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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 683

Murasaki’s original handwritten manuscript is lost, but fragments of the text exist from the twelfth century, by which time it had become the subject of scholarly interest. The Tale of Genji has been praised for its brilliant realism of setting and depiction of the everyday life of Heian aristocrats. Through the influence of this novel, the era’s refined emotions and sensibilities have affected Japanese writers for hundreds of years, whether in fiction, poetry, or theater. Murasaki’s views on the art of the novel are presented in The Tale of Genji’s “Fireflies” chapter, which rebuts the prevailing Chinese attitude that “frivolous” literature was dangerous. The passage begins by praising romances that teach about how people once lived. Murasaki’s Genji himself explains that the art of the novel goes beyond a romantic story of someone’s adventures; it happens, he says, because of the storyteller’s passionate desire to save and share experiences, both autobiographical events and things that have been indirectly encountered. Genji adds that the storyteller must go beyond the theme of virtue and also illustrate vice and folly. Anything may become the subject of a novel, he declares, provided that it is part of mundane life.

Shinto rituals are important in Genji’s world and reflect the prerogatives of imperial succession. Buddhism plays an even larger role, helping to explain the novel’s premise—that life is suffering as a consequence of thwarted human desire. In order to interrupt the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, Buddhism teaches that one may negate desire, which creates enlightenment. This is the challenge before Prince Genji. The novel traces a series of desires that lead men and women astray: For example, the Emperor’s love for Kiritsubo causes him to protect their boy from his wife’s wrath by removing Genji from imperial succession. Nevertheless, Genji is drawn to court and, like his father, loves one of the concubines, Fujitsubo, who is a sort of mother figure. Though the boy is married off to a Fujiwara princess, he continues to seek happiness, first by courting her niece and then by seducing Fujitsubo. Genji then becomes involved with a series of women, including Kokiden’s sister, Lady Oborozukiyo.

Behind these willful liaisons lie the further dangers of court politics—the Emperor’s death leaves power in the hands of Kokiden’s father, the Minister of the Right who resents Genji’s inept romancing of Fujitsubo and Oborozukiyo and causes the Prince’s exile in Suma. The novel’s style thus shows how actions are repeated; just as seasons succeed each other, people repeat essential patterns. In this Buddhist world, human desires are thwarted by transgressions that are often immoral both in personal and in political terms. Genji’s sins require expiation because his sexual adventures unwisely lead him into the enemy camp. Since Japanese Buddhists see love as a dangerous and demeaning loss of self-control, Genji’s passionate character is flawed, as he particularly reveals in his obsessive passion for the young orphan Murasaki.

Evil passion in the novel is perhaps even more clearly illustrated by Lady Rokujo, a lover of Genji whose malign spirit apparently kills both Princess Aoi and Yugao and pursues little Murasaki. Lady Rokujo is a widow frustrated by the withdrawal of Genji’s undivided attentions; her loss of control over her own spirit leads it to invade and destroy others, a sin which even her travels to Ise cannot cleanse.

Originally seen as a diversion, then attacked as immoral, The Tale of Genji was used to justify the city’s merchant class and pleasure quarters. Murasaki’s Genji was called a modern rake in the name of cultural authority to condone pleasure. Later, Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), a famous Japanese literary critic, explained that the novel is about life; his phrase mono no aware, the “pathos of things,” provides the novel’s ongoing aesthetic justification.

Many Western readers were introduced to The Tale of Genji by Arthur Waley’s 1935 translation. Readers have since called it the greatest of novels, produced centuries before the form emerged in Europe.

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Critical Evaluation