This time for the Literati Corner, we continue our look at the Japanese classic novel, The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shibiku. I really have to say I liked this section of the book best so far. While the first 20 chapters or so seemed rather disjointed, often focusing on Genji and one of the women he was pursuing, this section starting with chapter 21 “The Maiden” which I discussed last time begins a true story arc that lasts for over 150 pages at least as the focus of the novel shifts from Genji to his children’s generation. Since the age of adulthood was age 12, that comes rather quickly, and Genji acquires a few of the children of some of his women with other men and takes them under his roof. It is with this development that the ambiguity about Genji’s actions disappears as the main dilemma is his romantic advances toward one of them, Tamakazura. One thing I will note before I begin my discussion of this segment is that the reader is shown more starkly here the situation of Genji and his conquests from the women’s perspectives, and his behavior isn’t pleasant for any of them.
In chapter 22, “The Jeweled Chaplet,” we meet the daughter of the deceased Evening Faces girl that died during Genji’s seduction, but this daughter was with his friend Tō no Chūjō. If I’m reading this correctly – there is a lot of detail in this novel to absorb and keep track of – she should be about 20 years old. The girl, Tamakazura, has been spirited away by Evening Faces’ attendants beyond Genji’s grasp, though he wanted to find her, and at this point in the story, her attendants are aghast at the romantic overtures of an “adventurer” they call the Higo man. The description of the Higo man is close enough to Genji that I wondered if it actually was him and that he just seemed like a stranger because the story flipped to the perspective of the girl and her household, but it is apparently a different character. The similarities with Genji do make me wonder if it was a subtle way for Murasaki Shikibu to make a point about Genji, to finally show him clearly as a predator rather than some irresistible ladies’ man.
Some of the description here are worth quoting at length. It is possible that Murasaki Shikibu probably knew men like this at court and perhaps was victimized herself by them in a society where you couldn’t really object to what was happening. The TV and movie adaptations I saw, which are certainly not comprehensive, never get into this side of Genji’s character and only cover the earlier chapters of the novel. They like to emphasize his more successful affairs and tend to stop before he gets in trouble and goes into exile. If anyone knows of a TV adaptation that shows the story line from pages 350 to around 620 so far, please let me know. I do know that the Japanese do read excerpts of this novel in school, but this distorted image of the novel that has been popularized is one reason why I wanted to encourage students to read it in its entirety. You know how many movies botch the book they are based on, right? Now we get to see the whole thing, and I think it deserves its reputation as an important work of art as well as portrays women’s issues that resonate even into the modern era.
That said, here is the household’s complaint about the Higo man:
There was an official of the Fifth Rank who had been on the viceroy’s staff and who was a member of a large clan scattered over the province of Higo. He was something of a local eminence, a warrior of very considerable power and influence. Though of an untamed nature, he did have a taste for the finer things, and among his avocations was the collecting of elegant ladies….
“It is true that we did not want her to marry beneath her. But he will be a strong ally, and if we make an enemy of him we will have to pack up and leave. Yes, she is very wellborn. That we do not deny – but what good does it do when her father doesn’t recognize her and no one even knows she exists? She is lucky he wants her….He is a determined and ruthless man, and he will do anything if crossed.”…They most certainly didn’t want to see her marry the Higo man.
Confident of his name and standing and unaware of this disagreement, the man showered her with letters, all of them on good Chinese paper, richly colored and heavily perfumed. He wrote a not at all contemptible hand, but his notion of the courtly was very provincial. Having made an ally of the second son, he came calling. He was about thirty, tall and powerfully built, not unpleasant to look at….Lovers are called ‘night crawlers,’ one hears, but he was different. He came of a spring evening, victim, it would seem, of the urgings which the poet felt more strongly on autumn evenings.” (pp.411-412)
They try to get rid of him and think death would be better for the girl than to marry such a man. The thing to note about this passage is the fact that Genji is probably about 30 or thereabouts at this point of the novel, and there was an earlier discussion he had about how he felt about autumn evenings. Some of this also echoes the uncomfortable pursuit he made of the Akashi lady when he was exiled at Suma. The situation is resolved somewhat when Tamakazura’s household goes on a pilgrimage to the Iwashimizu Hachiman Shrine:
At the shrine, they happen to meet the Evening Faces’ former maid Ukon who has taken up residence in Genji’s place at Rokujō with his other women, and she is elated to hear of the girl. They wonder if Genji could set her up with a good husband, so Ukon arranges with Genji to bring her to the Rokujō house. He resolves to take her in as his own daughter since he has so few children of his own. We’ll see how well that resolution sticks soon enough, since it is a major plot point of this section of the novel.
