Murasaki Shikibu

The Tale of Genji

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  • Features 17 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
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The Tale of Genji Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 60-page guide for “The Tale of Genji” by Murasaki Shikibu includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 17 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 Physical Beauty and Substance of Character and Love, Lust, and Sexual Power Dynamics.

Plot Summary

The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu, is considered by many to be the world’s earliest surviving novel. The edition/translation used for this guide, edited by Royall Tyler, was originally published in 2001, and reissued in 2006, abridged from the longer pieces of Shikibu’s classic story, which was originally written at the start of the 11thcentury. There are considered to be fifty-four total “chapters” salvaged from the tale Shikibu originally composed. However, Tyler’s edition includes a brief Prologue (taken from the twenty-fifth chapter, which is omitted in this edition), and then goes on to span Chapter 1 through Chapter 17, omitting several chapters therein and not extending beyond the seventeenth chapter.

The Tale of Genji follows the political rise, love affairs, and social codes surrounding the title character Hikaru Genji. Also called the “Shining Genji,” he is the son of a Japanese emperor (Emperor Kiritsubo) and the Emperor’s low-ranking Intimate courtesan (Lady Kiritsibu). Because of Genji’s beauty, grace, and traits,which the narrator often acknowledges are indescribable, in his youth he is favored beyond all expectation and birth status. He eventually finds that such an untarnished reputation is not so easy to maintain in his older years.

The non-abridged, full text of The Tale of Genji is usually considered to be in three segments. The first two sections in an unabridged text are focused on Genji, and the last part (not included here) chronicles two members of Genji’s eventual family tree, Niou and Kaoru. Again, the abridged Tyler translation only focuses on most of the first segment and some parts of the second segment of the full tale, highlighting Genji’s youth, his exile and return, and the beginning of his later life.

Though Genji is born to a low-status concubine without any political support, the Emperor (His Majesty) so loves the mother (Lady Kiritsibu) and her new son that, as Genji grows, his brilliance and physical beauty sway his powerful father to make him an official commoner (with the surname Minamoto). Rather than confine Genji under a form of royalty, where he may suffer as a leader and would only draw criticism for his mother’s poor status, as a commoner, Genji can live more freely, and remain near his beloved father.

Genji’s mother dies when he is 3 years old. His father the Emperor is inconsolable, despite the resentment of the court towards the lady and her lowly status. Additionally, the Emperor’s Kokiden Consort dreams of being Empress but is usurped by the Lady Fujitsubo, since the latter has had a son, Suzaku, earlier than Genji was born, and whom the Kokiden Consort intends to have be the rightful heir to the throne, as opposed to Genji. Because of this, Kokiden especially resents Genji’s magnetic looks and personality.

When the Emperor learns a former princess, Lady Fujitsubo, looks very similar to Genji’s lost mother, His Majesty (the Emperor) is thrilled to bring her into the palace. She eventually becomes his favorite, and due to her high-ranking background, becomes Empress. Though Genji is married before adolescence to a young woman, Aoi no Ue, he is intrigued by Fujitsubo as a young boy, partially since he hears she resembles his own mother. The Emperor encourages Fujitsubo to care for Genji as she would a son. However, as a young man Genji falls in love with her, despite being married to Aoi, who was chosen for him and with whom he does not feel compatible. After the first chapter, the story follows Genji into adolescence, chronicling his ongoing, failed love affairs with multiple women, many of which take place concurrently.

When Genji is 18, he suffers a fever and visits a rural area called Kitayama for treatment. There, he finds a 10-year-old girl, Murasaki, whom he is intrigued by due to her resemblance to Fujitsubo, and thus, also his own lost mother. Against the wishes of Murasaki’s guardians, he takes the child to raise as his future wife. Meanwhile, separately, he also has begun his secret affair with Lady Fujitsubo, even though she is still married to his father, the Emperor. Though Fujitsubo gives birth to their son, Reizei (who eventually becomes Emperor), and though his true father is Genji, the Emperor (Genji’s father) is convinced he must be the father. Though later in the story the immense weight of this secret causes Fujitsubo much suffering, she and Genji do not reveal the truth that Genji is the true father of the  child, the next Heir Apparent (II), to anyone.

Eventually Genji and his original wife, Aoi, somewhat reconcile, but she dies shortly after she gives birth to his second son, whom everyone believes is his first child, but is not. Her death is attributed to the “living phantom” of another one of Genji’s lovers, the jealous spirit of the Rokujo Haven. In the following chapters, Genji’s father(the Emperor) passes away, and reign changes to Genji’s half-brother (Suzaku), whose mother, the Kokiden Consort, always hoped would rule.

Due to Genji’s ongoing romantic indiscretions, the loss of his father, and the change of rule to his brother, Genji’s actions begin to have consequences. One of his many secret affairs is with one of his brother emperor’s concubines, Oborozukiyo. Though the new emperor is not personally offended, Genji knows he may be exiled for this romantic dalliance, and so he self-exiles to the isolated, rural area of Suma for his indiscretions.

When Genji meets a well-off man, the Akashi Novice, Genji soon begins wooing Akashi’s daughter. Later, she gives birth to Genji’s first daughter, who is his third child. The daughter will become Empress, and his other sons will become Emperor (Reizei, by Fujitsubo), and the highest-ranking possible nobility (his son with Aoi), as foreseen by an astrologer.

However, several unfortunate events begin to occur while Genji is in exile at Suma. Because his brother, the new emperor, is having strange dreams of their deceased father, and his brother’s mother (Kokiden) is failing in health, Genji finds himself pardoned and welcomed back to Kyoto again. Genji is re-elevated to a higher political status. The Royall Tyler abridged edition ends as Genji is entrusted with the daughter (Akikonomu) of one of his former lovers, Rokujo Haven, before the Rokujo dies. Genji swears he will not look upon the young woman as a lover, and he will raise her with the best intentions.

The seventeenth chapter of this abridged edition ends with the narrator informing the reader Genji is again considering intentionally isolating himself from society. However, his desire to properly raise his children and the younger people in his life keeps him from shutting-out the world just yet. Still, even the narrator acknowledges no one can really know his motivations and hopes.

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