The majority of the themes in this well-loved novel by Arthur Golden center around the protagonist, Sayuri, and her journey through life as she overcomes many obstacles. The novel was inspired by the real-life interview that Golden carried out with Mineko Iwasaki, a famous Japanese geisha who later sued him for using her story.
Throughout ‘Memoirs of a Geisha,’ the reader will see the physical and psychological changes Sayuri goes through. Her desire for self-understanding and belonging are what drive her forward in life.
Memoirs of a Geisha Themes
One of the driving themes of the novel is self-identity. Sayuri’s desire to understand herself and those around her is what continuously pushes her to grow as a person as she tells the story of her life. The best example of Sayuri’s change in maturity is when she is given her geisha name, her new name. “I thought Sayuri was a lovely name, but it felt strange to be known as Chiyo any longer.” Sayuri associated her birthname, Chiyo, with her childhood and felt being given the name Sayuri Nitta, and she was maturing into a woman.
The re-occurring theme of the importance of one’s physical appearance is probably the most constant theme throughout the novel. “In the years since, I’ve been called beautiful more often than I remember. Though, of course, geisha are always called beautiful, even those who aren’t. But when Mr. Tanaka said it to me, before I’d ever heard of such a thing as a geisha, I could almost believe it was true.” From the first time Sayuri is called beautiful, she learns the positive effect it can have on her. Even before becoming and learning about geisha, Sayuri decides to prioritize her physical appearance above anything else. This decision early on signifies her future fortunes to come as a geisha.
The theme of free will, or lack of it, is closely tied to the other themes of self-identity and physical appearance. Those around her decide Sayuri’s life throughout the novel. From her appearance to the way she thinks. Geisha culture is rooted in the superstition that fate leads them, and they lack the control to decide what happens to them. “We don’t become geisha, so our lives will be satisfying. We become geisha because we have no choice.” It’s not until the novel’s end that Sayuri conveys she had no choice right from the beginning.
Other themes of interest include friendship, transformation, ritual or tradition, and history.
Analysis of Key Moments in Memoirs of a Geisha
- After the reader is introduced to Chiyo, a young girl, and her family living in Yoroido, a small coastal village. The local businessman, Mr. Tanaka, proposes an idea to her father. Mr. Tanaka realizes Chiyo’s father can not care for his two daughters and himself, so he convinces her father to sell the girls into the Kyoto entertainment district (also known as the Gion District), where they will learn to dance and entertain male clients and learn the tea ceremony.
- Hatsumomo lies to Chiyo, tells her she knows where her sister Satsu is, and convinces Chiyo to try and escape. While trying to escape, Chiyo injures herself, and Mother decides not to invest in her geisha training and lessons at the time.
- A few years pass since her injury, and Chiyo is sent out on an errand by Hatsumomo. During this errand, she runs into a stranger known as the Chairman. This first interaction between the two is the beginning of a connection that will grow till the end.
- Chiyo is introduced by Mother to Hatsumom’s rival, Mameha. For mainly her benefit and to harm Hatsumomo, Mameha convinces Mother to re-invest in Chiyo’s geisha training. Chiyo becomes Sayuri, symbolizing her transition into adulthood.
- In order to pay off Sayuri’s debts and win the wager with Mother, Mameha orchestrates an auction for Sayuri’s mizuage (virginity). Dr. Crab ends up winning the bidding war between himself and Nobu. Nobu, a close friend of the Chairman, wants to be Sayuri’s Danna, while Sayuri wants the Chairman to be her Danna.
- 1944 World War II breaks out, and all Okiya’s are closed. To avoid working in the factories, Sayuri takes General Tottori as a Danna in exchange for extra rations during the war period. Sayuri also does this in the hopes she will dishonor herself in the eyes of Nobu. She does not wish to ever have Nobu as her Danna.
- After the war, Sayuri orchestrates a plan to finally convince Nobu to give up on his advances. She asks Pumpkin for help, and for her to bring Nobu to the rendevous point so he will walk in on her with another man. Pumpkin commits a memorable betrayal of Sayuri by bringing the Chairman instead.
- At the end of the book, the Chairman is not bothered about her sleeping with another man at that moment. He had fallen for her from the moment he gave his handkerchief to her. He becomes her Danna, and she retires to New York with their child, opening a teahouse.
Style, Tone, and Figurative Language
The tone and voice are used by Golden to enhance Sayuri’s story. There is a dismal mood at the beginning of the novel, where Chiyo and her sister are sold to the highest bidder and torn apart, and it is always raining. Throughout the novel, this tone is used to express sadness as Sayuri trains in geisha houses, such as in the section where Chiyo searches for her sister in the prostitute area, when Chiyo is injured in the courtyard, and when Mother keeps Hatsumomo from seeing her boyfriend again.
As Chiyo grows, the tone changes as well. Chiyo’s tone when he is a child is one of fear and confusion. As Chiyo grows older and the novel unfolds, the tone becomes more detached and knowing as she comes to understand what’s expected of her and others of her gender, especially other Japanese women. She is free of illusion and fully understands what’s expected of her in the geisha world.
Analysis of Symbols
Throughout the novel, the other characters in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha‘ are constantly commenting on how much “water” Sayuri has in her personality. Those with a lot of “water” in their personality tend to be more adaptable and flexible in life. Sayuri is always able to keep a positive outlook on life, even in the most difficult of times. The idea of “water” in Japanese culture heavily relates to destiny and following whatever path it takes you.
The best example of “water” in the novel comes from Sayuri’s blue eyes. Sayuri has distinct, large, and beautiful eyes that represent her inner self. As a geisha, these eyes of hers are the center of attention and attract many people. They allure people with her soulful beauty, which leads to more than a physical attraction. Her translucent blue-grey eyes symbolize the depth of her inner water element that brings out her emotional wisdom.
The eyes of a geisha are said to be windows to her soul, revealing her true emotions in a world where deception is commonplace. The captivating beauty of her eyes reflects her honest nature, which contrasts sharply with the artificiality and pretense that is so inherent in Kyoto’s culture.
Is the book Memoirs of a Geisha hard to read?
Even though the book is filled with many metaphors and allusions to Japanese culture, Golden uses incredibly descriptive imagery to paint a colorful and easy story to read.
What is the moral lesson of Memoirs of a Geisha?
The moral of the story comes from the protagonist Sayuri. Her kindness and ability to flow through difficult situations teach positivity and a hard work ethic.
What do geisha symbolize?
Geisha is synonymous with Japanese culture and history. They represent the elegance and beauty of Japan with their extravagant kimonos, unique hairstyles, and striking makeup.
What is the central theme of Memoirs of a Geisha?
The central theme of the novel is Sayuri’s connection to water. She personifies and symbolizes the way water behaves and acts.
What is the moral lesson of Memoirs of Geisha?
There are a few different moral lessons in this novel, and they include staying loyal and being kind to get further in life as well as how important bravery is when times are tough.
What happens to Sayuri and Chairman?
Sayuri retires from geisha work and opens a tea house in New York City towards the end of the novel. The Chairman becomes her Danna or patron.