Friday 28 June 2002

Narrative structure in The Tale of Genji

Murasaki Shikibu, author of The Tale of GenjiThe Tale of Genji tells the story of the life and loves of Genji, the Shining Prince (so-called because he is artistically gifted, intelligent, and irresistible to women) and then of Kaoru, supposedly Genji’s son but actually the grandson of his best friend.

Written one thousand years ago by Murasaki Shikibu, an attendant to one of the imperial consorts in Heian Kyo (now Kyoto), the Genji is widely regarded as the world’s first psychological novel, with hundreds of skillfully delineated characters woven into a narrative constructed upon a series of unifying themes such as political power, ideals of feminine beauty, and the Buddhist belief in the impermanence of all things.

The Tale of Genji: The Paulownia PavilionInevitably, The Tale of Genji has been a popular subject for Japanese painters, particularly those of the Tosa school, which specialized in courtly themes and scenes from the literary classics. This painting, depicting the first chapter of Genji, is from an illustrated volume from the Tosa school containing one scene for each of the book’s 54 chapters.

It shows Genji, the emperor, the emperor’s new mistress Fujitsubo (with whom Genji will have an affair and a child), and the Princess Aoi whom Genji will marry for political reasons.

The Tale of Genji: The Broom TreeThe second chapter introduces one of the main themes of the novel: types of femininity and the qualities of an ideal woman. Genji and three companions regale each other through a night with anecdotes of women they have known and loved, describing somewhat clinically each woman’s faults and virtues.

Genji’s friend To-no-Chujo tells of a lover who bore him a daughter but who, ironically, lost his affection through being too meek and accommodating. The ideal woman, they conclude, “does not try to display her scanty knowledge in full,” nor does she “scribble off Chinese characters,” rather she shows taste and restraint and is prepared to “feign a little ignorance.”

The Tale of Genji: The Twilight BeautyIn this scene, Genji is on his way to visit his dying nursemaid when he and his companions stop at a nearby house to admire some flowers (called yugao—evening faces). A young girl comes out of the house with a scented fan on which Genji can take a flower to his nursemaid.

Genji hears about a lady living in the Yugao house and resolves to have her. He takes her away to another house where, that night, he dreams of a jealous lover and wakes to find the Yugao lady dead beside him. It later transpires that she was, in fact, To-no-Chujo’s mistress, the mother of his daughter.

The Tale of Genji: The Cicada ShellHere we seen Genji spying on the lady Utsusemi as she plays go, a Japanese board game, with a female companion, identified later in the story as Nokiba-no-ogi. Genji has come to seduce Utsusemi but she resists his entreaties and disappears, leaving only an outer robe behind.

Genji later breaks into Nokiba-no-ogi’s room by mistake but pretends it was she he intended to visit and spends the night with her instead.

The Tale of Genji: Young MurasakiIn this chapter, called Waka Murasaki (Young Murasaki), Genji is recuperating from an illness when he glimpses a young girl, Murasaki, the author’s namesake, who reminds him of Fujitsubo, the emperor’s mistress. He resolves to adopt Murasaki and will eventually take her as his second wife.

The author deftly weaves together the strands of Genji’s oedipal relationships with Murasaki (whose likeness to Fujitsubo attracts him) and Fujitsubo (whom the emperor married because she resembled his late wife, Genji’s mother).

It is widely believed that Murasaki Shikibu commenced The Tale of Genji not long after she was widowed in 1001 and had completed it about twenty years later. The author of the Sarashina nikki writes, somewhere between 1020 and 1022:

I read Waka Murasaki [chapter 5] and a few of the other [early] books in The Tale of Genji, and I longed to see the later parts… But we were still new to the capital and it was not easy to find copies. I was burning wth impatience and curiosity, and in my prayers I used to say, “Let me see the whole!”

Richard Bowring’s translation of the Murasaki Shikibu Diary

This passage provides an insight into what—besides its many admirable literary features—makes The Tale of Genji fascinating to interactive storytellers. Murasaki Shikibu wrote Genji not as a single work for publication but in chapters (handwritten in individual notebooks) which were passed around the Heian court from one reader to the next.

In fact, the first five chapters outlined briefly above, have been presented not in the “correct” numerical order but as one of Murasaki Shikibu’s readers might have encountered them: in the order 1, 2, 4, 3, 5.

Yet having to read the chapters out of chronological order posed few problems for Murasaki Shikibu’s audience since she had so painstakingly constructed the work, using subtle indicators of time and place to ensure that—even over the fifty year span of her novel—it is always possible to determine the ages and relationships between each of the important characters.

As we struggle with the difficulties of writing non-linear and hypertext narratives, what a delicious irony that a Japanese woman confronted and resolved many of the problems that plague us a thousand years later.

Permalink | Technorati


I'm not sure that I agree with your point that she solved non-linear writing. It sounds more like she invented the "Soap" or serial drama, where each episode stand up in its own right. Isn't it interesting that personal web sites have evolved into Blogs with a linear narrative? Non-linear writing was one of those Holy Grails which we sought but ended up terribly boring when we found it. But Jonathon, if Digital story telling was your Holy Grail, then you've found it right here.

Posted by Marius Coomans on 28 June 2002 (Comment Permalink)

First, thank you for the illustrations - enjoyed them.

Murasaki had one main advantage in that her's was the only voice - she controlled both the flow and the storyline. In addition, she also had a very restricted audience whose perspections and interpretations of her narrative could be known in advance.

I do not think that Marusaki would like the lack of control that weblogging generates - I think the chaos would be distasteful to her.

Posted by Burningbird on 28 June 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Sorry, last line - Murasaka not Marusaki.

Posted by Burningbird on 28 June 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I give up on trying to correct the name - it's not meant to be.

Posted by Burningbird on 28 June 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour