Murasaki Shikibu’s novel The Tale of Genji both epitomizes and transcends the world of letters in which it found its origin. It is emphatically of its period, a work that has its roots in a highly stylized literary, primarily poetic, subculture, yet it is also a work of sufficient universality and psychological depth to have a claim to be called the world’s earliest novel. To read The Tale of Genji is not simply to acquit oneself of some imagined duty to cross-cultural understanding but to step inside a fully realized fictional world. It should not be thought surprising that even to modern Japanese, that world is indisputably an alien one—the passage of nearly a millennium puts Murasaki and her fiction irretrievably in a place that even the remarkable continuity of Japanese literary culture cannot bring very close. It is a measure of Murasaki’s art that The Tale of Genji can, nevertheless, still arouse the emotions of non-Japanese and Japanese alike.
Plot and themes
The Tale of Genji, as its title implies, is on its face the story of the princeling Genji, the son of an emperor by a concubine, who is so favored by nature with beauty and other, subtler gifts of character that he bids fair to replace in his father’s favor the proximate heir to the imperial throne. To forestall disputes over the succession, the beautiful boy-child is given the nonimperial surname Genji and thus, in the prevailing political scheme, is removed from consideration as heir to the throne. It is therefore technically incorrect to refer to the hero of the novel as the “prince” Genji, but in every other respect, he is indeed princely, the very embodiment of royal virtues: He is beautiful, so beautiful, indeed, that his sobriquet is hikaru, or “shining,” Genji; his skills as a dancer in the highly disciplined court style are unchallengeable; he is a consummate musician on strings and flute, a specialist in the compounding of exotic fragrances, and a master of popular song—and of poetry, the primary and essential art of the courtier of the Heian era, the real-life period in which Murasaki wrote and that historians have named after the imperial capital of the time, Heian-ky, the “capital of peace,” modern Kyto.
Above all, Genji is a lover. He is not a Don Juan, driven by a neurotic need to prove his virility to himself and to the world, but rather a man who, from puberty forward, is both free and almost obliged to bestow his favors on the women with whom he comes in contact. His first love, significantly, is his own father’s concubine Fujitsubo, a woman who, the world acknowledges, bears a strong resemblance to the kinswoman who was Genji’s mother. Genji has a succession of affairs with women of varying degrees of quality, but his deepest and most enduring love is for Murasaki, who enters his life a waif in need of protection but whose first claim in Genji’s affections derives from her resemblance to her cousin Fujitsubo, who takes her name from the “wisteria courtyard” that adjoins her quarters. As no reader of the original story would fail to note, murasaki is an herb whose roots yield a dye that mimics the hue of the wisteria in bloom. (Associations such as these and other clues lead some modern critics to suggest that a primary theme of the novel might be described as a search for the lost parent, with Oedipal complications.)
Murasaki becomes the love of Genji’s life but was not originally his principal consort. That honor went to the noblewoman known as Aoi, the daughter of a high minister of the emperor. The marriage was arranged, as was proper, with a careful eye to the disposition of power in the court. A certain uneasy distance always prevails between Genji and Aoi. She is several years his senior when they marry, and Genji is then still young enough to find the difference in age disconcerting. As time goes by and Genji begins spending more and more of his nights away from her father’s palace (highborn women of Heian lived under their fathers’ roofs and received their husbands as guests), Aoi, in her turn, retreats from Genji into a mood of jealousy compounded with despairing yearning.
If the compelling power of beauty is one theme that is introduced early in the novel, another and more vivid one is jealousy, quite intertwined with the first. Aoi’s jealousy is perhaps mitigated by her awareness of the circumstances of her marriage to Genji, but for another of Genji’s early amours, the Rokuj lady, jealousy becomes literally a murderous passion. The first to suffer is Ygao, the lady of the “evening faces” (a kind of flower), who is a mysterious woman of lesser rank who passively succumbs to Genji’s courtship and allows him to spirit her off to a deserted mansion; a dreamlike interlude of lovemaking and deepening intimacy—the lovers engage in one of the subtlest poetic exchanges in the novel in trying to uncover each other’s secrets—is shattered by Ygao’s sudden, inexplicable death. The second death is that of Aoi herself, less violent but no less devastating to Genji.
It becomes clear that both deaths resulted from possession by the avenging spirit of the Rokuj lady, whose jealous passion at her felt neglect by Genji is so strong that it has effected, quite without her knowledge, a separation of body and soul in life. In this respect, The Tale of Genji reveals itself to be something of a cautionary tale: Although love and sexual relations are a natural part of life, and a man, at least, need not restrict himself to a single partner, the bond between lovers is of such strength and durability that it must not be taken lightly.
The moral has its roots in Buddhism, specifically in the concept of karma. In this instance, the intense emotional attachments formed in sexual union constitute a karmic bond of great strength; the stronger the emotion, the tighter the bond. In Buddhism as it was known to Murasaki, emotional attachments of any kind translate into karmic ties that bind the individual to the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, an undesirable state but one that is the common human lot. Normal emotional ties may keep the unassisted individual from Nirvana, final liberation from the cycle of rebirth, but they cannot be avoided. The lesson of the horrific tale of the Rokuj lady, however, is that passions of an abnormal intensity are dangerous. In common belief, they not only impede a gradual progress, lifetime by lifetime, toward the goal of liberation but also can actually tether the soul of the departed in a limbo between this world and the next, hovering as a ghost near the object of the passion. The Rokuj lady had not died, but her jealous passion was so strong that it drew her soul from her body into destructive encounters with its objects, Ygao and Aoi.
Genji himself recognizes that he bears some responsibility in these deaths, but he is not shown to mend his ways, for, in the world of the novel, they are not in any particular need of repair. His subsequent conquests, however, are not so much conquests as they are, in a sense, adoptions or quasi marriages in which he is scrupulously attentive to his lovers’ material and—insofar as possible—emotional needs. The maturing Genji, chastened by Rokuj’s excesses and sobered...
(The entire section is 2990 words.)