What are examples of "mono no aware" in The Tale of Genji?

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Examples of mono no aware in The Tale of Genji can be found in chapter 10, "The Sacred Tree," during the final meeting between Genji and Lady Rokujo. It is autumn, and Genji asks Lady Rokujo to return to him, but she refuses. The characters remember their past relationship and are saddened that it cannot be rekindled, but they accept that transience is the nature of life.

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Mono no aware, meaning “the pathos of things” or “an empathy towards things,” is a Japanese concept which relates to the idea of the transience inherent in life. Life is a paradox: it is filled with beauty but also continually progressing toward death, which means that along with the beauty, there is also the sadness of how temporary that beauty is.

The Tale of Genji is a classic piece of Japanese literature written by Murasaki Shikibu in the early eleventh century. The narrative centers on the life of Hikaru Genji, who is the son of the Japanese emperor and a lowly concubine. The emperor removes Genji from the line of succession for political reasons and turns him into a commoner. The text then becomes a study of the difference in the lives of commoners and elites in Japanese society.

The idea of mono no aware is explored at the very core of the text. Elites in Japan, especially those in the line of succession, are able to escape a bit of the transience inherent in life because they will be remembered throughout history, while commoners will most likely experience more of that transience. However, that does not mean that the lives of the aristocrats are any more valuable or important than the lives of the commoners. In fact, giving up that prominence and living as a commoner allows some people to get more out of life rather than they might if they were worrying about their perception in society.

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Mono no aware is a Japanese concept regarding the transient nature of life and the ability to see the beauty or pathos in that transience. Petals falling from a rose is a prime example of this concept: the rose is beautiful, but the falling petals signal that soon it will wither. Yet mono no aware would have the viewer see the beauty in the fading of the rose.

A particularly poignant example of mono no aware in The Tale of Genji takes place during chapter 10, titled "The Sacred Tree," during the last meeting between Genji and Lady Rokujo, his former lover. He travels to the shrine where she is located in order to convince her to return to him. However, she refuses him, unwilling to try to recapture their former relationship, even though his beauty and the love that still lingers for him tempt her greatly.

Mono no aware suffuses the atmosphere of this chapter, from the autumnal setting (remember, autumn is a prelude to winter, which is often interpreted as a time of death) to the characters' recollections of what they once shared. Both characters are saddened by their parting, but this is the nature of life: nothing can last forever, not even beauty or romantic love.

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The aesthetic ideal of mono no aware lies at the heart of Japanese literature and poetry. The meaning of mono no aware is complex and has evolved over time. Mono refers to transience, and aware means pathos. The phrase implies an awareness or sensitivity toward the transient nature of life. In contemporary Japan, cherry blossoms are the most common examples of mono no aware. They begin to fall within a week of their appearance and evoke a melancholic sense of loss and longing. The Japanese scholar Motoori Norinaga introduced the concept of mono no aware. He refers to Murasaki Shikibu’s episodic story The Tale of Genji as an example of mono no aware. Written in the eleventh century CE, The Tale of Genji is Japan's oldest novel and possibly the first novel in world literature. In the story, the word aware appears about a thousand times.

The story captures the romantic encounters and the political life of Genji, a charismatic prince who can never become the emperor. The story touches upon the experiences of love, sexual politics, marriage, suffering, and death. It laments the impermanence of all that life offers. The inconclusive ending of the story suggests that life goes on, as we struggle to rise above the pain of loss and longing.

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Well, first let us look at what "mono no aware" means as a concept, and then we can see how it fits into The Tale of Genji. "Mono no aware" is a Japanese term that has the literal meaning of "the pathos of things," but it can also mean having empathy because of the transience of the world. It is more of an Eastern concept than a Western one and, as such, can be found easily within The Tale of Genji.

In The Tale of Genji, it is this subtle reality of life and the sadness of passing time (mono no aware) that is the central feeling the reader should come across. Genji (the main character) shows the aristocratic life of the Japan of the twelfth century. We can see some of the mono no aware characteristics even early in Genji's life when he loses his mother at three years old. More subtle reality sets in as Genji receives a demotion and takes a concubine. Much of the sadness here can be seen in Genji's quest for love, taking many wives in search of someone anything like his first concubine.

Probably the most famous chapter that exemplifies mono no aware is the chapter called "Illusion." In this chapter, Genji becomes tired of looking for love through his political promotions and demotions and begins to contemplate how transient life really is. Immediately following is another chapter called "Vanished into the Clouds," which is blank and considered to be the evidence of Genji's death and the reason why the reader should continue to contemplate the truth behind the concept of mono no aware.

In conclusion, it is important to note that the "mono no aware" concept found within The Tale of Genji is also relevant considering that this novel is known as the first "psychological novel," especially in regards to its characterization. Genji is the focus here, of course. The subtle sadness of his life in search of true love and his eventual death should cause the reader to meditate on the truth behind the Japanese concept explained here.

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