This is a review of the abridged translation of The Tale of Genji by Edward G. Seidensticker.
The Tale of Genji was written in the 11th century by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, and its story is set in the same period. It is universally considered THE great Japanese traditional novel, and one of the greatest works of world literature.
Seidensticker's abridged translation is about one-quarter as long as the complete work, and includes chapters 1, 4-5, 7-14 and 17. These chapters hang together fairly well as a self-contained narrative that gives a flavor for the complete work. The story begins with the lady of the Paulownia Court, a kind and refined woman with whom the Emperor falls in love. Because she lacks support at court, she is hounded to death by those jealous of her, including Kokiden, the Emperor's wife. But before she dies she gives birth to the Emperor's son, Genji. Since, like his mother, he lacks influential relatives at court, the Emperor keeps him a commoner (and hence ineligible to become Emperor). But from his childhood, Genji's beauty, elegance, artistry and aesthetic sensibility leaves others awestruck, and frequently in love with him. In the period of the novel, upper-class people occupied themselves primarily with poetry composition, painting, ritual activities and romantic affairs. These affairs were largely tolerated, as long as they were conducted discreetly. Much of the novel is taken up with Genji's affairs, which lead him into near-disaster more than once. Eventually, he is discovered in the apartments of Oborozukiyo, sister of Kokiden. Genji might have gotten away with this under his father's reign, but by this time his father has been succeeded by the Suzaku Emperor, who is largely controlled by his mother, Kokiden. So the scandal leads to Genji going into exile. At the end of this abridgement, Genji returns from exile, in part through the intervention of the spirit of his father, who appears to the Suzaku Emperor in a dream, and then Genji's illicit son succeeds to the throne. We eventually see Genji returned to his old honors at court, and planning on bringing to court the Akashi Lady, whom he met while in exile and who became the mother to Genji's daughter.
One might understand Genji as a man always searching for the mother whom he never knew. In the "Evening Faces" chapter, Genji has an affair with an unnamed woman whose hold on him seems mysterious: "She was of an extraordinarily gentle and quiet nature. ... She did not appear to be of very good family." (41) This could just as easily be a description of Genji's mother. This woman dies suddenly (seemingly as the result of malign spirits), so metaphorically Genji loses his mother once again. His great love is Fujitsubo, the new consort of the Emperor (Genji's father), whom the Emperor chose precisely because she reminds everyone of Genji's mother (22). Fujitsubo is also attracted to Genji, and their illicit relationship results in Genji forcing himself on her and fathering a son whom everyone believes to be the current Emperor's (86-88). (Indeed, this child eventually becomes the Reizei Emperor.) After this, Fujitsubo more and more isolates herself from Genji to avoid any suspicion. The other major woman in Genji's life is Murasaki. When Genji discovers her, she is a ten-year-old child. He finds out that, like him, she lost her mother while young. Perhaps even more significantly, she is Fujitsubo's niece (74)! Her father still lives, but she does not live with him, and he has not shown much interest in her. So Genji spirits her away in the middle of the night, planning on raising her to be his ideal woman.
This novel could also be seen as presenting a sort of Buddhist perspective on romantic love. Genji sees the beauty in everything. This is part of the reason that he is attracted to so many different women. And in the aesthetic of this book, beauty is accentuated by its very transience. The person we love today may die tomorrow. This is a distinctively Zen perspective. But Genji is also trapped by his attachment to the people whom he loves from achieving enlightenment. Listening to a monk intone the scriptures "Genji was filled with envy. Why did he not embrace the religious life? He knew... that the chief reason was" Murasaki (208).
The position of women in Genji's society is complex. Genji says of women, "The clear, forceful ones I can do without. ...a woman who is quiet and withdrawn and follows the wishes of a man even to the point of letting herself be used has much the greater appeal" (62-63). On the other hand, the novel does have a genuine heroine: Fujitsubo. She resists her attraction to Genji and then resigns as Empress and becomes a nun, all for the good of her son. The ambivalent position of women is well illustrated by the interaction between Genji's wife, Aoi, and the Rokujo Lady. After Genji ends his affair with the latter, his wife's servants embarrass her at a public event. Then when Aoi is pregnant, she becomes seriously ill when possessed by a spirit: "It was not Aoi's voice, nor was the manner hers. Extraordinary-and then he knew that it was the voice of the Rokujo lady. He was aghast." (162) The Rokujo Lady's spirit has "gone walking" in her sleep, attacking the object of her anger and jealousy. The story clearly takes this as a serious possibility, but we can also see it as a symbolic playing out of the dangers of affairs and jealousy.
There are many aspects of this story that will seem alien or even disturbing to contemporary Western readers. As one of my students put it, colloquially but succinctly, "Genji seems like a player": it is hard to even keep track of how many affairs he has over the course of the novel. And his relationship with young Murasaki is, to be equally colloquial, creepy. She is frightened when he comes in the night to take her away, but he tells her "You are not to sulk, now, and make me unhappy. Would I have done all this for you if I were not a nice man? Young ladies should do as they are told." (103) He takes her virginity just a few years later, after essentially treating her as his daughter.
But we must also keep in mind that Genji's behavior was not regarded in his culture the way that it would be in our own. And we must recognize Genji's admirable qualities. He sees something unique and beautiful in each of the women that he has a relationship with, and does not merely forget them afterwards: "His manner as always gentle and persuasive, it is doubtful that he said anything he did not mean. There were no ordinary, common women among those with whom he had had even fleeting affairs, nor were there any among them in whom he could find no merit; and so it was, perhaps, that an easy, casual relationship often proved durable." (235) This is perhaps more than many people today could say.