameha, starts to succeed as an apprentice. Hatsumomo does everything she can to stop her. For example, Hatsumomo follows the newly named Sayuri around Gion, spreading lies about her whenever she can. When it comes time for Sayuri to put her virginity on the auction block, so to speak, and sell her mizuage to the highest bidder, Hatsumomo tells prospective older suitors that Sayuri already lost her virginity with a young boyfriend. Sayuri and Mameha must wait until Hatsumomo’s treachery...

(The entire section is 1874 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Consistent with much Japanese art and literature, Memoirs of a Geisha includes a great deal of nature imagery....

(The entire section is 476 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Memoirs of a Geisha is particularly powerful because Sayuri's voice is spoken in the first person and takes the reader directly to her...

(The entire section is 367 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Students might find it useful to study carefully Sayuri's process of transformation from Chiyo, the immature and resentful child, to a...

(The entire section is 170 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The obstacles and travails Sayuri endures throughout her life in Memoirs of a Geisha echo the social concerns and difficulties...

(The entire section is 1348 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1930s: After great difficulty, Japan is the first country to recover from the depression that affects so many nations worldwide....

(The entire section is 285 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Much is made of Sayuri’s having a lot of water in her, as her mother did. Her father had a lot of wood in him. Research the meaning of the...

(The entire section is 346 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Sayuri's path from childhood to adulthood is reminiscent of Jane's path from obscurity to recognition in Jane Eyre. Like Sayuri, Jane...

(The entire section is 228 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

An abridged edition of Memoirs of a Geisha, read by Elaina Erika Davis, was released by Random House (Audio) on audiocassette, 1997,...

(The entire section is 41 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

Audio adaptations of Memoirs of a Geisha have been released by Bantam Books-Audio, 1997 (cassette, abridged), 1998 (cassette,...

(The entire section is 20 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

The Good Earth, Pearl Buck’s classic written in 1931 (and awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1932), is an example of historical fiction...

(The entire section is 174 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Baughman, Ernest W., Type and Motif Index of the Folktales of England and North America, Indiana University...

(The entire section is 426 words.)