The Tale of Genji

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The Tale of Genji is a Japanese novel about a self-centered, womanizing prince in the Heian period (794-1195). It was written in the eleventh century by Lady Murasaki, who was well acquainted with life in the imperial court. Although fictional, it understood to be an accurate representation of aristocratic life at the court in Kyoto around the year 1000.[1] The book is considered to be the first novel. It is more than twice as long as War and Peace.

The Tale of Genji
Japanese name
Kanji 源氏物語

The main character, Genji, was a prodigy and a prince who used his beauty and charm to seduce women and kidnap girls. He married a ten-year-old girl named Murasaki.[2]

The character Murasaki is not to be confused with the author of the novel, who was not a child bride. Even though her life story is not the same as the author's, the character does represent the author in terms of personality and self-image. Some critics argue that Murasaki is tiresomely perfect, and that several of the novel's other female characters are more complex and interesting.[3] But for most readers, Murasaki — both the author and the character — is the central figure of the novel. Genji's many love affairs are not just about infidelity, jealously, and romantic conquest. They are also a plot device that allows Murasaki to describe and comment upon women of various status and situations.

Dealing with straying husbands is a recurring theme. In the “rainy night conversation," Murasaki advises a woman whose husband has strayed to let him know tactfully that she knows and cares, and so to win back his affection. This advise is intended for women of the middle and lower classes. For the upper class, marriage and infidelity are bound up with status at court. By this logic, Murasaki may feel that she is entitled to jealousy.

Through much of the novel's extended narrative, Murasaki is dominated by Genji. Her personality becomes an extension of his. In the face of Genji's continued infidelity, she grows increasingly disgusted and resentful. In the novel's climatic scene, Murasaki announces her discovery of self: "There I was, [she] thought, completely miserable, and he, simple pastime or not, was sharing his heart with another! Well, I am I!”.[3] The line "I am I" is an abbreviated form of, "You are you, I am I." (kimi wa kimi, ware wa ware). This was a stock phrase used in poetry at the time to suggest a degree of separation from a lover.[4] Murasaki's long-suffering endurance is appreciated by Japanese readers as characteristically Japanese. This allows her to overshadow the novel's other characters.

Genji's marriage to the "Third Princess" proved to be his undoing. Marriage to a daughter of the emperor elevated Genji's status at court, but Murasaki was devastated. In her early forties, she died of a broken heart. Genji, then in his early fifties, survives her as a mere shell of his former self. It appears that after the reader sees him for the last time, he leaves the world, retires to a Buddhist temple, and dies within a year or two.[5] The final chapter of the book is entitled, "Vanished into the Clouds." It consisted of only the title and a blank page.


  1. [1]
  2. Arnold, Mary, "Female Resistance to Male Authority, Part One
  3. 3.0 3.1 Tyler, Royall, The Disaster of the Third Princess: Essays on the Tale of Genji, "Genji and Murasaki: Between Love and Pride", ANU
  4. Tyler, Royall, The Disaster of the Third Princess: Essays on the Tale of Genji, "Jealousy and self-affirmation," ANU.
  5. "The Tale of Genji"

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