In the 11th century, Murasaki Shikibu introduced to the world the picture of the Heian aristocrat – a romantic and poetic person with a penchant for amorous misadventures with a series of women. It is this light that the titular character, Genji, is introduced and developed, very much adhering to the influences of Shikibu’s time. Through most of the tale, Shikibu illustrates his exploits as he makes his way to fill his life with the women he desires – from his stepmother to a ten-year-old girl he raises to be his ideal paramour. Times, though, have changed and the events of The Tale of Genji have lost their commonplace in society. Promiscuity, polygamy and other circumstances in the modern world are still, in general, frowned upon. It is now a point of interest how a tale of such acts still lives to be one of the greatest novels to have been given breath to and how a character like Genji can be considered a hero by today’s standards. However, in spite of the shift in time and perspective, The Tale of Genji has transcended through many dimensions. It has not only been a pioneer in the literary world for its words and structure but also because it has presented a different ideal of heroism in a way that it can be seen in Genji and in the essence of the tale despite the matters that it tackles. Centering on a promiscuous man’s exploits, Murasaki’s revolutionary piece on a different ideal of heroism, The Tale of Genji is a timeless source of lessons on life, love and loss.
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II. Murasaki and her Masterpiece
The Tale of Genji, also known as Genji monogatari, is a creation of a Japanese aristocratic culture composed in the eleventh century during the peak of the Heian Period. Many scholars view this novel as one of, if not, the greatest achievements of Japanese literature, not only pertaining to the Heian culture. Japan was very much under the influence of the Chinese, and was going through a stage of finding its own native culture when this novel came about. By this time, naturalization of Chinese concepts was successfully penetrated in the Japanese culture. The Tale of Genji was the first refined portrayal of self-expression found in Japanese literature that owed very little to Chinese paradigm.
Integration of culture and art from the Tang dynasty uniting hand in hand with Japanese culture marked the Heian Period. Music developed earlier in the period while literature emerged from the use of letters. Women played significant roles in the flourishing of literature as they composed several diaries, poems and stories. These different forms of publications were famous outlets of expressions and inner feelings. As a literary work composed during the Heian period, The Tale of Genji was most likely written in kana – a term for syllabic Japanese scripts because the women at that time were discouraged from learning and writing in Chinese.
Genji monogatari was written by a woman known as Murasaki Shikibu, a nickname translating to “purple ceremonial.” She came from a minor branch of the Fujiwara clan who at that time were the powerful ones dominating the courts during the Heian period. Her mother died when she was at a young age and as a result, Shikibu was raised by her father Tametoki and grew up alongside him. Even at an early age, she was recognized to be more intelligent than her brother. Thus, she was permitted to study and learn Chinese classics, which at that time was improper because education for females was highly discouraged. Tametoki secured a job as a governor of Echizen Province and took Shikibu with him during his mandatory tours. Due to this, Murasaki Shikibu married a little beyond the usual age at that time, and ended up with one of her father’s friends named Fujiwara no Nobutaka. It was believed that their marriage was a happy one despite his involvement with several other women. The couple bore a daughter whom they named as Kenshi.
Two to three years into their marriage, Nobutaka passed away, leaving Murasaki a sad and lonely widow. In lieu of a husband, Shikibu had a lot of spare time, leading to her involvement in the usual pastimes of her status as an aristocratic woman during the Heian period. This included the studying and reading of old poems and romances, as well as creating new ones. Scholars speculate that The Tale of Genji was written by Shikibu at home shortly after her husband’s death. After a few years, Shikibu’s works of literature were recognized by the empress. As a result of her talent in writing, she was called upon by Empress Akiko to serve in court as a lady-in-waiting. Much of The Tale of Genji was continued during her stay in court. Not much is known about her later life. However, there are speculations stating that Shikibu, in her fifties, chose to seek seclusion in a convent after retiring from court.
Shikibu’s novel contained around eight hundred poems in fifty-four lengthy chapters, translating to five volumes in terms of modern Japanese printed editions. Having no single protagonist or a clear-cut theme, The Tale of Genji is not an ordinary piece of fiction containing the qualities of a basic story line. It can also be viewed as the predecessor of Western novels as Shikibu stresses mainly on human relationships and the variety of emotions they trigger. What The Odyssey and The Iliad are to the West is what The Tale of Genji is to Japan.
