Join My Sobs to the Fading Toll of the Bell – Tale of Genji, Part 6

This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for since the beginning of the year, the final post in my series on The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shibiku.  If you’ve made it here with me and read all 1,200 pages of the novel, kudos to you.  Please note, however, that the Literati Corner will continue in my old Christmas series spot with a different novel now that I finished my three year focus on East Asian poetry.

Chapter 50, “The Eastern Cottage,” starts off with Kaoru wondering if it would be unseemly if he wrote the girl who so strongly resembles his lost love Oigimi.  This woman, Ogimi’s half-sister, Ukifune, is too low status to seriously consider as a match with Kaoru, but her chilly step-father is a governor, not a man of completely low means, and therefore she did already have a decent suitor in an ardent lieutenant.  A wedding date was set, though her mother still had fleeting misgivings.  She makes inquiries but reveals inadvertently that Ukifune wasn’t really the governor’s daughter, which makes the lieutenant balk.  The intermediary approaches the governor about a potential marriage of the lieutenant to one of his other daughters instead.  The governor’s reply is surprisingly similar to the Eighth Prince’s regarding his daughters’ futures:

I heard that something was going on — but that the young gentleman should be looking to me for support — well, I am delighted. I have a daughter I’m fond of. More than fond of — I’d give my life for her. She’s had proposals, but I haven’t been able to make up my mind. The reports I get about the younger generation aren’t good, and I’ve been thinking my best might not be enough to make her happy. Day and night I ask myself how I’m to go about finding a good, safe man for her. (Chapter 50)

The governor accepts his proposal of marriage to his favorite daughter Himegimi immediately.  However, no one notifies Ukifune or the governor’s wife, and the day Ukifune is set to marry the lieutenant, the governor finally tells his wife the news that his little daughter Himegimi, still a child, was more worthy of the lieutenant as her husband and accuses her of stealing his daughter’s husband for her own daughter instead!  The mother’s response to this turn of affairs is thus:

The only man you can trust is the man who is willing to make do with one wife. I know that well enough from my own experience. The prince at Uji was a fine, sensitive gentleman, but he treated me as if I were less than human. I can’t tell you how much I suffered. The governor is a complete boor and not at all good-looking, but the years have gone quietly by because he has been faithful to me. The sort of thing he did tonight isn’t easy to live with, but he has never given me reason to be jealous. When we have had our quarrels they have been out in the open. All those grand houses, ministers and princes and that sort of people — they may be so stylish they make you dizzy. But a woman has to remember her place in the world. (Chapter 50)

As the lieutenant marries Himegimi on the very day set for his marriage to Ukifune, her mother writes in desperation to her half-sister Nakanokimi about hiding Ukifune at her mansion.  Nakanokimi is uncertain about how to answer since her father never recognized this girl as his daughter.  She finally relents and puts the girl in an out of the way corner of her house.   The governor’s wife gets a glimpse of both Niou and Kaoru and discusses further the possibility of marrying Ukifune off to Kaoru, which Nakanokimi also mentions to Kaoru, hinting that she has the girl he has been interested in.  But later when Niou comes home, he sees Ukifune and is so forward with her, it outrages her attendants:

This place is not for us. We have no defenses, none at all, and it will be even worse now that he knows you are here. I’m terrified. He may be a royal highness and all that sort of thing, but his conduct is inexcusable. No — you must find someone outside the family. Your own brother-in-law — why the shame of it had me glowering at him like a proper devil. I can’t have been a pretty sight, and I think I possibly had him a little frightened. (Chapter 50)

When the governor’s wife hears about Niou’s rude visit to Ukifune, she comes immediately to take her away and put her in a nunnery, much to Nakanokimi’s chagrin.  In spite of Nakanokimi’s protestations, she takes Ukifume to a cottage.  Kaoru inquires after Ukifune with the nun who had been in the Eighth Prince’s employ, now living in Uji, and they arrange a meeting.  He finds himself spending a lot of time with her in their hidden retreat and is very pleased with her in spite of certain differences he noted between her and Oigimi.     

