Critical Overview

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Ever since its birth, The Tale of Genji has been almost universally applauded by literary critics and readers, with some exceptions. Medieval writers deemed it inferior because prose was considered a feminine form. Japanese purists into the 20th century have lambasted the novel's decadence as immoral.

Donald Keene, in Seeds of the Heart, points to the oldest work of criticism of Japanese fiction as an indication of early praise. Mumyo Zoshi (Story Without a Name, c. 1200) is cast in the form of conversation among various literary ladies about their favorite books. They all take it for granted that The Tale of Genji is the supreme work of fiction. One of them says, "The more I think of it, the more I am convinced that to have created this Tale of Genji was such an extraordinary achievement it could not have been accomplished without divine aid. I believe it was a genuine miracle granted by the Buddha in response to the author's prayers."

Soon after its appearance, The Tale of Genji became essential reading for the upper class. In the last part of the 12th century, digests of it were required reading for poets. The Tale of Genji continues to be regarded as an integral part of a Japanese student's curriculum. The Economist, in an article published Christmas Day 1999, wrote, "In Japan today, The Tale of Genji is as natural to the culture as Mount Fuji and the cherry-blossom season. High schools teach sections of the ancient text, in its classical Japanese, to prepare pupils for university entrance. Novelists challenge themselves by writing modern translations...."

Motoori Norinaga, writing in the eighteenth century, dispelled commonly accepted Buddhist and Shinto interpretations of the novel. Norinaga insisted that the good and evil of The Tale of Genji did not stem from religious traditions but rather from a quality of mono no aware, or a delicate awareness of the pathos of the human condition.

The novel's broad and long-lasting appeal can be attributed, in part, to its focus on character. The first English translation was published in six volumes between 1925-32. Keene, writing in The Pleasures of Japanese Literature, says, "Ever since Arthur Waley's translation appeared in the 1920s, readers have been astonished by its seeming modernity. Waley himself discussed the resemblance that reviewers had found between Murasaki Shikibu's work and those of Proust, Jane Austen, Boccacio, and Shakespeare."

Indeed, comparisons to Marcel Proust, Jane Austen, and William Shakespeare happen throughout the body of criticism, as well as comparisons to Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson. Keene speculates, "Murasaki Shikibu devoted her greatest attention to the elements of human life that have changed least over the centuries. Because the emotions of her characters are so easily intelligible, we sometimes obtain a startling impression of modernity, and it is easy to overlook even the aspects of life in Heian Japan that differ most conspicuously from our own."

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