The Tale of Genji Summary

Murasaki Shikibu

The Tale of Genji

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The Tale of Genji Summary

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The Tale of Genji is a classical Japanese novel, considered by some scholars to be the first modern novel in history. It was written sometime between 1000 and 1012 (the exact dates are unknown) by a lady-in-waiting of the Heian court, Murasaki Shikibu. Murasaki was highly educated, learning Chinese characters while in her father’s household, which women were typically excluded from during this period. It is likely she began writing The Tale of Genji during her marriage, or shortly after she was widowed. Around 1006 Murasaki was invited to live at court as a lady-in-waiting to then Empress Shosi, and many of the aspects of courtly life became subjects in the tale. It is divided into three main parts. Genji’s youth, rise and fall make up the first segment, followed by transitional chapters which are short episodes taking place after Genji’s death. The final section of the novel focuses on the lives of two of Genji’s sons, Niou and Kaoru. There are around 54 chapters in the novel, though at least one chapter is left completely blank, and scholars postulate the existence of others that have been lost to time. Scholars also debate whether all the chapters were written by Murasaki, especially the last chapters as the style and errors in the work appear to be out of character with the rest of Murasaki’s writing. Finally, the novel has no clear ending, but rather just stops, which is another matter for scholarly consideration. It is unclear whether the abrupt ending is how the novel was intended, if there are indeed even more chapters that have been lost, or if Marasaki intended to just continue adding to the tale indefinitely, until her death.

Genji is the son of the ancient Japanese Emperor Kiritsubo and a concubine, who has been removed from the line of succession for political reasons. Most of the first part of the take is concerned with Genji’s romantic interests. The Emperor takes another concubine, Lady Fujitsubo, with whom Genji also falls in love despite the fact he is married to Lady Aoi. Frustrated by his love for Fujitsubo, Genji visits a rural community where he encounters a beautiful 10 year old girl (also named Murasaki) who he kidnaps in order to raise and educate to be the perfect woman.

Fujitsubo and Genji begin having an affair and she bears a son, Reizei, who becomes the Crown Prince. Everyone believes him to be the Emperor’s true son, and for his own safety Genji and Fujitsubo must keep the affair a secret. Genji reconciles with his wife who also becomes pregnant, but the baby dies shortly after birth. Genji finds consolation in Murasaki who he also marries.

When the old Emperor dies, Genji’s half-brother ascends to the throne. One of Genji’s many love affairs is exposed (this one with another concubine) and Genji is exiled to another region. Here he engages in yet another affair and a daughter is born, who will later become Empress after Genji’s death.

Eventually Reizei ascends to the throne, and in recognition of his true parentage raises Genji’s status to the highest possible. However, Genji’s personal life begins to decline. Genji takes another wife, known as the third princess who ends up bearing the son of Genji’s nephew. For legal reasons the child, Kaoru, is known as Genji’s son. His relationship with Murasaki becomes strained and she dies. Genji’s death does not feature in the novel directly, but the blank chapter “Vanished into the Clouds” is thought to imply it. The rest of the novel is concerned with the doings of Genji’s son Kaoru and his best friend Niou.