Chapter 23, “The First Warbler,” is a fun description of their new year’s party at Genji’s mansion. Chapter 24, “Butterflies,” describes their spring party a few months later. All of this is very elegant and beautiful, and it’s these kinds of passages that probably are the most attractive for history and culture buffs because they show the rich leisure class of the day in very beautiful settings with their artwork. This also is a special characteristic of this section of the novel, and I’ll point out plenty more chapters with this sort of focus as we go this time.
Chapter 24 is where we start to see suitors approach Genji for Tamakazura’s hand in marriage, and this dredges up some uncomfortable situations. Of course, this scene has some wonderful poetry, and I particularly wanted to highlight the poem Murasaki writes to Akikonomu, who was Lady Rokujō’s daughter and former priestess at Ise who is now the Empress (wife of Genji and Fujitsubo’s son together). Got all of that? I read that someone wants to do a new translation using the original references for the characters instead of the artificial names like Seidensticker uses, but I say no thanks. This is unwieldy enough to talk about with contrived names for the characters. Here’s the poem:
“Low in your grasses the cricket awaits the autumn
And views with scorn these silly butterflies.” (p.443)
The problem that arises in this chapter is that Genji finds himself drawn to Tamakazura, being the fickle man that he is, and he decides he wants her instead of giving her to one of her suitors. He tries to act as her surrogate parent, but he can’t get her off of his mind. When he goes to visit her, he takes her hand, caught up in the memory of her dead mother whom she resembles so closely that he forgets himself:
Nothing like this had happened to her before. But she must not lose her composure….
He found this quiet confusion delightful. She sat with bowed head, unable to think what to make of his behavior and what to do next. The hand in his was soft, her skin smooth and delicate. He had made his confession because beauty and pain had suddenly come to seem very much alike. She was trembling.
“Am I so objectionable, then? I have worked hard to keep our secret, and you must help me. You have always been important to me. Now you are important in a new way. I wonder if there has ever been anything quite like it. I can think of no reason that you should prefer those others [her suitors] to me. I cannot imagine feelings deeper than my own, and I cannot bear the thought of passing you on to them and their frivolity.”
It all seemed rather beyond the call of paternal duty.
The night was a lovely one. The breeze was rustling the bamboo, the wind had stopped, and a bright moon had come out. Her women had tactfully withdrawn. Though he saw a great deal of her, a better opportunity did not seem likely to present itself. From the momentum, perhaps, which his avowal had given him, he threw off his robe with practiced skill – it was a soft one that made no sound – and pulled her down beside him.
She was stunned. What would her women think? She was sobbing helplessly. Her father might treat her coldly, but at least he would protect her from such outrages.
Yes, of course: she had a right to weep. He turned to the work of calming her. “So you reject me. I am shattered. Ladies must often depend on men who are nothing to them – it is the way of the world – and I should have thought that I was rather a lot to you, at least in terms of what I have done for you. This unfriendliness is not at all easy to accept. But enough. It will not happen again. My comfort will be in heaping restraint upon virtuous restraint.”
She was so like her mother that the resemblance was scarcely to be borne. He knew that this impetuous behavior did not become his age and eminence. Collecting himself, he withdrew before the lateness of the hour brought her women to mistaken conclusions.
