We’re in the home stretch in finishing the epic Japanese novel, The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shibiku. One more post after this, and we’ll have completed our 2016 read along. Anyone wanting to join me at this late date can find more details on that in my Literati Corner Guide for 2016; please see the menu bar at the top of the page for the Literati Corner page where assignments and questions will be posted for each year.
This post we pick up where we left off with chapter 44, “Bamboo River,” where the story’s action now moves to widowed Tamakazura in the household of her husband Higekuro. She had three sons and two daughters with him, and she found that only Genji’s family was still warm and close with her once Higekuro had died. Higekuro had wanted his daughters to join the court when they came of age, and the Emperor had been asking after them once they had, but Tamakazura had her doubts since Genji’s daughter, the Empress, had so much power that the other ladies of the court were having a hard time catching the Emperor’s eye; she was concerned about her daughters’ prospects in such a situation. She also had her daughters’ other suitors to consider, including the former Reizei Emperor. Yūgiri’s son the lieutenant was even threatening to abduct one of the girls if his interest were rebuffed. Tamakazura herself preferred Kaoru to any of them since she enjoyed his visits. In spite of the lieutenant’s pining for her older daughter, Tamakazura decides to send her older daughter to the Reizei Emperor as he has requested.
She had only the prettiest and most graceful of attendants. The ceremonies were as elaborate as if she were being presented to the reigning emperor. It was late in the night when the procession, having first looked in on Tamakazura’s sister, proceeded to the Reizei emperor’s apartments. Akikonomu and the ladies-in-waiting had all grown old in his service, and now there was a beautiful lady at her youthful best. No one was surprised that the emperor doted upon her and that she was soon the most conspicuous lady in the Reizei household. The Reizei emperor behaved like any other husband, and that, people said, was quite as it should be. He had hoped to see a little of Tamakazura and was disappointed that she withdrew after a brief conversation.
Kaoru was his constant companion, almost the favorite that Genji had once been. He was on good terms with everyone in the house, including, of course, the new lady. He would have liked to know exactly how friendly she was. One still, quiet evening when he was out strolling with her brother the chamberlain, they came to a pine tree before what he judged to be her curtains. Hanging from it was a very fine wisteria. With mossy rocks for their seats, they sat down beside the brook….
Yūgiri’s son the lieutenant, on the other hand, seemed so completely unhinged that one half expected violence. Some of the older girl’s suitors were beginning to take notice of the younger. It was the turn which Tamakazura, in response to Kumoinokari’s petitions, had hoped his own inclinations might take, but he had fallen silent. Though the Reizei emperor was on the best of terms with all of Yūgiri’s sons, the lieutenant seldom came visiting, and when he did he looked very unhappy and did not stay long. (Chapter 44)
Tamakazura finds her acceptance of the Reizei Emperor as her oldest daughter’s husband very controversial among her family, but her daughter becomes pregnant soon after. At this point, her attentions turn toward settling her second daughter in an advantageous marriage. The lieutenant was also a possibility, but the Emperor himself wanted her to be appointed to the royal court. The rest of this chapter relates how that drama plays out.
A completely new storyline begins with chapter 45, “The Lady at the Bridge,” which starts off inexplicably with a description of an old man who was a prince and younger brother of Genji whom Genji had opposed in his bid to become Crown Prince years earlier. Known as the Eighth Prince, he and his wife suffered numerous misfortunes, including having no children for a very long time, though they finally have two children together before the wife dies. The prince is distraught about what he should do since he has no will to live and wants to become a monk, but he has to see to his daughters’ futures. His daughters, Oigimi and Nakanokimi, become the center of his life, which is quite melancholy. The prince moves to a mountain villa in Uji (a great place to visit in Japan if you like this novel, by the way) and studies the holy way with an abbot who also guides the retired Reizei emperor.
At this point, we return to the story with Kaoru, who is in attendance on the Reizei emperor and hears this abbot speak about the Eighth Prince. However, instead of having any interest in the Eighth Prince’s daughters, Kaoru decides he wants to visit the prince to become his disciple in the faith. The abbot stops by to see the Eighth Prince to relay Kaoru’s wishes to him and see what he would like to do. They arrange for Kaoru to start visiting him regularly.
One of the times he tries to visit, the Eighth Prince has gone to a retreat with the abbot, and Kaoru is alone with the daughters, whom he tries to catch playing their instruments. Having been caught in the rain, he stays to chat with them. This chapter mostly details their visit and Kaoru and Niou’s interest in the daughters, and it’s rather charming, though there is a revelation of Kaoru’s parents that he has been waiting for from the old attendant at Uji.
