100 Best Books for an Education

A Revision and Update of Will Durant's 100 Best Books for an Education

Note 29


Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji


A manuscript page from The Tale of Genji


If Japanese poems are too brief for the taste of the Western mind, we may console ourselves with the Japanese novel, whose masterpieces run into twenty, sometimes thirty, volumes. The most highly regarded of them is the Genji Monogatari (literally and undeniably “Gossip about Genji”), which in one edition fills 4,234 pages. This delightful romance was probably composed between the years 1001 to 1010 by Murasaki Shikibu. A Fujiwara of ancient blood, she married another Fujiwara in 997, but was left a widow four years later. She dulled her sorrow by writing a historical novel in fifty-four chapters. After filling all the paper she could find, she laid sacrilegious hands upon the sacred sutras of a Buddhist temple, and used them for manuscript; even paper was once a luxury.

    The hero of the tale is the son of an emperor by his favorite concubine Lady Kiritsubo, who is so beautiful that all the other concubines are jealous of her, and actually tease her to death. Murasaki, perhaps exaggerating the male’s capacity for devotion, represents the Emperor as inconsolable.


 . . . As the years went by the Emperor did not forget his lost lady; and though many women were brought to the Palace in the hope that he might take pleasure in them, he turned from them all, believing that there was not anyone in the world like her whom he had lost. . . . Continually he pined that fate should not have allowed them to fulfil the vow which morning and evening was ever talked of between them—the vow that their lives should be as the twin birds that share a wing, the twin trees that share a bough.


Genji grows up to be a dashing prince, with more looks than morals; he passes from one mistress to another with the versatility of Tom Jones, and outmodes that conventional hero by his indifference to gender. He is a woman’s idea of a man—all sentiment and seduction, always brooding and languishing over one woman or the next. Occasionally, “in great unhappiness he returned to his wife’s house.” Murasaki retails his adventures gaily, and excuses him and herself with irresistible grace:


. . . the young Prince would be thought to be positively neglecting his duty if he did not indulge in a few escapades, and everyone would regard his conduct as perfectly natural and proper even when it was such as they would not have dreamed of permitting to ordinary people. . . .

    I should indeed be very loath to recount in all their detail matters which he took so much trouble to conceal, did I not know that if you found that I had omitted anything you would at once ask why, just because he was supposed to be an Emperor’s son, I must needs put a favorable showing on his conduct by leaving out all his indiscretions; and you would soon be saying that this was no history but a mere made-up tale designed to influence the judgment of posterity. As it is, I shall be called a scandalmonger; but that I cannot help.


In the course of his amours, Genji falls ill, repents him of his adventures, and visits a monastery for pious converse with a priest. But there he sees a lovely princess (modestly named Murasaki), and thoughts of her distract him as the priest rebukes him for his sins.


    The priest began to tell stories about the uncertainty of this life and the retributions of the life to come. Genji was appalled to think how heavy his own sins had already been. It was bad enough to think that he would have them on his conscience for the rest of his present life. But then there was also the life to come. What terrible punishments he had to look forward to! And all the while the priest was speaking Genji thought of his own wickedness. What a good idea it would be to turn hermit, and live in some such place. . . . But immediately his thoughts strayed to the lovely face which he had seen that afternoon and longing to know more of her, “Who lives with you here?” he asked.


By the cooperation of the author, Genji’s first wife dies in childbirth, and he is left free to give first place in his home to his new princess, Murasaki. Meanwhile Emperor Kiritsubo dies and Genji’s half-brother Suzaku mounts the throne and assumes power at court. This provides the occasion for Suzaku’s mother, Kokiden (an enemy of Genji’s), along with the former emperor’s political foes to wield their influence over the new emperor.     

    But Genji can’t help getting into more trouble. He and Suzaku’s concubine are found engrossed in a private tryst; Suzaku divulges his personal enjoyment at Genji’s adventures with the concubine, but is obliged to penalize him nevertheless. The Emperor banishes him to the city of Suma in pastoral Harima province.


  So depressing was the past to look back upon and so little hope did the future hold out for him that, try as he might, Genji could no longer keep up even the appearance of cheerfulness. His prospects were indeed dark. It was just possible that he might some day be permitted to return to the Capital. But with the dominant faction at Court still working against him he would be subject to unendurable slights and vexations. 


While Genji suffers through his exile the affluent ex-governor of the province, referred to as the Akashi Novice, amuses him. Our protagonist engages in an affair with the governor’s daughter who later delivers a baby girl—Genji’s only daughter—herself destined to become the empress.

