The Heian court and the social structure it provided is a compelling aspect of Japanese history. The 21st century reader is intrigued by such an era and its artistic representations because the general norms, collective conscious, and interpersonal relationships seem to be in clear contrast with the social practices of today. At face value, it appears that Murasaki Shikibu’s discontentment with the aforementioned characteristics of court life manifested itself within the pages of The Tale of Genji.
The acclaimed Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov once stated, “A masterpiece of fiction is an original world and as such is not likely to fit the world of the reader. ” Thus, although Murasaki Shikibu’s work is deeply rooted in exposing the pretense associated with Heian court social rank, marriage practices, and feminine submissiveness, she managed to create a world for Genji which tested the limits of his emotional threshold and, by default, relatable with modern/epic protagonists. Moreover, because the modern audience can at times feel sympathetic toward Genji by relating to his emotional range (i. grief through ecstasy) and psychological abnormalities, The Tale of Genji’s status as a timeless masterpiece is merited.
Had Genji been a detached lover with no emotional and psychological depth, Murasaki Shikibu’s work and reputation would not have seen the light of day outside of the court she was heavily critiquing. This essay will compare the qualities depicted in The Tale of Genji with other works that are highly regarded as masterpieces while shedding light on the differences which can be seen as a more direct jab at Heian readership.
There is a notion in philosophical theory that is used to show that the ‘robber and the robbed’ share a mutual existence dictated by past events. Their meeting, the robbery, is the climax of their distinct lifelong plots. The idea that humans are simply ‘victims of circumstance’ applies directly to Genji as can be seen through his decisions and amorous plight. Through the first few chapters of Murasaki Shikibu’s tale, the audience can infer on the surface that the plot revolves around the development of the protagonist’s Oedipus complex.
Upon meeting young Murasaki whose resemblance to Fujitsubo was ‘astonishing’, the author specifies Genji’s yearning for Fujitsubo as the reason he was brought to tears (Murasaki 71). Although inquiries of Genji’s psychological state are not without merit, the bond between Murasaki’s work and Sophocles’ Oedipus the King delves much deeper. The growth and development of Genji’s character and traits do a bit more than clarify his current actions: should one have started reading at the “Lavender” chapter, it provides an insight to a past riddled with complexity.
Through Genji’s dialogues and decisions regarding dilemmas of the heart the readership is given a man who, involved with the particular situations Genji had experienced, would most likely act in a similar fashion to Genji. Every act through Oedipus the King paints a picture for the reader of the power that emotional disposition has over Oedipus and his quests, which is not at all unlike Genji himself. After hearing about the crimes he was to commit, how can a reader not feel sympathetic towards his pursuit for independence from the oracle?
In similar fashion to this masterpiece, Murasaki utilized the tool of plot reappearance across characters and time settings to give readership the sense that Genji was predisposed to repeat past deeds. After the death of Genji’s mother, the emperor (Genji’s father), was in mourning and grief and seeking to fill the void left over. After coming across the remarkable beauty of Fujitsubo and in an effort to bring her in, the emperor stated that he would “treat the girl as one of his daughters” and adding that given Genji’s resemblance to her, she “could pass for his mother” (Murasaki 22).
As previously mentioned, this father-like quality resurfaced in Genji’s admiration for Murasaki. However, a distinct difference is that Genji’s paternal instinct is more or less a fabrication resulting from the impediment, put in place by Murasaki’s nurse, of his unyielding desire to make her his future lover: “It is you who do not understand. I see how young she is, and I have nothing of the sort in mind. I must again ask you to be witness to the depth and purity of my feelings…How can she bear to live in such a lonely place? (Murasaki 95). At this point, one can see the psychological abnormalities developed in Genji which were not corrected by his upbringing; in fact, witnessing his father’s adamant love for this exact model of beauty might have amplified the effect on his behavior. When Oedipus proclaimed the total expulsion of the murderer who was still unknown (practically accepting Jocasta, his mother, as his wife), the knowledge of the foreseeable future which the readership possessed allowed one to feel the helplessness which Oedipus embodied.