Consistency and intricacy are two evident characteristics that made The Tale of Genji a masterpiece. The characters were often referred to according to their status or position instead of their real names. Despite the fact that there were several hundreds of characters in the novel, Shikibu was able to give each of them their own identity based on personality, family lineage, and social relationships. Complexity of the plot and events show the author’s skill in writing. All occurrences happened simultaneously in a smooth and clear flow comparable to that of real life. The novel can be seen as individual and independent accounts being weaved into a structured whole.
Being the first novel ever to be written, The Tale of Genji is considered to be an important piece of Japanese literature. Aside from the popularity it gained in the Heian court and from the emperor, it was also a significant representation of the courtly life in medieval Japan during the Heian period. This period in the history of Japan was marked by the tolerance of affairs and polygamous relationships, especially among the aristocracy. Starkly different from today’s ways, it was often that a man had a relationship with a primary wife and still retain several other lesser wives. Being the persistent lover that he was, Genji did not fail to meet these standards of Heian society. The novel’s accurate historical depiction is the reason why it still remains widespread up to this date. In addition to this, the classic novel has made a great impact on the fields of painting and drama. Several paintings during the Heian period were based on the book. Even in modern times, The Tale of Genji continues to be a prevailing influence in Japanese media as seen being often depicted in movies, TV shows, stage dramatization, books, and even teenage magazines.
Given this brief background on The Tale of Genji, women clearly contributed to the evolution of Japanese culture not solely on literature but also on other forms of art. The novel itself is proof that women belonging to the Heian period had a voice of their own, independent from the world of men. Although much of Chinese ideas and customs were inculcated in Japanese culture, is evidence of how Japan acquired independence in terms of creating their own self-identity. Much like Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Shikibu’s Genji monogatari remains a classic for the reason that today’s society can still very much relate to its message and apply its lessons to real-life situations.
II. The Tale
The Tale of Genji travels back to the Heian Period and embarks on a story of love, lust and loss. At the center of this 1090-paged tale is the remarkably beautiful Genji, the shining prince. Born to a mismatch of sorts to an emperor father and a low ranking concubine of his, Genji’s fate was undermined as a prophecy determined early on that he would not be an emperor like his father. His early years were marked by tragedy as his mother fell into the jealous eyes of those who surrounded her and led her to a premature death. At the age of 12, Genji is married off to an older girl, Aoi with whom he has very little interest in. As such, despite having a wife, he sets off into numerous misadventures with love as he engages in forbidden liaisons and clandestine affairs. He begins this excursion of woman after woman with Fujitsubo, the emperor’s new wife and in effect, his stepmother. Despite being a maternal figure in his life, he was enamored by her strikingly uncanny resemblance to the mother he barely knew of. Much to Genji’s dismay, any relationship other than a parent-child relation with Fujitsubo would be deemed illicit. With an unyielding spirit, however, such constraints did not stop Genji from entering into this relationship and even going as far as to having a child, whom they conceal as the emperor’s.
Feeling discontented with the state of his relations, Genji makes a trip to Kyoto, hoping to be “cured” of his illness. There, he chances upon a ten year old girl who, in the likeness of his stepmother, quickly catches his affection. Her name was Murasaki and as fate had it, after some failed attempts at adopting her, she would end up being raised by Genji in his home and under his care. It was in a young and unaware ten-year-old that Genji was forming what he believed to be the ideal woman. When Aoi passes after giving Genji his second son, Murasaki then becomes his wife. Despite being with the woman he loves, Genji, being the persistent seducer that he is, pursues several other women. His continuous encounters with women eventually put him in trouble as he was discovered to have had an affair with the daughter of a political rival. As such, Genji put in exile in Suma, where he was to be without Murasaki.
In Suma, he encounters yet another woman with whom he shares his time while in exile- Akashi. The relationship, however, is cut short when Genji is called back by the emperor and he is forced to leave her behind, only to find out later on that she is with child. His return from Suma marks a new chapter in Genji’s life as he takes on different roles in society when his love child with Fujitsubo becomes emperor. Upon his return, he too builds a palatial home for four of his lovers, each wing of the home belonging to one.
Forced to marry his brother’s daughter, Genji’s love and affection for Murasaki are proven as he comes to her side when falls into the hands of an illness that will soon take her life away. Grieving the loss of Murasaki, Genji retires to a temple and eventually passes away only two-thirds into the tale.