“It will not be easy to forget that I have caused such revulsion. You may be very sure that you will not succeed in driving anyone else quite so thoroughly mad, and that my limitless, bottomless feelings for you will keep me from doing anything unseemly in the future. A quiet talk for old times’ sake is all I ask. Can you not be persuaded to grant me that much?”
She was unable to reply.
“Such coldness, I would not have thought you capable of it. You do seem to hate me most extravagantly.” He sighed. “We must let no one guess what has happened.” He left.
She was no child, but among ladies her age she was remarkable in not having had the company of anyone of even modest experience. She could not imagine a worse outrage, or a stranger fate than hers had been. Her women thought she must be ill and could not think what to suggest.” (pp.449-450)
This struggle between them continues and puts a heavy strain on Tamakazura, who is now desperate to marry any of her suitors just to get away from Genji; this seems to be a pattern among a number of his women. He doesn’t let the matter drop and continues to pressure her in Chapter 25, “Fireflies,” which is one of the most suspenseful chapters in the novel. Here we also see Genji hitting on the Emperor’s wife Akikonomu. Later when Tō no Chūjō does discover Tamakazura is his daughter, he assumes automatically that Genji had a relationship with her merely because she was in his household and he knows Genji’s character. That’s really saying something. Not all of the men are portrayed to be that way, and Genji’s son Yūgiri is a particularly strong foil for quite a long time, as is Tō no Chūjō’s son Kashiwagi, so it’s certainly not standard male behavior for the time period.
“Genji had made his confession. The result was that his longing increased. Fearful of being overheard, however, he found the subject a difficult one to approach, even gingerly. His visits were very frequent. Choosing times when she was likely to have few people with her, he would hint at his feelings, and she would be in an agony of embarrassment. Since she was not in a position to turn him away, she could only pretend that she did not know what was happening. (p.452)
But then this chapter also brings up another question about what exactly the novel portrays. Starting on page 458, we see that the ladies in Genji’s household spend the rainy summer reading popular illustrated romances (like Tale of Genji itself was written to be), and there is some general discussion as to whether these romances were even portraying true incidents. One of the stories they mention is The Tale of Sumiyoshi, which you can read about some here:
This discussion continues until page 461, and it even includes some self-referential comments on the use of fiction and whether any of them have characters like Genji and Tamakazura. They mention a few other romances of the day by name and get into fictional tropes. Meanwhile, the chapter ends with Tō no Chūjō getting an inkling of the whereabouts of his missing daughter and Yūgiri looking for a shot at Tō no Chūjō for separating him from the love of his life, Tō no Chūjō’s second daughter Kumoinokari.
Chapter 26, “Wild Carnations,” shows more of Tō no Chūjō’s quest to find any of his illegitimate daughters so he can have a chance to gain power through them at court. His legitimate first two daughters are not cooperating with his plans, and he does find one girl from Omi and brings her to court though she is a very rough, uncultured sort of girl, and he discovers Tamakazura is also his long lost daughter.
In chapter 27, “Flares,” Genji uses the excuse of teaching Tamakazura the koto to spend time near her. This chapter does have some nice musical interludes that are quite pleasant to read in spite of the subtext.
Chapter 28, “The Typhoon,” is interesting since Yūgiri accidentally catches sight of Genji’s principal wife, Murasaki, during the storm, and he grows somewhat infatuated with her, so he spends some time away from Genji’s house with his grandmother at Sanjō. When he does return to Genji’s house, he accidentally sees his father’s sexual overtures toward Tamakazura and is shocked. He also sees clearly that Tamakazura is upset by Genji’s behavior.
