Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 950
Except for a short diary, The Tale of Genji is Murasaki’s only literary work, but it is generally considered Japan’s most important literary achievement. While it is difficult to summarize its eleven hundred tightly printed but loosely plotted pages or to consider the nearly one hundred characters that move through this vast novel in a brief discussion, one can say that it focuses mostly on the life of its introspective hero, Prince Genji. The novel traces rather obliquely his rise, as the son of a minor consort of the emperor, to a position in society second in importance only to the emperor. It deals much more directly, however, with Genji’s life as an adventurous exploration, even a quest, for the ultimate possibilities that can be realized in the cultivation of personal relationships—wisdom, excitement, love, friendship, rivalry, and the private and shared experience of beauty and joy, triumph and tragedy. Somehow, to the extent that one person can be fulfilled as a human being living by the values of the Heian court, Genji succeeds.
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Genji’s career consumes more than two thirds of the novel, during which he struggles to establish and maintain his position in court. Probably more significant to him, as well as more interesting for the reader, however, are his intimacies with a number of women. While still an adolescent, he falls in love with Fujitsubo, his stepmother and the emperor’s consort. Their very secret affair results in the birth of a boy who, because he is presumed to be the emperor’s son, eventually becomes an emperor himself. At about the same time that Genji is attracted to Fujitsubo, a marriage is arranged for him to the sister of his best friend, To no Chujo. Genji’s relationship with his wife, Princess Aoi, is probably the least satisfactory in his long experience with women. Aoi dies shortly after giving birth to their son, Yugiri, when Genji is about twenty-three years old. After Aoi’s death, Genji’s most important relationship, and the main focus of his affection for the rest of his life, is Murasaki, the young niece of Fujitsubo. Since the Heian aristocracy was not only exclusive but also small, each character in the novel is related in one way or another to every other character.
Despite his abiding affection for Murasaki, Genji is intimate with many other women throughout his life. His most important liaisons are with Yugao (the mistress of his friend To no Chujo), Lady Rokujo (an imperious aristocrat whose jealousy results in the death of both Yugao and Aoi), and the secluded Lady of Akashi. Genji’s daughter by Lady Akashi later marries an emperor, and their son, Niou, becomes a central character in the last section of the novel.
Toward the end of Genji’s life (he dies during his fifty-first year), he is betrothed to Nyosan, the daughter of an emperor who wishes to see her well married before he retires. It was customary at that time for emperors to retire soon after they had reared an adolescent son. Nyosan deceives Genji by taking a lover, Kashiwagi, the son of Genji’s friend To no Chujo. The child of this illicit relationship is Kaoru, another of the central characters of the last section of the novel. The Kashiwagi-Nyosan affair echoes Genji’s affair with his stepmother and is viewed by him as a kind of karmic retribution for his own transgressions. Many such relational echoes occur over the three generations of characters who inhabit The Tale of Genji.
After Genji’s death, eight years pass before the narrative resumes. The main setting has shifted from the capital, with its dazzling pageantry, to a gloomy rural district near the Uji river, about ten miles from Kyto. This last section, which for most readers is also the most compelling part of the novel, is integrated with the main section by having the spirit that ennobled Prince Genji continue to live, albeit divided and denatured, in the characters of his amorous grandson, Niou, and his son (or, more accurately, his wife’s son by her lover), Kaoru. The creative tension generated in these sections by the hero’s amorous impulses, on the one hand, and his concern for the properties of Heian society, on the other, is transformed into an unbalanced rivalry between the impetuous Niou and the sensitive but indecisive Kaoru. Still, with Genji gone, much of the life-enhancing spirit of romance has dissipated from court life, and with it respect for social forms also degenerates. While courtship retains its elaborate pattern and society its traditional form, these social structures grow ever emptier. Niou is no ideal courtier and lover but a dashing Don Juan bent on conquest for its own sake. The combination of Niou’s unerring successes in court and in bedchambers, together with Kaoru’s inability to exert his sensitive nature in any way that advances his own or anyone else’s life, bears dramatic witness to a civilization’s decline.
The novel ends inconclusively with the woman whom Niou and Kaoru have courted for more than a hundred pages, Ukifune, contemplating the taking of holy vows and entering a Buddhist nunnery. The social and emotional stress of their courtship has so harassed her that she desires only to escape the complications of courtship and society for the simplicity of temple routines. That, too, recalls Prince Genji, who frequently contemplated “leaving the world” for Buddhist retirement. Only his responsibilities for others prevented him from following this path, the one followed by many Heian emperors and high officials. By Ukifune’s time, Murasaki’s tale suggests, there is even more reason to consider this retreat.