In the final part of the tale, the story veers away from Genji and his women as the years are made to pass and the story focuses on two new characters, Kaoru and Niou. The two, although good friends, are rivals in the arena of love. They fight over the affections of three sisters, Oigimi, Naka no Kimi and Ukifune, as they both share the same interests in them. In their escapades, Oigimi, fearing that Kaoru will neglect her in the same way that Niou did with Naka no Kimi, took her own life. As the story progresses, Kaoru realizes that he, too, is in love with Naka no Kimi. Ukifune was introduced to Kaoru to avert troubles between the two men. They, however, did not escape further ensuing rivalry between the two as both of them come to love Ukifune. The tale ends on a sad note, as Ukifune attempts to kill herself but lives to experience the pain and end up becoming a nun.
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III. Genji, The Shining Prince
Though written in insular Japan some 1000 years ago, Genji’s character has a semblance with many others in the literary world. One would easily associate him with Don Juan, who, in his conquests with women, would be very much difficult to distinguish from the person that is Genji. In today’s terms, he would be called a playboy. With his charming good looks and poetic tongue to match, being wooed by one like him would be an easy task. As his story travels from page to page, one would always find Genji with a new woman and it wouldn’t be so rare that he would have multiple relations all at once. When he built his palatial Rokujo mansion, it was meant to house four different ladies in his life, all of which he wooed through his charm and magnetism. Throughout his life, he caught the attention and hearts of numerous women, engaging in relationships, sometimes fleeting but many times sincere. He is considered to be prolific and promiscuous, setting his sights on a woman and actively pursuing her so that his desires are met, ultimately seducing whomever he fancies.
Taking things from the events of the tale and the title of Asia’s Don Juan, pointing out that Genji is very much flawed would not be much of a challenge. Genji, himself, is even one to point out his faults, being spoiled and self-centered. Despite having been made so imperfect, it is sometimes a wonder why he is hailed by many as the hero of the tale. Heroism, whether in reality or literature, has been often defined by many noble ideals and characteristics. Typically, he is recognizable by his sheer courage and physical strength. Observing Genji, these traits aren’t made very much pronounced. In fact, at times, he shows the opposite as when he exiled himself to Suma to evade the consequences of his actions and the wrath of the relatives of Oborozukiyo. It is also noticeable how Shikibu kept herself within the confines of Genji’s romantic life for the most part, unlike other heroes commonly places set in the midst of physically and mentally arduous tasks or warfare. It was in this way that Genji departed from the traditional hero and redefined what it is to be one. It must now be pointed out, though, that Murasaki Shikibu meant to illustrate her hero as such. He was an unusual one. He was made to become a hero in a different place, outside the commonly perceived situations and beyond the stereotypical strengths and characteristics and at many times, he was made to be the contrast to the classical definition of a hero. He was created by Shikibu to contrast regent Kaneie of the Heian period by exemplifying a great sense of concern and sensitivity for others, unlike the regent who was lukewarm to the women in his life. Throughout his adventures with women, it is without a doubt that, in the process, he had inflicted some sort of pain on them. What is remarkable, however, was that he was sensitive towards them and took responsibility for what came after on many circumstances, best exemplified when he provided for several of these women and giving them each a section in the Rokujo mansion. It was also made evident in his encounter with Princess Safflower. Despite not having much interest in her, this daughter of a prince who was close to ruins was eventually spared from misfortune with the help of Genji. It was in this ideal of Genji that his self-redemption is found, one that marks him as a hero despite the gravity of his all too many flaws. It is in his ability to redeem and better himself from all his self-induced challenges brought by his flaws that he completes his quest to become a hero and the tale a universal literary achievement. Margaret Berry concisely narrowed down his character by saying In his long series of amours -despite impetuosity and irresponsibility- the Heian prince basically pursues only beautiful and enduring, though not exclusive, relationships in which he can promote the well-being, the capacities for beauty of the beloved while himself savoring the union with that which is beautiful. It is in this statement that we find Genji’s different sense of heroism within the greater picture of his flaws.
With this Don Juan’s heroism and development of other characters, as well as the story, The Tale of Genji now becomes a source of lessons for readers to learn from and live by. Despite his amorous exploits, he has exhibited many ideals that does not only make him a different kind of hero but also, allows The Tale of Genji to be relevant and instrumental in making life richer with lessons.
One of the recurring truths present in Genji is the evanescence of life. All throughout the novel, death was a present and recurring experience. Many of Genji’s loved ones were noted to have passed away, among them his parents, his son and most tragic and painful to his heart, Murasaki. It can be observed that the author emphasized this concept of experiencing loss and presents to the readers the idea that life is fleeting – So briefly rests the dew on the hagi. Even now it scatters in the wind. In the haste we make to leave this world of dew, may there be no time between the first and last. Nothing in life is meant to be perfect and the tale expresses the beauty found in the ephemeral life everyone is bound to. Thus, life, although many times a struggle, is something to be cherished. This idea is definitely not limited to a certain time despite being written under a different era. It still finds relevance as time passes and in the current generation. With the recent reports of deaths and violence from all over, the threat of losing someone is ever present and strong. This urges people to make use of the time they have with our friends and family wisely and make the most out of it as no one knows when those bonding times may end, hence the famous line carpe diem or seize the day.
