Greatest Literature banner

The Tale of Genji

Critique • QuotesTranslations

Tale of Genji1960 Modern Library edition
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

Also called
Genji Monogatari

First publication

Literature form


Writing language

Author's country

Approx. 527,000 words

The romance novel is born

Sometimes The Tale of Genji is called the world's first novel, though to me it's more like the world's first soap opera.

To begin with, it never ends. It's very, very long and the plot never comes to a resolution. Various narrative strands reach climaxes, relationships blossom or fade, and major characters die. But there is no one over-arching novelistic plot that works itself out to a conclusion.

Further, the one and only theme is love. Or love affairs, rather. Romantic intrigue within the royal family of tenth-century Japan to be exact. You'd never know from The Tale of Genji that the men of the time were involved in any activities other than the wooing of women. None of them appears to give a single thought to matters of state, trade, warfare or the internecine politics that must have been part of their daily struggle for position and wealth in the feudal court.

Which may not be surprising, considering who is telling the tale. Tales like Murasaki's were created by women of leisure to entertain themselves in the imperial courts, and these women were kept out of the serious affairs of the world handled exclusively by the males. So we have stories of what would have most concerned them—namely, their selection by men which determined their social status. Their selection, that is, as wives, consorts or secret lovers. Often as one of several wives.

Realistic psychology

Often the "selection" by today's standards would be considered rape, incest or even pedophilia. Behind the civilized tradition of poetry exchanges, scented clothing, refined music and the modest hiding behind screens is an aggressive, possessive, often brutal bartering of women. There was plenty of opportunity in this environment for a female novelist to find subject matter in romantic intrigue, unrequited love, jealousy and tragedy. All of which are covered relentlessly in The Tale of Genji.

If we compare this to the medieval writing in Europe (written by men and mainly concerned with heroic battles), we see how astoundingly realistic is the psychology in Genji for something written a thousand years ago. And it is presented in an easy-to-follow style—at least in translation.

Despite this, Genji is tedious to read at length today. Pages and pages of men and women agonizing over how to meet or avoid each other, sending each other poems about nature, speaking in images from Japanese literature. Without a background in ancient Oriental culture, one can scarcely understand what the all-important verses have to do with the situations of the writers or the recipients.

I'm sure this miscomprehension will also be the fate of most of today's great literature a millennium from now. But I cannot help that. I can make a certain allowance for differences of time and culture but, short of making Genji a life study, I have to judge this great, old work for the most part through the filter of a modern, Western mind.

Only occasionally can I become involved in the characters and their predicaments. Genji himself I find rather uninteresting—a spoiled, arrogant young man whom everyone keeps describing as incredibly handsome, charismatic and generous. His generosity is that of an aristocrat, as he cares for others only sporadically between bouts of lechery and self-obsession.

This is especially true for the first 33 of the 54 chapters. Genji starts becoming interesting for me only in the grimmer chapters (34-41) during which his life starts to fall apart as his wife, the love of his life (and also named Murasaki), becomes fatally ill and he suffers pangs of conscience.

After three transitional chapters (42-44) which may not have been written by Murasaki, the story moves from Genji, who has died, to his heirs. The ten remaining chapters (45-54) are often called the Uji chapters because much of the activity takes place away from the royal court in the province of that name. These chapters too I find more interesting than those detailing the exploits of young Genji, as the psychology of the later characters is darker and more textured.

Each part of The Tale of Genji involves two male figures who are both friends and rivals. The illegitimate Genji and his high-ranking brother-in-law To No Chujo conspire and contend from the beginning. In Genji's latter years and after his death, it's his son Yugiri and To No Chujo's offspring Kashiwagi who take centre stage. Finally, Genji's grandson Niou and Kaoru, who is thought to be Genji's son but is actually Kashiwagi's, are the unspoken competitors.

Story comes to life

Interestingly, it is the philandering, promiscuous rascal Genji who most engages the sympathy in the first part, then in the transitional part Yugiri and Kashiwagi are treated equally, and finally in the last part the steadfast, moral Kaoru is sympathetically depicted while the philandering, promiscuous rascal Niou (who most resembles Genji) is implicitly denounced as self-centred and uncaring of others' feelings. Perhaps this indicates a growing maturity during the writing of the tale, or an increasing awareness of suffering in the world that makes the story more complex.

In the last three or four chapters I find myself most involved in the story as we follow the sad tale of a young woman who is taken advantage of by a prince, is presumed dead of suicide, but hides out in a convent to escape the men who obsess over her.

And then the tale ends, practically in the middle of a thought. Scholars have long argued over whether this is an intentional ending, but it is obvious to me from a creative point of view that this couldn't be the way the writer meant to finish it. It just doesn't feel like a conclusion, narratively or psychologically, as one of the main characters seems about to launch another struggle with his arch rival over the young woman. It feels more like an inability of the author (whoever she may be) to go any further in this disturbing episode.

But after more than a thousand pages of romantic intrigue, I'm willing to let it go.

— Eric


Critique • QuotesTranslations

Buy the book:

Tale of Genji, trans. Tyler

On Twitter:

Follow on Twitter