The start of the chapter 51, “A Boat upon the Waters,” returns to Niou’s recollection of his meeting with Ukifune.  Nakanokimi is determined to not reveal Kaoru’s whisking away of Ukifune, but Niou presses to read her letters to Nakanokimi, not realizing whom they were from and suspecting them to be love letters from Kaoru.  Niou puts two and two together and realizes Kaoru has hidden a woman away in Uji, then goes snooping around to find out who.  He suspects it is Ukifune and wonders at the connection.  He finally gets a glimpse of her at her house in Uji and realizes she must be related to Nakanokimi.  Seeing his chance, he intends on ravishing her and imitates Kaoru as he gets their attention and tries to get them to allow him inside.   Since it is dark, he has Ukifune fooled as he lays down to sleep beside her.

Ukifune was stunned. She knew that it was not Kaoru; but whoever it was had put his hand over her mouth. (If he was capable of such excesses at home, with everyone watching, what would he not be capable of here?) Had she known immediately that it was not Kaoru, she might have resisted, even a little; but now she was paralyzed. She had hurt him on an earlier occasion, he said, and she had been on his mind ever since; and so she quickly guessed who he was. Hideously embarrassed, horrified at the thought of what was being done to her sister, she could only weep.  (Chapter 51)

In the morning, he instructs her attendant to conceal his presence though he intends on staying longer.  After some time passes, he returns home to Nakanokimi and practically accuses her of having another man ready to take his place!  A later visit with Kaoru leaves him snidely thinking about his friend’s lack of sincerity.

Kaoru for his part discovers Niou’s interest in Ukifune when his messenger crosses paths with Niou’s and has him followed.  The revelation stuns and irritates him, and he wonders why he held back with Nakanokimi in that case.  He can hardly believe his friend betrayed him this way when he had acted as intermediary.  Meanwhile, Niou rushes off to Uji to move Ukifune to a new house, but her attendants turn him away given the lateness of the hour.

In chapter 52, “The Drake Fly,” Ukifune has disappeared, and the household is in an uproar trying to find her since they fear her mood might have led her to commit suicide by jumping in the river.  They find a final note from Ukifune, which confirms their darkest fears.  Niou is informed that she is dead, and he sends a messenger to Uji to find out the details, though the servants are too distraught to see him.  They have not found the body and have decided not to mention to anyone that it wasn’t a natural death.  When the girl’s mother arrives, they prepare a funeral procession.

The servants worry how Kaoru will react if he knew they held the funeral with no body, but he is on a pilgrimage because his mother is ill. When he hears, he is full of regrets and goes into retreat.  Niou is scandalously inconsolable at the news back at his home.  Kaoru, in spite of his suspicions about Niou having an affair with Ukifune, goes to visit him.  They talk of Ukifune, each pretending she was of no consequence to either of them.

Later, Kaoru returns to Uji to talk with Ukifune’s attendants, who still try to keep most of the truth from him about her passing.  He blurts out that he knew of her affair with Niou and asks whether that was what had her despondent enough to resort to suicide.  Hearing the details leaves Kaoru very sad.

There had been no remains and so there could be no pollution. Wishing to maintain appearances before his men, he stayed on a side veranda all the same, not far from his carriage. After a time it came to seem a not very dignified position, and so he went to sit in the garden, deep-shaded moss for his cushion. He did not think that he would again be visiting this ill-starred house.

“Should even I, sad house, abandon you,

Who then will remember the ivy that offered shelter?”

The abbot had recently become an archdeacon. Kaoru summoned him, gave instructions for memorial services, asked that several more priests be set to invoking the holy name, and specified the images and scriptures to be dedicated each week. Suicide was a grave sin. He wished to leave out nothing that might lessen the burden of guilt. It was dark when he set out for the city. If Ukifune were still alive, he thought, sending for the nun, he would not be leaving at such an hour.

She refused to see him and he did not press the matter. “Alone with my own ugliness,” she sent back, “I have thoughts of nothing else. You would see me sunk in abysmal dotage.”

