The Themes of Love and Attraction in “The Tale of Genji” by Shikibu

The Tale of Genji is a unique example of Japanese literature written by lady Murasaki Shikibu and is considered the first novel in human history. It was written at the beginning of the 11th century during the Heian period in Japan, which have significantly influenced the plot. Despite the book’s large size, consisting of 54 scrolls (chapters) and a complex, archaic language, the story still attracts many readers’ attention. The novel’s main character is Hikaru Genji, also known as “Shining Genji,” and the plot is significantly focused on his life, particularly political and love affairs. Although the book’s first chapters predominantly demonstrate his passion and inability to resist the beauty of women, chapters 22 to 41 show a change in character and a tendency to deeper feelings.

The novel The Tale of Genji describes the details and events of the main character’s entire life from his birth to the end and even after it. Chapters 22 to 41 disclose the period of middle years to the death of Genji. At this time, his life is not as active as before; he mainly takes care of women in his house and does not interfere in political affairs much. He can even control himself feeling the attraction to Tamakatsura – a girl taken under his care and the daughter of his friend. He becomes more responsible and caring and respects her feelings, recognizing that it is not in his nature. The more honorable age and stable position change Genji, and the author reveals his feelings deeper than before.

The concepts of marriage and love that existed before differ significantly from modern ones. In the novel, love is mainly correlated with passion, attraction, and desire than romance. There is even an opinion that the idea of romantic love came to Japan later from European literature (Buruma). Xinran writes, “In the Japanese concept, love is obscure, but love and sex are inseparable” (970). Multiple love interests of different male characters, including Genji, suggest that love implies more of an attraction. Additional confirmation for this assumption is the images of female characters and their assessment through the Heian period’s standards and values. In particular, the portrait of an ideal woman consisted of such characteristics as beautiful appearance, calm temper, obedience, loyalty, and similar qualities (Xinran 969). Thus, men were inclined to pay attention to beautiful women, and their appearance significantly determined their position.

Despite a free interpretation of love and numerous seductions of the period, the novel reveals the more awe-inspiring feelings of the characters. In particular, in the considered chapters, the love line between Genji and Murasaki is significantly developing. The woman is the niece of the protagonist’s first love. He meets Murasaki when she is still a child and raises her. She can become only Genji’s second wife and not lawful wife due to her low descent. Murasaki meets the standards and image of an ideal woman, and her beauty is emphasized many times. This character is Genji’s big love, and his feelings for her demonstrate more than simple attraction.

Significant examples of the depth of feelings between Genji and Murasaki are some episodes from the novel. One of them is when Genji is forced to marry princess Nyosan. Princess is the beloved daughter of the former emperor Suzaku, the main character’s half-brother (tr. Waley 615). Suzaku decides to devote the rest of his life to the priesthood but is worried about who could take care of his daughter. Genji agrees to make the princess his legal wife and must spend several nights with her after moving to his house.

The man tries to convince Murasaki that these actions are necessary, and she also understands his situation. However, both cannot be calm while Genji is near Nyosan. Already on the fourth day, the man stayed with Murasaki, not wanting to leave: “But a moment later, looking at Murasaki, he wondered how it could ever have occurred to him as possible to leave her” (631). After a vivid story of love interests, the preference of one woman emphasizes the uniqueness of Murasaki for the protagonist.

Other episodes that convey deep affection are chapters 35, 39, and 40. In chapter 35, Genji expresses concern since Murasaki reaches the age when her mother dies and becomes ill. The main character spends as much time as possible with her and supports her in every possible way. In the 39th chapter, a woman who does not fully recover from the disease dies. Murasaki’s death was a severe blow for Genji, and he no longer enjoys life but only studies religious texts to reunite with his beloved in another world. The next chapter emphasizes Genji’s longing, his life does not please him, and his lifestyle becomes reclusive: “indeed, all was changed” (736). The most moving parts of the text are devoted to the relationship between Genji and Murasaki. They completely change the earlier impression of the main character as Don Juan to admiration for the depth of his feelings.

Notably, Murasaki is similar in appearance and is raised in a similar character of Genji’s first love – Lady Fujitsubo. On the one hand, this fact may give rise to doubts about the sincerity of feelings for Murasaki and provide a reason to suggest a too strong attachment to Fujitsubo. On the other hand, even such devotion emphasizes the strength and depth of a man’s feelings. Thus, although the novel is significantly devoted to seduction and attraction, the author reveals her characters’ stronger and deeper feelings.

Thus, The Tale of Genji significantly depicts the importance of appearance, an attraction based on it, and seduction. For the Heian period’s aristocracy, style and chick were critical, and this feature is reflected in the novel. Moreover, the understanding of love by characters is closer to physical attraction. However, the book’s chapters from 22 to 41 describing the middle and older age of the main character reveal more profound feelings. Genji, who previously showed sympathy for many women, becomes firmly attached to Murasaki, his second wife. The development of their relationship implies strong attachment, respect, and gradually significant devotion. For these reasons, The Tale of Genji is valuable not only as a book reflecting the culture of the historical period but also as a novel representing the feelings that excite people at all times.

Works Cited

Buruma, Ian. “The Sensualist: What Makes “The Tale of Genji” so Seductive.” The New Yorker, 2015, Web.

Shikibu, Murasaki. The Tale of Genji. Translated by Arthur Waley. Alden Press, 1973. Web.

Xinran, Xie. “The Impact of the Research to The Tale of Genji on Contemporary Society.” Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research, vol. 586, 2021, pp. 968-970.

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