The importance of proper behavior is also often highlighted throughout the story. It is brought to light the earlier parts of The Tale of Genji, where Lady Kokiden disregarded the emperor’s suffering due to the death of his favorite concubine. She did not act accordingly in court in light of this situation and thus, her demeanor resulted in a bad reputation. In today’s time of looser morals and demeanor, proper behavior is even more called for. The concept present in this lesson is similar to what most people refer to as delikadesa/delikadeza. Here in the Philippines, whenever one is in a situation in which he or she is expected to behave in a specific manner, delikadesa is exhibited.
Similar to the lesson stated earlier, but leaning more towards the female gender, would be the lesson of being morally intact. Although this is true, it is also applicable to men due to the fact that the main character, Genji, is a playboy and involves himself in many affairs throughout the entire novel. As mentioned in the story, there were a lot of instances wherein women were seduced or swept off of their feet by Genji, without much consideration to their romantic status. Essentially, many women made love to Genji and some even bore his children such as the Lady Fujitsubo, who bore him a son. Amongst all the girls, there was one who was able to resist Genji’s wooing and remained chaste – Utsusemi. The author makes her a model of being morally intact. This lesson of morality may actually be more needed in our time now as compared to that of the past. Being a generation that’s more liberal and less conservative compared to the generations of past generations, we hear news left and right about prostitution houses, sex videos or scandals and the like. The character of Utsusemi is a constant reminder to both men and women to be morally intact.
Having an open heart and not bearing grudges against people is also a lesson that was shown in Tale of Genji. In one instance, while Genji was away to take care of the sick Murasaki, a man came to his house and made love to one of his wives. Even though Genji found out about the affair and knew who he was, he did not bear the guy nor his wife any grudges. Despite that, the guy did die of shame. This lesson can be applied in our time today in instances wherein even though people do us wrong we do not let that single act or instance destroy the relationship we have with that person.
One of the most important lessons that could be learned from the novel is that we should be repentant of our wrongdoings. Towards the end of Genji’s life, he became an officer in the empire and slowly rose in the ranks, performing good deeds. Upon his return from Suma, Genji seemingly returned somewhat matured yet still his promiscuous self. This mood of being repentant and reflective is important and applicable still to our own lives for even in this time period, people still make mistakes, commit sin, and wrong other people whether it be intentional or not, and recognizing our faults and repenting is an important step and process in order for us to grow and become better persons. It has been said that Once Genji has made even a fleeting commitment, a woman need not fear abandonment.As seen in the novel, Genji left his recently wedded wife in order to be with Murasaki during the time she was sick and he stayed with her until she finally passed. The same reliability is seen in the way he treats many of the women he has encountered, always expressing concern for others, especially when he is the cause of the pain.
Despite the novel being centuries old, the lessons contained within it are still applicable in the lives of the people living even up to today. The relevance of The Tale of Genji is not limited to its contributions to the world of literature and its ability to bring a clear depiction of the past to the present. Moreover, it can be seen through these lessons, as it imparts onto its readers teachings on how to properly live their lives, though it’s method may be quite paradoxical given the fact that the main character Genji isn’t really one of moral purity. In a sense, the novel provides a complete perspective on how one should act in living out one’s life together with his flaws and struggles. Alongside this, the novel also showed the effects of such actions. Despite having a character like Genji, the book is able to direct humanity towards a more enriching path. It is in those aspects that the relevance of this book can truly be appreciated.
From the Heian period to today’s world bustling with new ideals, Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji has grown to become a beloved piece of literature, influencing much of the literary world. In spite of revealing the prominence of promiscuity, exploitation and other faults of society, the tale remains to be a classic tale of a hero to be exalted until this day. It is in presenting us with a hero outside of the extraordinary circumstances of warfare and chaos and lacking in superhuman strength, as heroes are commonly depicted, that the tale becomes a relevant and influential source of lessons. In Genji, much of the world can see the realistic depiction of a hero, one who is flawed yet redeems himself. With that, he brings about a whole array of learning’s on life, love and loss and a new perspective on how one deals with his flaws.
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