All the way back he cursed himself for his neglect. Why had he not called Ukifune to the city earlier? The sound of the river, while he was still within earshot, seemed to pound and flail at him. There could have been no sadder an ending to it all. Even the earthly remains had disappeared. Among what empty shells, under what waters? (Chapter 52)

At the time of the forty-ninth day of her disappearance, Kaoru arranges for the more elaborate memorial service for her  in spite of his  uncertainty that she was really dead, figuring it would help her either way spiritually.  Later Niou and Kaoru are back at court, and both men become fascinated by one of the attendants to the First Princess, a woman by the name of Kosaishō.   Kaoru catches a glimpse of her and the First Princess, who enchants him even more than Kosaishō, in a careless moment, but her attendant sees him, and he is forced to flee.  Meanwhile, word of Niou’s indiscretions with Ukifune at Uji reach the ears of the Empress herself, who doubts the rumor’s veracity, but her attendant notes that one of the girls who served Ukifune is now working for Kosaishō’s family and had verified it was not just gossip.

Chapter 53, “At Writing Practice,” jumps to a different story thread altogether, this time focusing on the bishop of Yokawa who is one a pilgrimage with his elderly mother and older nun sister along with other monks.  On their way back, they stop at Uji because his mother had taken ill, and they investigate the former residence of the Suzaku Emperor near where they will be staying:

The bishop went first. The house was badly run-down and even a little frightening. He ordered sutras read. The disciple who had been to Hatsuse and another of comparable rank had lesser clerics, to whom such tasks came naturally, prepare torches. For no very good reason, they wandered around to the unfrequented rear of the main hall. Under a grove of some description, a bleak, forbidding place, they saw an expanse of white. What could it possibly be? They brought their torches nearer and made out a seated human figure.

“A fox? They do sometimes take human shapes, filthy creatures. If we don’t make it come out I don’t know who else will.” One of the lesser monks stepped forward.

“Careful, careful,” said another. “We can be sure it’s up to no good.” Not letting his eyes wander for an instant from the thing, he made motions with his hands towards exorcising it.

The bishop’s favored disciple was sure that his hair would have been standing on end if he had had any. The bold torchbearer, however, advanced resolutely upon the figure. It was a girl with long, lustrous hair, leaning against the thick and very gnarled root of a tree, she was weeping bitterly.

“Why, this is strange. Maybe we should tell the bishop.”

“Very strange indeed,” said another, running off to report the discovery.

“People are always talking about foxes in human form,” said the bishop,” but do you know I have never seen one?” He came out for a look.

All the available domestics were at work in the kitchen and elsewhere, seeing to the needs of the unexpected guests. These postern regions were deserted save for the half-dozen men watching the thing. No change was to be detected in it. The hours passed, the night seemed endless. Daylight would tell them whether or not it was human, thought the bishop, silently going over appropriate spells, and seeking to quell whatever force it might be with mystic hand motions. (Chapter 53)

They decide she’s human, take her in and try to nurse her back to health, though she asks them to throw her back into the river in a moment of consciousness, saying she had been thrown out of her home!  They take her home with them although she doesn’t say anything and has barely recovered.  Ukifune for her part remembers little:

The girl was now resting comfortably. Though not yet fully conscious, she looked up and saw ugly, twisted old people, none of whom she recognized. She was assailed by intense loneliness, like a castaway on a foreign shore. Vague, ill-formed images floated up from the past, but she could not remember where she had lived or who she was. She had reached the end of the way, and she had flung herself in — but where was she now? She thought and thought, and was aware of terrible sorrows. Everyone had been asleep, she had opened the corner doors and gone out. The wind was high and the waters were roaring savagely. She sat trembling on the veranda. What should she do? Where was she to go now? To go back inside would be to rob everything of meaning. She must destroy herself. “Come, evil spirits, devour me. Do not leave me to be discovered alive.” As she sat hunched against the veranda, her mind in a turmoil, a very handsome man came up and announced that she was to go with him, and (she seemed to remember) took her in his arms. It would be Prince Niou, she said to herself.

