Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 908

Lady Murasaki Shikibu was the daughter of a famous provincial governor and the widow of a lieutenant in the imperial guard. As a lady-in-waiting to Empress Akiko, she was completely familiar with Nipponese court ritual and ceremony, and her knowledge of palace life is everywhere apparent in the adventures of her nobly born hero, Prince Genji.

The Tale of Genji is undoubtedly the finest example of medieval Japanese storytelling, and in it one can trace the growth of Japanese literature. In the beginning, Murasaki’s romance is an adolescent affair, very much in the fairy-tale tradition of the old Japanese chronicles. As it progresses, it becomes a full-blown prose romance. It resembles the medieval prose romances of western Europe in that both genres focus on the love affairs of their heroes. The Tale of Genji, however, reflects the qualities of Japanese culture. Here are people whose main occupation, far removed from the arts of war and chivalry, is to live well and enjoy nature and art in all forms. In place of the idealized woman, these romances present the idealized man, in whose life women play distinctly subordinate roles.

The Tale of Genji is a long, elegant, wittily ironical court romance that is in some respects a prototype of the novel. The book is divided into parts consisting of the title section and sections titled “The Sacred Tree,” “A Wreath of Cloud,” “Blue Trousers,” “The Lady of the Boat,” and “The Bridge of Dreams.” Although Arthur Waley’s translation from the Japanese has made the work accessible to a greater audience, few Western readers generally venture beyond the first section, “The Tale of Genji,” although Murasaki’s style actually improves as she proceeds. The first chapter crudely imitates the manner of old court romances, but the characterizations become richer and more complex over the course of the book, and the work’s overall design—depicting a moral picture of the emperor’s court of Murasaki’s time—becomes apparent.

The Tale of Genji presents an incomparable re-creation of life in eleventh century Japan, faithfully depicting the smallest details of the customs, ceremonies, and manners of the aristocracy. The book is also an enchanting collection of interwoven stories, some erotic and all vividly recounted. Beyond that, the work offers a psychologically honest examination of passion and pretense, and of the hearts of men and women.

The first section treats Genji, “the Shining One,” as a child and young man, idealistic but often unwise as he learns the arts of courtship and love. It also introduces Murasaki (who is certainly not the author, unless by ironic contrast), first as Genji’s child-concubine, then as his second wife. Her character is tentatively sketched here, though in later parts of the book she learns about the romantic and political intrigues of court life, becomes sophisticated in practicing her own wiles, and, finally (in the section titled “Blue Trousers”), dies of a lingering, wasting disease. The early section, however, treats the hero and heroine as youthful, hopeful, and inexperienced, before they fully understand how to play the cynical games of love and dissembling.

In chapter 2 of The Tale of Genji, the author advances the main theme of her work, the romantic education of innocent lovers. The equerry of the palace, To no Chujo, regales several noblemen, including Genji, with stories about the weakness of women. He has at last discovered that “there exists no woman of whom one can say: ’Here is perfection.’” Genji’s youthful experiences tend to support this observation. Just twelve years old when he is married to the sixteen-year-old Princess Aoi, he finds more amusement in amorous adventures than in matrimonial responsibilities, and he comes to care for his wife only shortly before her untimely death. He enjoys his first dalliance with Fujitsubo (whom he later makes pregnant) and thereafter sports with the easily yielding but jealous Utsusemi; with a complaisant lady who happens, conveniently, to be sleeping in Utsusemi’s bed; with Yugao; and, finally, with the child Murasaki. With the exception of Murasaki, all the women disappoint him. Murasaki, the most innocent and childlike of his lovers, is the only one spirited, imaginative, and beautiful enough to hold his affections.

Murasaki also undergoes a romantic education. She must learn how to function in a world controlled by men without bowing too submissively to their power. When Genji brings her to the palace, he warns her, “Little girls ought to be very gentle and obedient in their ways.” At this speech, the narrator wryly comments, “And thus her education was begun.” Several years later, Genji takes sexual liberties with Murasaki, who is too innocent and confused either to oppose or to enjoy his attentions. Indeed, her own innocence excites his desire. As the narrator explains, “It is in general the unexplored that attracts us, and Genji tended to fall most deeply in love with those who gave him least encouragement.” When Genji decides to marry the girl, she has no choice in the matter; in fact, he criticizes her lack of enthusiasm for the arrangement, since she owes so much to his friendship. Murasaki Shikibu shows how, in the closed world of the emperor’s palace, where court ladies at best play submissive parts, women must develop resources of their own—both of mind and of heart—to live with dignity. By the end of The Tale of Genji, her heroine is already beginning to learn that lesson.

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Critical Overview