In chapter 46, the story arc continues with the Eighth Prince conspiring to marry his daughter off to Kaoru, whom he notes with dismay has not made any romantic overtures but is exactly the serious sort of young man he would prefer for the girls. Niou meanwhile stops off in Uji and is met by Kaoru at a villa not far from the Eighth Prince’s. A night of music-making roused the Eighth Prince, and poems were exchanged between the villas, beginning Niou’s correspondence with his daughters. Meanwhile, Kaoru is starting to change his mind about pursuing one of the daughters romantically.
The Eighth Prince, having retreated to the home of the abbot, falls ill and dies mid-chapter after leaving his daughters with instructions on what to do when he is gone. Kaoru and Niou continue their correspondence with the girls. When Kaoru finally gets a chance to visit the women, he sings Niou’s praises to them as a potential romantic partner. Meanwhile, Niou is cold toward Yūgiri’s attempts to pair him off with his daughter.
In chapter 47, “Trefoil Knots,”as the anniversary of the Eighth Prince’s death arrives, Kaoru continues to see to the needs of his daughters and joins them in their mourning ceremonies. Kaoru expresses his frustration over the women’s resistance to his and Niou’s interest in marrying them to their old servant. He tries to persuade Oigimi to become his wife, but she resists his overtures, thinking it would be better if he were paired with her sister, though she certainly didn’t find him unappealing and knew he was her father’s choice. Once the mourning period was over, Kaoru returns to visit them. Oigimi had discussed with her sister Nakanokimi what she had in mind in pairing her with Kaoru, but her sister isn’t terribly enthusiastic, and Oigimi must fend off the pressure of her elderly attendants to marry Kaoru.
A few of the attendants conspire to bring Kaoru into the daughters’ bedchamber, with unexpected results:
But Oigimi, still awake, sensed his approach, and slipped out through the bed curtains. Poor Nakanokimi lay quietly sleeping. What was to be done? Oigimi was in consternation. If only the two of them could hide together — but she was quaking with fear, and could not bring herself to go back. Then, in the dim light, a figure in a singlet pulled the curtains aside and came into the room quite as if he owned it. Whatever would her hapless sister think if she were to awaken? thought Oigimi, huddled in the cramped space between a screen and a shabby wall. Nakanokimi had rebelled at the very hint that there might be plans for her — and how shocked and resentful she would be if it were to appear now that they had all plotted against her. Oigimi was quite beside herself. It had all happened because they had no one to protect them from a harsh world. Her sorrow and her longing for her father were so intense that it was as if he were here beside her now, exactly as he had made his last farewell in the evening twilight.
Thinking that the old woman had arranged it so, Kaoru was delighted to find a lady sleeping alone. Then he saw that it was not Oigimi. It was a fresher, more winsome, superficially more appealing young lady. Nakanokimi was awake now, and in utter terror. She had been no part of a plot against him, poor girl, it was clear; but pity for her was mixed with anger and resentment at the one who had fled. Nakanokimi was no stranger, of course, but he did not take much comfort from that fact. Mixed with the chagrin was a fear lest Oigimi think he had been less than serious. Well, he would let the night pass, and if it should prove his fate to marry Nakanokimi — she was not, as he had noted, a stranger. Thus composing himself, he lay down beside her, and passed the night much as he had the earlier one with her sister. (Chapter 47)
Kaoru does think that he could pick Nakanokimi as his bride instead of Oigimi, but he decides she should be paired with his friend Niou. Indeed, the marriage of Nakanokimi and Niou goes off without a hitch, though Nakanokimi is quite upset by the turn of events that she has no control over and resigns herself to the match. Meanwhile, Niou tries to figure out how to get his new wife back to court to hide her since he had not gotten formal approval for the match and trouble is brewing there around him over his disappearances to Uji. The Emperor and Empress confine him and prepare to force him to marry one of Yūgiri’s daughters since he has not been open about his marriage to Nakanokimi. The Uji story ends in tragedy in spite of Kaoru’s good intentions. After Oigimi starves herself into an early death, Niou plots to bring Nakanokimi to the city somehow.
This story arc continues in the next chapter. Niou has set the time for Nakanokimi’s move to be with him. She is brought in a quiet procession to the house at Nijō, and her arrival upsets Yūgiri’s plan to marry Niou to his daughter. Kaoru, evading Yūgiri’s designs on taking him as a son-in-law instead, goes to Nijō to visit the happy couple and think about Oigimi.
