Arthur Golden

Memoirs of a Geisha

  • 78-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 35 chapter summaries and 6 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a literary scholar with a PhD in English and a Master's degree in Philosophy
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Memoirs of a Geisha Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 78-page guide for “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 35 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Destiny and Self-Determination and Hope and Despair.

Plot Summary

Memoirs of a Geisha is a novel by American author Arthur Golden narrated by a Japanese woman named Sayuri. The story begins when Sayuri (then known as Chiyo) is a child, living in a fishing village with her parents and sister, Satsu. Her modest lifestyle is turned on its head when she meets a man named Mr. Tanaka, who not only runs a fishing company but, unbeknownst to her, also procures girls to work as geisha.

When Sayuri meets Mr. Tanaka, she is excited because she believes that he is going to adopt her. She assures her sister that this is the plan but, as they travel to the district of Gion, she realizes her mistake. This journey culminates in her separation from her sister and she is escorted to an okiya, where she will serve as a geisha. The okiya is occupied by three senior women (Mother, Granny, and Auntie), a girl who Sayuri calls “Pumpkin,” and an established geisha named Hatsumomo, who takes an instant dislike to Sayuri; no doubt on account of Sayuri’s striking beauty.

While Sayuri is distraught to have been torn from her home, she is soon occupied with the practicalities of becoming a geisha. She attends school with Pumpkin but is subject to constant taunts from Hatsumomo. Her distress prompts her to seek out her sister, and the two of them plan to escape. However, while Satsu is successful, Sayuri is apprehended. She has now sabotaged her future and seems destined to remain a maid for the rest of her life. She suffers a further blow when she hears that her parents have passed away.

In spite of her misery, Sayuri becomes hopeful after a man spots her crying in the street. The man, who is Chairman of Iwamura Electric, is kind to Sayuri and gives her a coin wrapped in a handkerchief. It is a brief meeting, but Sayuri is touched by the man’s kindness and is convinced that he is her destiny.

Sayuri’s escape attempt has jeopardized her future, but her fortunes improve when a successful geisha named Mameha becomes her mentor. Sayuri does not know why Mameha has taken an interest in her, but, since Mameha is Hatsumomo’s main rival, it seems plausible that she is using Sayuri to get at her competitor. Hatsumomo, in turn, becomes mentor to Pumpkin, and she and Mameha compete to ensure the success of their protégées.

Hatsumomo proves a source of annoyance as she follows Mameha and Sayuri around during their social engagements and spreads malicious rumors. During this time, Sayuri is also startled to meet the Chairman again, though neither of them makes any mention of their previous encounter. However, she is unhappy to learn that the Chairman’s colleague, Nobu, wishes to pursue a relationship with her.

Mameha seeks to establish Sayuri’s reputation in Gion, and various men bid to take her virginity in an official rite of passage known as mizuage. Nobu is not overly concerned with winning this bid, as he is more interested in becoming Sayuri’s long-term partner, or danna. However, a local doctor and a baron engage in a bidding war, with the doctor emerging victorious.

Sayuri suffers various unpleasant experiences as an apprentice but becomes successful to the point where Mother agrees to adopt her—despite having said that she would adopt Pumpkin. Hatsumomo is angry about this and Pumpkin is also upset, as she was determined to achieve success as a geisha.

When war erupts and Japan’s geisha districts are shut down, former geisha turn to their male acquaintances for help. Sayuri is lucky, as Nobu is friends with a kimono maker who provides her with a place to live and work. Sayuri is extremely grateful, and, unlike some other geisha, lives through the war thanks to Nobu’s intervention.

When the war is over, Sayuri is pleased to return to Gion and her career continues to thrive. Hatsumomo is not so lucky; her own career goes downhill and she becomes increasingly impetuous, drinking heavily and becoming violent. This culminates in her dismissal from the okiya.

While her career is thriving, Sayuri is upset to hear that Nobu is still keen to become her danna. She is fond of Nobu, but she does not love him and continues to dream of the Chairman. This culminates in a desperate act whereby she plans for Nobu to catch her in a tryst with a man (the Deputy Minister of Finance) he detests. She is anxious about this plan, but she feels that it is the only way to dampen Nobu’s affections. She enlists Pumpkin’s help but, when she puts the plan into effect, she is shocked to look up and see the Chairman, rather than Nobu. She consequently realizes that Pumpkin has betrayed her, having never overcome her resentment about not being adopted.

Sayuri now believes that she has ruined any potential future with the Chairman. However, the Chairman saw the desperation in Sayuri’s eyes when he caught her with the Minister, and this prompted him to tell Nobu about the encounter. The plan thus has its intended effect, in that Nobu no longer wishes to become Sayuri’s danna. It also has the effect of prompting the Chairman and Sayuri to reveal their feelings to each other. They had both recognized each other from their first meeting, but the Chairman’s loyalty to Nobu meant that he refrained from pursuing a relationship with Sayuri. Still, he had tried to look after Sayuri by placing her under Mameha’s care.

As the Chairman is already married, Sayuri cannot be his wife; still, she is elated when he becomes her danna. She consequently leaves behind her life as a geisha to accompany him on his travels, finally settling down in New York. Looking back, she writes that their passion was enduring and that, even when the Chairman died, she felt thankful to have lived out her dream.

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Chapters 1-5