Posted by: gdevi | February 21, 2010

The Tale of the Genji Study Notes

Dr. G. Devi

English 220

Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of the Genji Study Notes (circa 11th CE)

First novel in world literature, The Tale of the Genji was written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting to the Japanese empress and daughter of a provincial governor.  Her birth and livelihood allowed Shikibu to gain an unusually close and clear insight into Japanese courtly life. Written in the genre of Romance, The Tale of the Genji tells the story of an ex-prince who is known only with his family name Genji along with the informal name “the shining one,” his many loves, and the lives and loves of his descendents. Through this primary narrative, Shikibu has constructed an amazingly vivid psychological portrait of 11th century Japanese culture and ethos, particularly the complicated and complex relations between social status, rank, love, sex, and family loyalties. Women led a highly sheltered life in 11th century Japan but Shikibu’s novel is a testament that women also had the means and leisure to write. While Japanese women were not educated to the same level as Japanese men and women did not have any social career per se, Japanese women followed a matrilineal system of inheritance whereby they were not exclusively dependent on men for their livelihood. In matrilineal societies, the inheritance came through the mother’s side and not through the father’s side; in most western cultures inheritance is through your father’s side. In matrilineal societies, the bond between sisters and brothers are stronger and more serious than between husbands and wives, and uncles and not fathers are the primary care-takers of the younger generation. So for instance, a man might be closer to his sister’s children than to his own children. A woman will turn to a brother for support and not to the husband. Under matriliny women are never bereft of social and financial support and there are no orphans or fatherless children; women and children are taken care of by their families of birth, and not of marriage.  You will also notice that the society supported both polygamy (men taking more than one sexual partner) and polyandry (women taking more than one sexual partner) and that both men and women behaved cautiously in their alliances because of social rank.  Though women appear to exercise a level of freedom in choosing a sexual partner, in general you will notice that women led sheltered lives, separated from men in their living quarters, movements, and social engagements; thus for a man “to see” a woman held the connotation of having a sexual relation with her. Such a social structure comes with its own definitions and experiences in the psychological values of love and sex. You will notice for instance that both men and women have numerous emotional and sexual alliances in The Tale of the Genji. There is no premium placed on fidelity; but beyond the sexual alliances, and formalities of marriage, both the male and female characters search for psychological bonds, which appear to be hard to create and to sustain. This difficulty to find someone to love—and the difficulty to define what love is—beyond sex, beyond marriage, beyond attainable commitments—is what drives the narrative of The Tale of the Genji.

Study Questions

Chapter 2: The Broom Tree

  • p. 1440-1443 Study the discussion between Genji, To No Chujo and his other friends about the different types of women—the pretty, the soft and the feminine, the domestic, the child-like, the chilly and the unfeeling, the quiet and the steady, the pretentious and scholarly woman, the non-assertive, the assertive, the beautiful woman with knowledge- What do these discussions reveal about how men viewed women? How is marriage conceptualized? How is the bond between husband and wife conceptualized? Is Shikibu merely narrating these details? Is there a critique of gender and marriage roles? Are these gender roles particular to Japanese culture and to the 11th century? Notice the expert intermingling of social behaviors of men and women with psychological causes and effects of their behaviors in these discussions.
  • Which is harder for us as readers to transcend when we read a novel like The Tale of the Genji — difference in time and history, or difference in class?
  • What is the narrative purpose of the couplets (Japanese 31 syllable tanka) in The Tale of the Genji? At what point in the narrative do these couplets surface? What do the couplets say that cannot be said in narrative?
  • Study Genji’s relationship with the wife of the General of Iyo. How does Shikibu portray this relationship? What is the role of the young boy, the brother? How would you characterize Genji’s determination to possess this woman? Is it significant that the woman is not named and is known only by a sobriquet “the locust lady”?
  • How does Shikibu portray Genji? What are his traits? Why are women attracted to him? Is it his rank? Is it his person? How does Genji treat his many lovers? Overall, which gender has greater chance at emotional fulfillment — men or women?
  • What is the importance of the setting in the adventures of Genji? How does architecture contribute to the overall themes and motifs of the narrative?
  • Why is this chapter called “The Broom Tree”? Do you know the expression “dust my broom”?

Chapter 4: Evening Faces

  • What does “Evening Faces” stand for?
  • What adventures transpire during Genji’s trip to meet his old nurse?
  • How does Genji and the woman known as “fisherman’s daughter” meet?  Describe Shikibu’s portrayal of the woman and Genji in this chapter. Does Genji fall in love with the fisherman’s daughter?  What social pressures do Genji and the woman face?
  • What do you make of Shikibu’s decision to reveal the identity of the “fisherman’s daughter” after her death? How does she die? Why does she die in the narrative? What does her death mean to Genji? How is her death and funeral portrayed in this chapter? Does she matter at all?

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