Chapter 49, “The Ivy,” begins with the birth of an only daughter to the Emperor’s oldest consort known as the wisteria lady. After the mother dies shortly after her initiation at age 14, the Second Princess discusses her future with her father the Emperor, who decides his best hope for her security would be to marry her off to Kaoru! He invites Kaoru to a game of Go to broach the subject, and Yūgiri is quite annoyed when he hears about this given his own plans for Kaoru to marry his daughter. He tries to approach Niou again about taking a second wife. Nakanokimi is upset to hear this news:
So it had happened, thought Nakanokimi, learning of these events. What was she to do? She had passed her days in anticipation of just such gloomy news, which would make her the laughingstock of the whole world. She had had little confidence in Niou from the start, having heard of his promiscuous ways, and yet when she had come to know him somewhat better she had found him altogether gentle and considerate, and given to the most ardent protestations of eternal love. And now this sudden change — could she be expected to receive it with equanimity? Their union would not be dissolved, obliterated, as she might have had cause to fear had she been of meaner birth, but the future seemed to offer only worries and more worries. No doubt she was fated to go back to the mountains one day. Her thoughts ran on, chasing one another in circles. She was certain that she was at length facing the punishment she deserved for having gone against her father’s wishes and left her mountain home. Better to vanish quite away than to go back now and face the derision of the rustics among whom she had lived. Her sister had seemed weak and indecisive, but a formidable strength had lain beneath the vacillating surface. Though Kaoru seemed to go on grieving, no doubt Oigimi, if she had lived, would have had to face what she herself now faced. Determined that nothing of the sort would happen to her, Oigimi had made use of every possible device, even the threat of becoming a nun, to keep him at a distance. And no doubt she would have carried out the threat. Had hers not been, in retrospect, determination of the very highest order? And so both of them, her father and her sister, thought Nakanokimi, would now be looking down from the heavens and sighing over her stupidity and heedlessness. She was sad and she was ashamed; but it would do no good to show her thoughts. She managed to get through her days with no sign that she had heard the news….
Kaoru felt very sorry for her indeed. Niou, given his bright, somewhat showy nature, was certain to be drawn to the more modish and accomplished Rokunokimi, however fond he might be of Nakanokimi. And with that formidable family of hers mounting guard over him, Nakanokimi would be doomed to lonely nights such as she had not known before. An utterly heartbreaking situation, everything considered. And how useless he was himself! Why had he given her away? His spirit had been serene in its renunciation of the world until he had been drawn to Oigimi, and he had let it be stirred and muddied. He had managed to control himself despite the intensity of his devotion, for it would have gone against his original intentions to force himself upon her. He had continued to hope, looking towards a day when he might arouse even a faint response in her and see her heart open even a little. Though everything indicated that her own wishes were very different, he had still found comfort in her apparent inability to send him on his way. She had sought to interest him in her sister, with whom, she had said, she shared a single being. He had sought with unnecessary haste, by way of retaliation, to push Nakanokimi into Niou’s arms. In a strong fit of pique he had taken Niou off to Uji and made all the arrangements for him. What an irremediable blunder it had been! And as for Niou — if he remembered a small fraction of Kaoru’s troubles in those days, ought he not to be a little concerned about Kaoru’s feelings today? Triflers, woman-chasers were not for women to rely upon — not, indeed, for anyone to have much faith in. A farsighted sort of protector Kaoru himself had been! No doubt his way of riveting his attention on a single object seemed strange and reprehensible to most people. Having lost his first love, he was less than delighted at having a bride bestowed upon him by the emperor himself, and every day and every month his longing for Nakanokimi grew. This deplorable inability to accept his loss had to do with the fact that Oigimi and Nakanokimi had been close as sisters seldom are. With almost her last breath Oigimi had asked him to think of her sister as he had thought of her. She left behind no regrets to tie her to the world, she had said, save that he had gone against her wishes in this one matter. And now, the crisis having come, she would be looking down from the heavens in anger. All through the lonely nights, for which he had no one to blame but himself, he would awaken at the rising of the gentlest breeze, and over and over again he would run through a list of complications from the past and worries for the future that were not, strictly speaking, his own. (Chapter 49)
Kaoru decides to go to Nijō to see Nakanokimi. Their meeting while Niou was away at court made his regret at losing her much sharper. Meanwhile, Niou stands up Yūgiri’s daughter on their appointed wedding night, heading for his home where Nakanokimi waits, but Yūgiri has to send a messenger after him to force him to attend to his new bride. However, Niou ends up residing with his new bride and barely has time to visit Nakanokimi. In her despair, Nakanokimi turns to Kaoru for comfort. This causes a conflict between the old friends that is detailed through the rest of the chapter. During this rivalry, Kaoru is forced to marry the Second Princess, though a woman resembling his dead beloved Oigimi appears just in time to stir things up.
Next time, we’ll finish covering the ending of the novel and discover how the complications in Kaoru and Niou’s relationships are finally resolved.
Part five of a six part series.