Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1449

Overview Murasaki Shikibu's epic-length novel, The Tale of Genji, probes the psychological, romantic and political workings of mid-Heian Japan. The tale spreads across four generations, splashed with poetry and romance and heightened awareness to the fleeting quality of life.

Evanescence The theme of evanescence unifies much of the action....

(The entire section contains 1449 words.)

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Overview
Murasaki Shikibu's epic-length novel, The Tale of Genji, probes the psychological, romantic and political workings of mid-Heian Japan. The tale spreads across four generations, splashed with poetry and romance and heightened awareness to the fleeting quality of life.

Evanescence
The theme of evanescence unifies much of the action. Evanescence means, literally, "to dissipate or disappear like vapor," according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition. The characters in The Tale of Genji appreciate beauty to an extreme degree, an aesthetic known in Japan as miyabi. But this appreciation is tempered by an understanding of the impermanence of all things, especially life. The theme of surface phenomenon as illusory repeats itself throughout Buddhist doctrine. It is this prevailing attitude that gives the novel a tone of underlying sorrow, which can be translated into another Japanese term, mono no aware, or, loosely, "the pity of things."

Many characters throughout the novel, with this idea of fleeting human beauty and life in mind, take religious vows. Fujitsubo, Genji's old nurse, Ukifune, and others attempt to leave the material world. Murasaki and Genji seriously consider taking vows, though they ultimately don't follow through. These characters demonstrate their understanding that the time and things of Earth quickly give way. Murasaki depicts Genji as a complex character with a keen awareness of the sorrow of his existence.

The Law of Karma
The concept of moral causality is used to explain events of the novel. Fate is related to past lives. Good actions will be rewarded and bad actions will be punished. In this formula, there is no escaping justice. For example, Kaoru seems to be the victim of severely bad luck. He knows, though, that he surely did something to bring on this ill fortune. "His thoughts on the road were of long ago. What strange legacy had brought him and the Eighth Prince together? A bond from an earlier life, surely, had tied him to this family and its sad affairs, and made him see to the needs of this last foundling, even."

Genji, of course, is highly sensitive to the cause-and-effect quality of his actions. His regret often predicts future retribution. He also worries about others. "The bishop talked of this ephermal world and of the world to come. His own burden of sin was heavy, thought Genji, that he had been lured into an illicit and profitless affair. He would regret it all his life and suffer even more terribly in the life to come."

According to William J. Puett, in Guide to The Tale of Genji, "To the Heian mind karma neatly accounted for the apparent inequities in the world: why one man, despite his virtue, seemed to have nothing but troubles to live with, or why another was blessed with continuous satisfaction. It was also employed to explain such strong emotional affinities as when one falls in love at first sight, for people once bonded together in a previous life were likely to be pushed together by force of karma."

Substitution
Throughout The Tale of Genji, male characters seek consolation for lost or unattainable loves in women of similar composition. Genji's father, the Emperor, is inconsolable after the death of Kiritsubo until he finds a woman, Fujitsubo, who almost exactly resembles her. Genji himself falls in love with Fujitsubo, a mother replacement. Later, he falls in love with Murasaki because of her resemblance to Fujitsubo. His interest in Yugao and her daughter Tamakazura stems from one love. Late in the novel, Genji's supposed son Kaoru loves Oigimi, and then her younger sister Nakanokimi, and then a half-sister Ukifune. In Kaoru's desperate and endless search for Oigimi, the reader sees the need for substitution as being almost beyond the character's control.

Richard Bowring, in Landmarks of World Literature, writes, "...in The Genji this substitution is largely effected on the principal of similarity. Desire as original sin will always win out, so that when the first object of desire proves to be out of reach, attention is naturally transferred to the next best thing."

Jealousy
In the Heian society of The Tale of Genji, men take multiple wives. A woman's relative standing is measured in part against her relationship to her husband. Jealousy, then, is a natural part of the order. It also, in the novel's world vision, kills.

The novel opens with a case of jealousy as a murderous weapon. Kiritsubo, the Emperor's favorite, becomes the subject of malicious gossip. All the Emperor's other women resent her. A sensitive and beautiful woman, Kiritsubo finally wins her plea to go home. "Fearing that even now she might be the victim of a gratuitous insult, she chose to go off without ceremony, leaving the boy behind." She dies an emaciated wreck of her former self.

Several episodes of spirit possession come about due to jealousy. Lady Rukujo's spirit takes possession of Aoi, Yugao, and Murasaki. The first two women die as a result, and Murasaki gets very ill before her recovery.

According to Doris G. Bargen, in Yugao: A Case of Spirit Possession in The Tale of Genji, "Jealousy is traditionally regarded as the major force behind spirit possession in the Genji because female grievances are revealed to be rooted in the polygynous [sic] system which constantly threatens women's status and lowers their self-esteem in the very sensitive matter of sexual relations."

Higekuro' s wife, too, acts in a way attributed to spirit possession. She flies into a jealous rage at the news that she likely will be ousted from her position as principal wife by a new mistress. She dumps ashes all over her husband's head. Though contemporary readers no doubt understand her rage, Heian readers, especially male, would disapprove of such jealousy. Women were to welcome their competition, almost as family. In fact, Genji loves Murasaki all the more for her resistance to jealousy.

Supernatural Events
Other supernatural events infuse the novel with a mystical quality. The Korean fortune-teller of the opening chapter figures in the Emperor's decision to give his son commoner's status. Genji's malaria is cured my an old mountain sage who is more exorcist than physician. The storm in Suma serves as a sign that Genji should move to Akashi. The Suzaku Emperor's dream of Genji's father leads to an eye ailment. These and other supernatural events are meant to be interpreted literally.

Social Decline
In a novel that covers four generations, no character can compare with Genji. Even in his lifetime Genji is seen as a throwback to a better time. The Emperor calls Genji's wonderful Dance of the Blue Waves, the "only one worth seeing." Time and again, the author makes the point that there is no comparison to Genji. The insinuation is that as time marches on there is an inevitable decline in the social order. Genji possesses unparalleled beauty. His skill in the arts, his social graces, his inconceivable refinement—everything he does is unmatched. Genji is the peak. Everything after Genji is downhill.

According to Edward G. Seidensticker in the introduction to his English translation of the novel, "A widely held belief in Heian Buddhism was that the religion itself, like everything else, was caught in an irreversible process of decline. The last sad stage, in which forms would remain when faith was gone, was expected to begin several centuries after the death of the historic Buddha. One chronology held that this event would occur in the eleventh century. So, with the Buddhist law itself entering an inferior age from which there could be no recovery, there could be no hope for improvement in the affairs of man, so ephermal and insignificant by comparison."

In Genji's last appearance, he is, "handsomer than ever, indeed almost unbelievably handsome. For no very good reason, the holy man was in tears." And then in the next chapter, nine years later, "The shining Genji was dead, and there was no one quite like him." The novel then follows Niou and Kaoru, the first a quick-witted man of action, the latter a sensitive and introspective soul. Neither can measure-up to the standards set by Genji. According to J. Thomas Rimer, in A Reader's Guide to Japanese Literature, "Together they might have equaled Genji; separately, they seem limited, inadequate."

Excessive Desire
Love in Japanese really means longing. Love, then, is a loss of self control. Genji is peerlessly handsome, incomparable in everything he does— whether painting, dancing, or composing poetry. He lacks all restraint in his pursuit of earthly pleasures, though. This is a Buddhist sin. Genji understands he should not pursue Fujitsubo, Oborozukiyo, and many other women, but still he does it. This weakness defines the human condition in The Tale of Genji.

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