And what had happened then? He carried her to a very strange place and disappeared. She remembered weeping bitterly at her failure to keep her resolve, and she could remember nothing more. Judging from what these people were saying, many days had passed. What a sodden heap she must have been when they found her! Why had she been forced against her wishes to live on?(Chapter 53)

She asks to become a nun, which astonishes them because of her beauty.  Even so, they allow her to take preliminary vows, though this doesn’t satisfy her.  The bishop’s sister, a widow whose only daughter was already dead, is energized by this surrogate daughter who has arrived to comfort her.  The old nuns spent their evenings playing music and other gentle pastimes that Ukifune was not taught, so she begins to practice writing poems.  When they get visitors from the city, Ukifune avoids them so she won’t be recognized.  When the son of one of the nuns comes to visit, called the captain, they conspire to marry him off to Ukifune, a thought which horrifies her since she is now afraid of any romantic involvement whatsoever.  A blind blowing in the wind exposes her to him anyway, he is intrigued with her and makes inquiries.

He begins to send her poems showing his earnest interest in her with the bishop’s encouragement.  His courtship brings memories of Niou flooding back.  She begs the bishop to let her take final vows, but he tells her no, she’s too young and it is a lifestyle hard for women.  She does persuade them at last, however.  When the nuns come back from their pilgrimage, they are furious to hear he gave in to Ukifune’s request, though they help her put on her new habit.

Then the bishop assists the empress in dealing with the evil spirit tormenting her daughter, and he mentions how they found Ukifune under strange circumstances during their pilgrimage.  Of course, the empress’ memory is stirred.  She remembers hearing about a girl disappearing in Uji.  Although the bishop emphasized secrecy, the empress decides to tell Kaoru, who is her brother, and no one else.  Kaoru meanwhile goes to Uji on the anniversary of Ukifune’s “death.”  When he hears that Ukifune may still be alive, he tries to figure out which mountain village she may now be living in, then is determined to find out more details from the bishop of Yokawa.  Ukifune overhears a visitor telling the nuns about Kaoru’s activities in mourning her and details about her life before jumping into the river.

In the final chapter 54, “The Floating Bridge of Dreams,” we finally reach the novel’s less than dramatic conclusion.  The bishop of Yokawa receives Kaoru, and they have a talk about his mother’s house in Ono.  Kaoru has already heard that the rescued girl is living there and asks the bishop about her point blank.  The bishop admits to him that the girl is there and relates the whole tale of her discovery and reception into his household to Kaoru.  Realizing that she was connected to Kaoru, the bishop regrets that he administered her final vows so quickly.  Kaoru requests to visit her at Ono.  The bishop sends Ukifune’s young brother, whom Kaoru has brought with him, to her with a note explaining his thoughts now that he knows who she really is and the circumstance that she was running from.   Her brother also brings a note from Kaoru.  Ukifune answers all of them with silence.  The boy is sent back to Kaoru, his mission failed.

The story ends abruptly here with the suggestion that it was unintentionally left unfinished since nothing is resolved and it’s quite negative.  Critics believe that Murasaki Shikibu didn’t write the Uji section but that a later writer completed it, which may or may not be true.  Writers’ can change their style and story focus over time, but I haven’t looked too deeply into this question.

This concludes our 2016 community read-along of Tale of Genji.

Part six of a six part series.

Next time for the Christmas Literati Corner series, we will look at Korean author Yi Kwang-su’s novella Mujŏng.




About Lady Xiansa

Lady Xiansa is a writer, linguist, artist, and dancer. She has been a core volunteer for the Silk Screen Asian Arts Organization from 2007 to 2018 and has provided content for Pitt JCS anime events since 2011. She has taught both ESL and Beginning Korean. Her gothic horror novel, The Haunting at Ice Pine Peak, won the Bronze Award for Young Adult Fiction E-book in the 2016 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards and earned the 2018 Story Monsters Approved Seal in the Tween Category.
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