The Tale of Genji

The Tale of Genji, thought by many to be the first novel in the history of world literature, was written by a woman, Murasaki Shikibu, in the eleventh century. Lady Murasaki lived during the Heian Period (794-1185), an era remarkable for the poetry, diaries, and fiction produced by court ladies. Their sensitivity to nature and the art of love set the tone for the art and literature of their time. While the men wrote in an awkward, scholarly form of Chinese, the women developed a Japanese script more suitable to the Japanese language. In succeeding periods of warfare, popular tales of the bravery of the samurai warriors would all but obliterate court ladies' writings. Even in such tales, however, the warrior would stop in the midst of battle to recite a poem, play his flute, and sigh over the falling of a blossom. The tastes of the women of Japan were never again to dominate the arts, but the sensibilities of the Heian period continued to exert an influence over Japanese literature in later years.

The Tale of Genji covers the life span of the brilliant Prince Genji and his many romances. Genji is Murasaki Shikibu's ideal of manhood. He is gentle, poetic, stunningly handsome, and, above all, a tender lover.

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.

Student Exercises

  1. To Murasaki Shikibu, Genji was more handsome, more sensitive, more intelligent than any other young man. He was bigger than life. What qualities do you admire in Genji? Are they qualities that young men have today? Describe your ideal of a young man.
  2. Do you think the telling of this tale was affected by the fact that the writer was a woman? How might a man have described Genji?
  3. The Tale of Genji has been called a novel, rather than simply a romance, because of its attention to the psychological states of the characters. Select a passage and describe how the characters are feeling. How does the author let you know this?
  4. How is nature used to reflect the emotions of the characters?
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