Book Review: The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu

The Tale of Genji, which some might dismiss as a tale of serial rape, is in fact a Buddhist tragedy, in which the seducers are slaves to their desires, with miserable results.

Throughout this time Genji was constantly reminded of his separation from Oborozuki at the time when she became Consort of the Emperor Suzaku. She too was Lady-of-the-bedchamber; she too was carried away and locked up in a place whither it was impossible for him to pursue her. He remembered being very unhappy then, but nothing like so miserable as he was now. Was it that he was becoming more and more sentimental, he asked himself, or merely that the sufferings of the moment always seem more acute than those which we conjure up out of the past? But whether or no the miseries of today were really worse than those of yesterday, of this much he was sure, that from none of his divagations had anything but torment and agitation ever ensued. (pp. 586-587 of 1935 one-volume Arthur Waley translation)

It is inconceivable to me that any of the subject matter in this book is being treated dispassionately. Its author is surely acting as social critic. Lines such as “In this life rank is everything; it’s no use pretending the contrary” (p. 965) very effectively advocate the contrary. As for women’s issues,

“Girls without a father or brothers to protect them cannot expect to be treated with much consideration.” (p. 970)

“Perhaps her worst misfortune, poor soul, is to have been born a woman at all; for we none of us, high or low, seem to be given much of a chance either in this world or the next.” (p. 973)

“The Governor said that in the long run it was always the woman’s fault when such things happened.” (p. 1032)

naturally imply unfairness. That the author of Genji was a woman, or whether or not her work is “feminist,” makes no difference.

Otherwise, the most interesting aspect of the novel is the division of Genji’s personality between Kaoru and Prince Niou. The former inherits Genji’s sensitivity and the latter his rakishness, causing remarkable differences in performance.