    Back in Kyoto, the Emperor Suzaku is disturbed by dreams of his deceased father that he believes are haunting him because of his having exiled Genji. Kokiden’s health deteriorates, which diminishes her dominant influence at court. Consequently, the emperor issues an edict pardoning Genji, who promptly comes back to the capital and its familiar court. Suzaku abdicates and Genji’s son Reizei * mounts the throne. Reizei is aware that Genji is his actual father, and promotes Genji’s status to the loftiest one possible.

    Nevertheless, after Genji turns forty he suffers a falloff. His political rank remains unchanged, but the vicissitudes of his feelings gradually impairs him. He marries again (the woman is identified as Nyōsan in Waley’s translation), but Genji’s nephew Kashiwagi forces his attentions on her and she gives birth to a son named Kaoru. He is in an analogous situation to Reizei, though officially known as Genji’s, he is not Genji’s biological son. Genji’s new marriage alters his relationship with Murasaki, who becomes a nun; then we read that Murasaki—his favorite of all women—has died. In the very next chapter (forty-one), Genji meditates over the transitory nature of life . . . no modern soap opera could rival these preceding forty-one chapters for dramatic complexity!

    In chapter forty-two, the reader learns of the death of Genji. “This and the following two chapters,” writes Liza Dalby “give a sense of having been written almost as an afterthought to respond to readers’ questions and desire for more details about the characters.”

    Scholars refer to chapters forty-five to fifty-four as the “Uji Chapters,” and in all probability they were composed much later than Murasaki’s previous work on the novel. They feature Kaoru and his closest friend Niou, an imperial prince and Genji’s grandson through his only daughter who is now the empress following Reizei’s abdication. Kaoru and Niou’s competition to find favor with the daughters of a royal prince who resides in Uji, a town far from Kyoto, forms the backdrop of this part of the story. The narrative ends suddenly, probably due to the author’s death, with Kaoru pondering whether Niou is concealing from him the woman that he loves. The net result of these chapters is the scholarly consensus that Kaoru is the earliest anti-hero in literature.

* He is the product of Genji’s love affair with Lady Fujitsubo, though legally and officially he is Emperor Kiritsubo’s son. Fujitsubo was a daughter of a former emperor, had entered Kiritsubo’s service, and later became Kiritsubo’s empress.


It may be that the excellence of the translation gives this book an extraneous advantage over other Japanese masterpieces that have been rendered into English; perhaps Mr. Waley, like Fitzgerald, has improved upon his original. If, for the occasion, we can forget our own moral code, and fall in with one that permits men and women, as Wordsworth said of those in Wilhelm Meister, to “mate like flies in the air,” we shall derive from the Tale of Genji the most attractive glimpse yet opened to us of the beauties hidden in Japanese literature. The men and women, above all the children, who move through her leisurely pages are ingratiatingly real; and the world that she describes, though it is confined for the most part to imperial palaces and palatial homes, has all the color of a life actually lived or seen.* It is an aristocratic life, not much concerned with the cost of bread and love; but within that limitation it is described without sensational resort to exceptional characters or events. As Murasaki makes Uma no-Kami say of certain realistic painters:


. . . ordinary hills and rivers, just as they are, houses such as you may see everywhere, with all their real beauty of harmony and form—quietly to draw such scenes as this, or to show what lies behind some intimate hedge that is folded away far from the world, and thick trees upon some unheroic hill, and all this with befitting care for composition, proportion and the like—such works demand the highest master’s utmost skill, and must needs draw the common craftsman into a thousand blunders.


    No later Japanese novel has reached the excellence of Genji, or has had so profound an influence upon the literary development of the language.

* Even into the ordinary home, our author enters with understanding, and makes Uma no-Kami express, about the year 1000, a modernistic plea for feminine education:

    “Then there is the zealous housewife, who, regardless of her appearance, twists her hair behind her ears, and devotes herself entirely to the details of our domestic welfare. The husband, in his comings and goings about the world, is certain to see and hear many things which he cannot discuss with strangers, but would gladly talk over with an intimate who could listen with sympathy and understanding, someone who could laugh with him or weep, as need be. It often happens too that some political event will greatly perturb or amuse him, and he sits apart longing to tell someone about it. But the wife only says, lightly, “What is the matter?” and shows no interest.

    This is apt to be very trying.”