If you like descriptions of the pomp of the royal court, then you’ll love chapter 29, “The Royal Outing.” The emperor’s retinue goes out hunting, and Genji decides this is the moment for Tō no Chūjō to discover Tamakazura is his daughter. At this point, Tō no Chūjō gives Yūgiri permission to marry Kumoinokari. Tamakazura’s storyline wraps up in chapters 30 and 31 as she marries a new suitor who petitions her real father Tō no Chūjō, a man she doesn’t particularly like either. It is an unhappy situation she marries in to. Her new husband Higekuro has a wife whose mental health was already fragile, and his taking a second wife sends her over the edge. Murasaki Shikibu as usual highlights the deeper feelings of her female characters dealing with their men’s fickle behavior and handles the difficulty of the wife’s position quite sensitively, with her father trying to persuade her to leave her husband and return to his household instead of enduring the insult of him taking a second wife. Meanwhile, Genji can’t quite squelch rumors that he had designs on Tamakazura himself, and he tries to tell himself he didn’t really want her after all.
In chapter 32, “A Branch of Plum,” Genji plans for the initiation ceremony of the Akashi daughter, which is described in detail, and he and Murasaki prepare perfumes for a competition among Genji’s household. The Akashi daughter ends up being selected for the new crown prince’s retinue, not to be confused with the former crown prince, now emperor, Genji’s son with Fujitsubo. This is a different one, again with no name! They also have a calligraphy and painting contest described in charming fashion:
The competition was intense. Genji secluded himself as before in the main hall. The cherry blossoms had fallen and the skies were soft. Letting his mind run quietly through the anthologies, he tried several styles with fine results, formal and cursive Chinese and the more radically cursive Japanese ‘ladies’ hand.’ He had with him only two or three women whom he could count on for interesting comments. They ground ink for him and selected poems from the more admired anthologies. Having raised the blinds to let the breezes pass, he sat out near the veranda with a booklet spread before him, and as he took a brush meditatively between his teeth the women thought that they could gaze at him for ages on end and not tire. His brush poised over papers of clear, plain reds and whites, he would collect himself for the effort of writing, and no one of reasonable sensitivity could have failed to admire the picture of serene concentration which he presented. (p. 546)
Chapter 33, “Wisteria Leaves,” shows the confrontation between Tō no Chūjō and Yūgiri as Yūgiri marries Kumoinokari and moves to Sanjō. As the Akashi daughter is taken to royal court to join the crown prince, Genji celebrates his 40th birthday, and the emperor wants to openly acknowledge him as his real father.
The final chapter I’m looking at in this post is chapter 34, “New Herbs: Part One,” which takes up the problem of the Suzaku emperor’s third princess. The new crown prince is his son, and he wants to renounce the world and become a monk, however, that means he will abandon his young daughter who is 13 or 14 years old and about to be initiated to the uncertainties of royal court politics. He tries to convince Yūgiri, now 19, to marry her, but he won’t, and the unmarried Kashiwagi who ends up once again losing a woman to an already married man! Such are the problems in polygamous societies. After the Suzaku emperor talks to Genji about taking her in to find her a good husband, somehow it ends up that Genji formally marries her, upsetting Murasaki whose uneasiness the author focuses on. The Akashi daughter gives birth to the crown prince’s son at a young age, Genji’s grandson. Oddly, we are informed that Yūgiri will not allow Genji to ever see his children with Kumoinokari, though Yūgiri is growing bored with his untalented wife and starts to feel some interest toward the third princess Genji married. I’ll end my review of this segment with a sweet description of Yūgiri at the third princess’ rooms:
He glanced over toward the Third Princess’s rooms. They seemed to be in the usual clutter. The multicolored sleeves pouring from under the blinds and through openings between them were like an assortment of swatches to be presented to the goddess of spring. Only a few paces from him a woman had pushed her curtains carelessly aside and looked as if she might be in a mood to receive a gentleman’s addresses. A Chinese cat, very small and pretty, came running out with a larger cat in pursuit. There was a noisy rustling of silk as several women pushed forward to catch it. On a long cord which had become badly tangled, it would not yet seem to have been fully tamed. As it sought to free itself the cord caught in a curtain, which was pulled back to reveal the women behind. They were much too worried about the cat. (p. 617)
As usual, Murasaki Shikibu’s writing doesn’t disappoint. This storyline continues into the next section we will cover in the next post.