Monday, June 11, 2018

The Tale of Genji

Last month, as I was browsing my library's online catalog of ebooks, I discovered they had a translation of The Tale of Genji, which was written almost a thousand years ago by a Japanese noblewoman and is considered the world's first novel. Naturally, I decided to read it. It's about 1,100 pages, so it took me almost the entire lending period (three weeks) to plow through it. Although there were footnotes, they weren't hyperlinked to the relevant text, which made it difficult to match them up. Nevertheless, I managed to get the gist of the work, though I'm sure there are a lot of subtle details I missed.

The Tale of Genji is more of a biography (albeit of a fictional character) than a plot-driven book that we would consider a novel. It focuses on the life of Genji, the son of an emperor and a beloved concubine. Due to his mother's low rank, he's not eligible to become emperor himself. Today, we might consider Genji a "Marty Stu," as he's extraordinarily handsome, charming, and talented in many areas--and he has quite a few romantic dalliances. It's actually difficult to track all of the women he becomes involved with, especially since it was conventional at the time not to refer to people by name. Genjis' relationships take up much of the story. Characters quote poetry at each other, travel to view cherry blossoms or autumn leaves, and participate in impromptu evening concerts. The tale focuses on day-to-day events, not conflict. That said, there is a time when Genji falls out of favor when a new emperor takes the throne, and he's exiled from court for three years. During this time, he fathers a daughter who becomes the next empress. However, the story doesn't end when Genji dies, but instead focuses on two of his descendants and their rival relationships with women. The story ends abruptly, and there's debate on whether this ending is intentional or not.

Given that this story was written so long ago, relationships between men and women are much more formal than today, and women's lives are quite restricted. Women not only live in separate parts of a house from the men, but also have screens separating them from male visitors. If a man manages to sneak a peek through the screens at the woman, it's a big deal. If he sneaks past the barriers and meets the woman face-to-face, he apparently can have sex with her without much resistance. In fact, a bride and groom spend three nights together before they are betrothed. There are a couple of instances where a man takes a girl and raises her up to be his wife when she comes of age; today, we'd find that repulsive. Genji does this with his second wife, and she's quite shocked when he consummates the relationship. Women in this society can become very house-bound and asocial; for example, one of Genji's lovers refuses to leave her house after her father dies, even though there's no one to help her run it. Many of her servants leave, and the house starts to fall apart before Genji finally learns what's happening and helps her. A pair of sisters also resist leaving their home to go with men who love them after they lose their father. At least two women involved in affairs end up taking religious vows after they have children. I'm not sure how these incidents would have been received by the women who made up the original audience for this story.

The original manuscript of this story no longer exists, so we're lucky that it's been copied down and passed on to us. Story structures have evolved quite a bit since The Tale of Genji was written. It's interesting to look back at older works and see what parts still appeal to us. (For me, there were a couple of passages about stories and wanting someone to share experiences with that resonated with me.)

What's the oldest work you've read, either in the original language or in translation? Did you find it difficult to follow? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Sign of the times - that's just how life was back then.
The oldest thing I've read is the Bible. Obviously not the original text! The King James version is a little challenging, but when you get to the NIV, then it's not.

Pat Dilloway said...

The oldest novel I read qas probably Don Quixote. I read some Shakespeare in school too of course.

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