Much to the same effect, is the reader supposed to feel that Genji does not have the ability escape fate? One can infer that Murasaki’s response to this is a resounding “No”. Although the similarities between the two works are many, the major difference lies in two factors: Oedipus’ fate was sealed, and, prior to his emotional endeavor regarding the oracle’s prophecy, he was an exemplary combination of leadership and intelligence which suited a king well. Even though Murasaki gave Genji an emotional depth, she left out the qualities of critical thought and consideration for others.
Doing so, Murasaki left Genji at the mercy of his circumstances without his fate being set in stone, and, thus continuing the chauvinistic characteristic of male aristocrats of the time. Through her literary prowess, Murasaki subtly but effectively proclaimed that high rank/position did not equate to intellectual superiority nor did it predetermine that all aristocrats in those positions were fit to rule as can be witnessed by Genji’s preoccupation with his love affairs and not the further betterment of court reputation or intellect.
Another ubiquitously renowned masterpiece with similar sexual deviance from its protagonist is Homer’s The Odyssey. Odysseus’ journey to return home to his wife is juxtaposed with temptation by utmost beauty which ultimately leads him to succumb to the latter. In academic circles, the reunion with his wife is seen as one of the most romantic scenes in literary history; yet, there seems to be a lack of uproar regarding his adventures with Calypso and Circe.
On the other hand (with critical awareness of the social norms of the time), Genji is met with great disdain by the general audience. In comparison to The Tale of Genji, the similarity lies with the degree of sympathy the protagonists evoke more so than the actual plot: although both characters had multiple extramarital affairs, does Odysseus’ long term physical displacement conjure up a greater forgiveness from the readership s oppose to Genji’s emotional dissatisfaction with his current state of affairs? The fact that Murasaki’s work, more specifically her protagonist Genji, is able to invoke an amount of emotional response from contemporary audiences comparable to that of The Odyssey without relying on 20 years of desolation from its main character in itself should merit the reputation it has received. In regards to the previously mentioned question, Murasaki would probably be displeased with Odysseus’ affairs.
Although universally accepted justification would never be reached, his unfading love for Penelope goes without question. The major difference between the two protagonists lies in their response to utmost beauty. Facing Calypso, Odysseus admits that she is far more beautiful than his wife who is a mere mortal, but that he “pines” all his days to see his return to her (Lawall et. al 265). Genji, on the other hand, falls ‘prey to the female’.
Murasaki’s commentary on relationships lies in the deliberate absence of discernment in Genji and his state of being out of touch with reality. Moreover, his narrow focus on beauty does not allow him to see the combination of flaws and qualities that all women possess; thus, his longing for the specific mold of beauty he yearns for seen in the beginning of Murasaki’s work holds no merit and thus, true sympathy fails to reach Genji’s amorous quest.
This notion is exemplified by Murasaki’s narration describing Fujitsubo’s beauty: “There was no one else quite like her. In that fact was his undoing: he would be less a prey to longing if he could find in her even a trace of the ordinary” (Murasaki 86). Furthermore, Murasaki leaves no indication that Genji exhausted all possibilities in an attempt to make love work with Aoi (or even Rokujo); this would at least add some credibility to his dissatisfaction with them.
Instead, he utilizes their unfavorable idiosyncrasies as further incentive for his extramarital adventures. Murasaki expresses her own dissatisfaction with marriage practices/relationships, in essence, by making the case that male aristocrats at court lack the judgment and intellect (which is supposed to be innate to them given the hierarchal structure of the society at the time) to fully comprehend and appreciate the complexity of women and lack the consideration to take into account that their actions affect not only hemselves. All in all, the clearest insight to Murasaki’s critique of Heian structure, rank, and interpersonal outlook comes directly from Genji and it sounds as if Murasaki implied to state the true intentions of Heian male aristocrats: “I am weak and indecisive by nature myself, and a woman who is quiet and withdrawn and follows the wishes of a man even to the point of letting herself be used has much the greater appeal.
A man can shape and mold her as he wishes, and becomes fonder of her all the while” (Murasaki 62). Lastly, Heian era Japan was not the only male dominated civilization and this type of society has not yet disappeared. The fact that one can use the same critiques Murasaki masterfully made about Heian court to dispute manifestations of chauvinism in certain aspects of society today solidifies The Tale of Genji as a masterpiece which stood the test of time.
Courtney from Study Moose
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