The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari)

The Genji Monogatari or the Tale of Genji, a masterpiece of Japanese literature and is also contemplated as the world’s first novel and the first psychological novel ever written. It was one of the most popular stories written in the Heian period. It was written at the beginning of the 11th century by a great author of that time Murasaki Shikibu, as the many women in the Heian period the real name of the author is unknown. This story written around a thousand years back in history, serves as the kind of a travel guide helping us to make our way through the Heian period and the world of Genji, seeing his journey and story through our own eyes.

The book puts light on the culture of aristocracy in the early Heian period- like the dressing practices, what kind of entertainment did people enjoy, the daily lifestyle of the people and its moral codes and customs being followed. The author introduces us to Genji, whose character is portrayed as handsome, friendly and sensitive, a consummate courtier, a trusted friend and an excellent lover. The major portion of the story revolves around the lovers of Genji, and how each and every lover of his is evocatively depicted. The story is a beautiful journey of human emotions and displays the nature in its glory, but as the story progresses it take is a dark U-turn and starts to reflect the Buddhist persuasion of the world’s impermanence.

Murasaki Shikibu, wrote The Tale of Genji, while she was working as a lady in the Japanese court. At the time Japanese literary works mostly consisted the collections of poems written in the language of Tang, the kanji script that was appropriated from China. Therefore, during her time in the court, the court’s official and scholarly works were written in Chinese rather that in Japanese, as the literary works written in prose, usually by the women of court, were taken not so seriously and were not viewed as the literary work as equal of poetry. Proses written during the Heian period were restricted to fairy tales and only very few chronicles were written in the new phonetic language, Kana. Murasaki Shikibu was the first lady to write a complete convoluted novel, along with lots of plot twists and turns though out the narration of the tale. However as for The Tale of Genji, it was perceived as a refined work of imagination with a comprehensive knowledge of both Japanese and Chinese poetry. It constitutes of about 800 wakas, which tells the story of that one character and his legacy through a whole of 54 chapters.

Background of the Tale of Genji

In the Heian period, the community that is delineated is that of the cream of the society or so to say the aristocrats, who are unconcerned with anything but themselves, their own amusement and entertainment, and the emperor is at the center of their universe. These people are preoccupied with the ranks and the rearing. But the find grace in nature and enjoy the raptures of music, calligraphy, poetry and the way of dressing in fine clothes. The courtiers in the Heian period were more or less unaware of the outside world and could care less about it, they did not travel and considered people lower than the as less human. The highest three ranks were the high court nobles known as the ‘Kugyo’ and the ranks below that, meaning the fourth and the fifth ranks were the provincial governor class that was frequently looked down upon because of its low rank. Our author, Murasaki Shikibu, herself was the daughter of the governor of Echizen, a Fujiwara.

During the Heian period the women of the family were to stay hidden from any man who was not her father or husband, so these women mostly spent their time indoors hidden behind screen doors, the only escape for these house- bound ladies were these tales. And ‘The Tale of Genji’ provided them with all of it- Romance, drama, the supernatural and the perfect hero. The women who entered the courts as lady-in-waiting to become an empress or a royal concubine were free to seek associations with the gentlemen in the court, this also provided a background for the setting of the first part of the novel.

The men were more interested in women of good breeding who had an interest in poetry and calligraphy. The sense of style and fashion of a woman was what attracted the men to them. The men in the Heian period were unable to see women’s physical beauty so the only physical attribute they were attracted to in a woman were her hair. The thicker and longer a women’s hair were the more beautiful she was. This was also the reason why our main character Genji, did not let his wife in the story to have a tonsure whilst she was sick.

During the Heian period Buddhism had already started to affect the way of thinking for the aristocratic class, it was only obvious that it will also have an influence on the literary works of the writers of the era. Buddhist concepts ran deep in the literary works of this period, and the concepts of Buddhism and the practices that were followed in it found its way into the novel, the Tale of Genji, as well as it was shown by the author that all the characters in the story had the concept of Karma was always evidently present in the minds of all the central characters.

In the early adventures of our hero, Genji, he was rather hard- headed and egocentric, but after the development of his character in the story he was later portrayed as a gallant man who took care of women even after he lost interest in them. He mostly spent time boating on lakes while listening to flute and Koto music.


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