Limitations of the Tale of Genji in Contemporary Readership In the ancient Heian period of Japan, The Tale of Genji arose as one of the first and most influential novels that depicted the ins and outs of life in the Heian court. The author of this novel, Murusaki Shikibu, was able to present the work to the people of the royal Heian court regardless of the fact that she was not meant to have vast knowledge of the written, Chinese language.
During the Heian period, women were not the primary concern for expanding the knowledge of the people, but Murusaki was able to gain this knowledge only by listening to lessons that were meant for her brother and was, much to the disappointment of her father, able to learn the Chinese language much faster than her brother. After the death of husband, Lady Murusaki was brought to live at the court to serve the Empress, most likely because of her brilliant mind, and was able to observe life at the Heian court without necessarily having to take part in it (Tyler).
This change in environment and new scenarios for Murusaki to observe no doubt led to the creation of The Tale of Genji. Murusaki’s unique view on the inside life of the Heian court, along with her ability to create a storyline around the events she witnessed and the poems she incorporated, makes The Tale of Genji a masterpiece of world literature; however, without the understanding of Japanese culture at the time of the Heian court and the lack of linearity in the story line, it is difficult to draw out any meaningful significance to the story without largely criticizing the character’s actions.
Throughout the novel it is clear that women and men were not seen as equals in any aspect of life in the Heian court. During this time period men held most if not all of the power in the court while women were not allowed to hold political positions with authority. Men were meant to learn a variety of topics in Japanese as well as in Chinese, whereas women were confined to learning poetry in Japanese only as Chinese was more suitable for those with political positions. All mentions of women in The Tale of Genji have them playing some sort of role in Genji’s love affairs.
As a modern day reader of this traditional Japanese literature, it can become difficult to read of these women seemingly serving little purpose throughout the storyline and trying to keep an open mind to remember that this was the norm. That this was not unusual and that there was a lack of political power for women at the time. Even so, it is comforting to know that not all power was lost to the men at the time. Women had financial power in that they were the deciding factor in how financially stable their daughters would be.
The only way into the court for most women that were not born into the royal family at the time was to become a lady-inwaiting because of the already established political and social power of their fathers. In the novel, Genji’s mother was only able to come to the court because of her father’s position and when he died she lost any backing in the court she had previously had, making her the perfect person for the emperor to take care of as she was vulnerable to being exploited just as the young Murusaki would become when her mother and grandmother die and Genji kidnaps her so that she may one day become his wife.
Murusaki is not the first of Genji’s wives. It’s no secret to the rest of the court that he is in a polygamous relationship and has no interest in actually being with his wife, Aoi. The marriage was arranged and Aoi was around six year older than Genji, so this may have played a large role in his preference to being around Fujitsubo, the Emperor’s latest concubine, who very much resembled Genji’s mother. In the mind of the modern reader, a polygamous relationship is not the norm and it becomes offputting to read how big of a disregard Genji has for his marriage.
From the very beginning of his marriage he rarely spends time in the home his father-in-law has put together for him and Aoi and begins to pursue other relations. In spite of the fact that his marriage was arranged by his father and Murusaki Shikibu has mentioned time and time again how incredibly appealing Genji is to the people of the Heian court, it becomes easier to see him in a negative light rather than as the “shining Prince” when we are able to read the details of his exploits and see how uncommitted he is to his marriage.
Conversely, if the reader has a wide knowledge of ancient Japanese culture then they can understand that in the Heian period marriage served as a formality in court, used mainly for political purposes. Aoi’s political backing was much stronger than that of Genji’s, thus providing a large benefit for Genji’s political position and making Aoi the envy of the women in the court. There is no doubt that Genji later realizes his mistake in taking Aoi for granted as she is giving birth to their son and becomes possessed.
The state of Aoi’s body at the time of the birth makes her extremely vulnerable to possession by those that envy her and her marriage to Genji, mainly Lady Rokujo. It doesn’t become clear that the possession is a result of Lady Rokujo’s jealousies until after she speaks through Aoi with the poem “Bind the hem of my robe, to keep it within, The grieving soul that has wandered through the skies” revealing that there is another spirit with Aoi and the mannerisms that were made along with it were not Aoi’s but Lady Rokujo’s (Shikibu, 162).
Just before it is revealed that Aoi is possessed by Lady Rokujo, Genji shows great concern for her, however, this is the only time throughout the entire novel that Aoi seems to mean anything to him. In Japanese literature that incorporates poems, the number of times two people exchange poems reveals the intensity of their love (lecture). Therefore the greater the number of poems exchanged between the two, the greater their love. Between Genji and Aoi, only one poem is ever exchanged, showing how their marriage truly was only a formality until it came to the birth of their child.
The lack of emphasis that Murusaki Shikibu laces on just how little Genji and Aoi love each other reveals that it must have been fairly common for people to marry without truly loving each other in the Heian court. In modern American cultures it is extremely rare that marriages are arranged, thus decreasing the odds that a marriage as loveless as theirs to occur. Murusaki Shikibu portrays Genji in the most favorable light through the descriptions the narrator in The Tale of Genji provides and because of these depictions, many of the people that were able to read and hear the novel’s storyline saw him as the “shining prince.
Yet, reading the novel without a clear understanding of Japanese culture and the expectations of men and women during the Heian period vastly changes how Genji’s character himself is seen through the eyes of th audience. Where his actions would have been charming in adopting Murusaki and grooming her to become his wife, through the eyes of the modern reader they are disturbing at best. The Tale of Genji certainly earned its place as a masterpiece of literature in the Heian period but has since lost its appeal with the changing societal norms that readers conform to.