Plot Outline and Analysis of "Yûgao"
Please read the famous "Yûgao" chapter
of The Tale of Genji, beginning on page 106 of Donald Keene's Anthology
of Japanese Literature (New York: Grove Press, 1955).
In this selection, Lady Murasaki describes the seventeen-year-old Genji
in the midst of his first real passion, for a woman named Yûgao.
Lady Yûgao is so far beneath Genji in court rank that he must visit
her in the rather crude disguise of a hunter accompanied by one lone
servant. The poverty of her home and the frailty of Yûgao herself
awaken Genji's love and pity.
Although normally a prince would not have taken an interest in a woman
of Yûgao's position in society, Genji is intrigued by her. (The
Heian court was strictly divided into social ranks from the highest officials
on down.) In an earlier chapter, Genji and his friends discussed the
charms of the different ranks of women. His closest friend, Tô no
Chûjô, hinted that he himself once discovered a gentle lady
hidden away in an alley. Genji has therefore already imagined Yûgao
long before their meeting. Their love affair retains this dream-like
mood right up to Yûgao's mysterious death.
In general, courting in the Heian period took place freely among men
and women of equal rank. The man would send a poem to a lady he had heard
about and wait for a reply. If the reply was favorable and, more important,
artistic, then he might call upon the lady. She would remain hidden behind
a screen, surrounded by her ladies-in-waiting. Poems would then be passed
back and forth through the screen. If the man was to gain admission behind
the screen he would be acknowledged as her lover. Until this moment,
however, the two would not meet face to face. Note that Yûgao and
Genji do not look on one another until after they have become lovers
Murasaki Shikibu is especially praised for her psychological insights
into the feelings of men and women. As you read, note the comments she
makes about Genji. She says, for example, that Genji had grown tired
of his earlier lover: "he had surmounted so many obstacles in his
courtship of her that to give her up the moment he had won her seemed
absurd. Yet he could not deny that the blind intoxicating passion which
possessed him while she was still unattainable, had almost disappeared.
..." What does this tell you about Genji? Does Yûgao's
mysterious background make her more desirable to him? The ghostly presence
who appears before Yûgao's bed is thought by many readers to be
Genji's earlier lover, Rokujô. What is Murasaki Shikibu suggesting
by this ghostly presence? Does the jealous spirit of Rokujô kill
Yûgao? Or does Genji imagine this ghost due to his own guilty feelings
toward the lady Rokujô? These and other passages will help you
to understand Murasaki's Genji.