Memoirs of a Geisha Summary 📖

‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ by Arthur Golden details the life of Sayuri. Once a daughter to a poor fisherman, Sayuri blossoms into one of Japan’s most distinguished geisha.

Memoirs of a Geisha

Arthur Golden

Memoirs of a Geisha‘ by Arthur Golden is a historical fiction novel that tells the story of a young girl Chiyo/Sayuri. Narrated by the story’s protagonist, Sayuri shares her journey and struggles as she navigates her way from being an indentured servant to training to become a geisha. A life destined by fate, she must overcome it all to find her sense of freedom.

The novel was transformed into a highly successful movie with the same title in 2005. Its popularity sparked a widespread interest in Japanese history and brought many new readers to the novel.

‘Spoiler-Free’ Memoirs of a Geisha Summary

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden opens in 1929 in a small fishing village where Chiyo Sakamoto (Sayuri), her older sister, and her father live. When her father can no longer care for the two girls, they are sold to work in the entertainment districts of Kyoto. While Chiyo is sold to a geisha house, her older sister is sold to a brothel in Kyoto’s pleasure district. 

From Sayuri’s (Chiyo) point of view, we see the geisha district of Kyoto known as Gion, with its immaculate teahouses and beautiful theaters and temples. Through her learning the rigorous arts of the geisha, we witness her transformation into a successful geisha. With few friends made along the way, Chiyo’s biggest competition is the jealous and spiteful Hatsumomo. Sayuri, who had little food and even less money during World War II when geisha houses are forced to close, must reinvent herself to attain a unique type of freedom.

Memoirs of a Geisha Summary

Warning – This article contains important details and spoilers

Memoirs of a Geisha‘ by Arthur Golden begins in 1929 in a small fishing village, Yoroido. The novel’s protagonist Chiyo, later known as Sayuri, lives here with her older sister Satsu, her father, and her dying mother. When her father can longer care for the two girls, he ends up selling them to a local businessman, Mr. Tanaka. At this moment, both Chiyo and Satsu believed they were being adopted by Mr. Tanaka, but the girls were surprised to find they were being sold into the entertainment district of Kyoto. Chiyo being, the younger sister with unique blue eyes, ends up being sold to an okiya (geisha boarding house), while her older sister Satsu ends up being sold into a brothel as a prostitute. Her sister’s story ends here, as they never reconnect again.

After traveling far from her home, Chiyo finds herself in servitude at the Nitta Okiya in Gion. Run by Mother, Auntie, and Granny. Mother is a stern, and cruel businesswoman, only looking to profit from the geisha of the household. Chiyo starts her life in the house as a maid, doing housework and following the orders of Hatsumomo, the house geisha. While being a maid, she also attends the geisha school with her young friend, Pumpkin. Here the young girls are taught to sing, dance, and make tea. They are also taught the importance of the kimono and the difference between a civilian’s kimono and a geisha’s kimono. Hatsumomo’s jealousy and fear of Chiyo’s beauty push her to torment and try and sabotage Chiyo’s chances of becoming a geisha. Hatsumomo then convinces Chiyo to try to escape and find her sister, and whilst trying to escape, Chiyo injures herself and is told she’ll never have a chance at becoming a geisha again. 

Years pass, and one day while running errands for Hatsumomo in the Gion district, Chiyo meets a sweet stranger known as the Chairman. He gives her some money and a handkerchief, and their connection begins here. She wishes she could be with him at that moment. Not soon after, Chiyo is introduced to Hatsumomo’s rival, Mameha. Stunned by her beauty, Mameha uses the opportunity to make a wager with Mother to re-invest in Chiyo’s geisha education. If Chiyo is successful in paying off her debts, Mother will pay Mameha double. Mother agrees to the wager, and Mameha becomes Chiyo’s mentor. The Chairman also has a hand in Chiyo once again training as a geisha; He pays Mameha to mentor her in the arts of a geisha.

Chiyo then becomes an apprentice geisha and is given a new name: Sayuri. She returns to her geisha training, excelling in all, from dancing to playing music and pouring tea. During her training as an apprentice, Sayuri is re-introduced to Chairman Iwamura, his business partner Nobu Toshikazu, and several prominent men. Sayuri still remembers the day when the Chairman gave her his handkerchief, and feelings are once again reignited. As Sayuri begins to gain popularity, her rival Hatsumomo tries to damage her reputation by spreading false rumors, hoping Mother will adopt Pumpkin instead. 

To pay off Sayuri’s debt and win the wager with Mother, Mameha sets up an auction for Sayuri’s mizuage (virginity). Mameha then arranges a bidding war between the Chairman’s business partner, Nobu, the Baron, and Dr. Crab. All three men have the desire to become Sayuri’s Danna. Dr. Crab is the eventual winner, and with an incredibly high fee, Sayuri can pay off her debts. Mother takes Sayuri back into the okiya, and Hatsumomo falls into alcoholism before being kicked out of the okiya. 

Right before Sayuri can make her debut as a geisha, her world is changed when World War II begins In 1944. Geisha districts were ordered to close, and with it, Sayuri’s home and way of life. Forced to choose between factory work or an uncertain future in the unknown far north, Sayuri desperately turns to Nobu for help. He arranges for her to stay with his old friend General Tottori, who provides her refuge during World War II. Sayuri becomes a mistress to the General during the war in exchange for extra rations and a place to stay.

When the war ends, Sayuri heads back to Gion to reclaim what life she had before the war. Sayuri finds Pumpkin when she first returns and asks if she will help her make a plan to have Nobu lose all respect for her and give up his desire to become her Danna. Pumpkin agrees, but Sayuri doesn’t realize Pumpkin still holds a grudge for not being adopted into the Nitta okiya. Instead of bringing Nobu to the tea ceremony as planned, Pumpkin brings the Chairman, and he walks in on Sayuri sleeping with the General. Sayuri is incredibly embarrassed and shameful. 

Sayuri’s plan to get Nobu’s attention and make him jealous has worked, even though it seemed impossible. The Chairman is now able to pursue his love for Sayuri, and she is now able to be with the man she truly loves without fear of Nobu’s disapproval. In the end, the Chairman still becomes her Danna, resulting in an illegitimate child. To provide her child with the life she deserves, Sayuri asks the Chairman to move to the United States, specifically New York City, where she opens her teahouse. 


Was the chairman in love with Sayuri?

It is implied in the novel from the first moment the Chairman sees Sayuri on the street and hands her his handkerchief he falls for her. It’s not until Mameha introduces them that he starts to build a connection. 

Why did Nobu not bid on Sayuri?

At the beginning of Sayuri’s mizuage, Nobu is bidding for her. But when the amount of money becomes too much, he drops out of the contest. 

Why is Sayuri obsessed with the Chairman?

Her initial obsession with the Chairman begins when they are first introduced. Sayuri sees the Chairman as a way out of life as a geisha. A kind, gentle man who can provide a safe future for her.

What is the central conflict of Memoirs of a Geisha?

The biggest conflict in the novel is toward the end when Sayuri asks Pumpkin for help in convincing Nobu to give up on his desire to be her Danna. Pumpkin decides to betray Sayuri by bringing the Chairman to the rendevous point instead of Nobu.

What is the story Memoirs of a Geisha about?

The novel is about a young girl named Chiyo and her journey to becoming one of Japan’s most recognized geisha. Her story is filled with the cultural beauty of Japan and the struggles of a woman during her time period.

Jacob Campbell
About Jacob Campbell
Jacob received a BA in English from Adam State University, along with a minor in Creative Writing. He pursues his love of reading and writing through his work for Book Analysis. 
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