Hikaru Genji, a nobleman of remarkable charm, wit, and charisma, is the subject of ‘The Tale of Genji,’ a significant piece of Japanese literature written by Murasaki Shikibu in the 11th century. The story deftly interweaves the complexity of courtly life, examining the multiple nature of love, the yearnings of the human heart, and the complicated web of social order, all against the backdrop of the Heian period in ancient Japan. Genji, the son of an emperor, sets off on an enthralling adventure and becomes entangled in a web of seductive romances, winning the hearts of princesses, courtesans, and even commoners.
‘Spoiler Free’ Summary of The Tale of Genji
Set against the resplendent backdrop of ancient Japan’s Heian period, this opulent narrative unravels the intricate complexities of courtly existence. It delves deep into the labyrinthine realms of love, longing, loss, and the ceaseless pursuit of personal growth. Genji, blessed with an exceptional lineage as the son of an emperor, embarks upon a mesmerizing journey. Along his path, he becomes entangled in a captivating web of relationships that enrapture the hearts of courtly damsels, princesses, and even women of modest backgrounds.
This magnum opus unveils a tableau of triumphs and tragedies as Genji finds himself ensnared in a tapestry of impassioned enticements. It peels back the layers of profound consequences and emotional entanglements that unfurl from his amorous escapades. Imbued with meticulous prose, the novel meticulously portrays the lavish milieu of the Heian court. It vividly captures its opulent rituals, intricate hierarchies, clandestine political intrigues, and the ever-shifting panorama of societal norms. It illuminates the ethereal nature of existence and the intricate tapestry of human desires within the confines of a highly refined and restricted domain.
Plot Summary of The Tale of Genji
Warning – This article contains important details and spoilers
The concubines of the Emperor are dismayed to learn that he prefers the Lady of the Paulownia Palace to them. They abuse her mercilessly because they believe she is arrogant. The Lady suffers from a terrible illness but gives birth to a boy named Genji. Genji is barely three years old when the Lady tragically dies.
Genji develops into a lovely young man, much more so than his older half-brother, Crown Prince Suzaku. Kokiden, Suzaku’s mother, is troubled by this and complains a lot about it. In reaction, the Emperor chooses to demote Genji to commoner status rather than crowning him as the crown prince. The Emperor, who is still in mourning over the loss of the Lady of the Paulownia Court, learns of a young woman named Fujitsubo who remarkably resembles his late girlfriend. He calls Fujitsubo to the court out of curiosity. Due to the similarities between Fujitsubo and the Paulownia Woman, Genji finds himself falling in love with her. As Genji reaches marriageable age, his father arranges for him to wed Aoi, the Left Minister’s daughter, rather than letting Suzaku do so. Kokiden and the Minister of the Right are enraged by this choice, and Genji is also dissatisfied with his marriage.
An attractive young girl gives Genji’s servant a fragrant fan with a flower one evening as he approaches a home decorated with white flowers known as “evening faces.” Much to Aoi’s dismay, Genji starts messaging the Lady of the Evening Faces after becoming intrigued by the poem written by the fan. He also begins to ignore the Rojukō Lady, his other girlfriend. Genji eventually learns that Tō no Chūjō’s ex-lover, the Lady of the Evening Faces, is his brother-in-law. Genji visits the woman in disguise, keeping his true identity a secret. He chooses to spend the night with her at an abandoned home in the fall. However, in the middle of the night, Genji sees a ghostly figure near his pillow, and when he wakes up, he discovers that the Lady of the Evening Faces has passed away. Later, in the spring, Genji falls ill with malaria and seeks the guidance of a renowned sage in the mountains. Near the sage’s cave, he encounters a house inhabited by a bishop and several women and children. One evening, Genji and his attendant spy on the house, where he notices a ten-year-old girl named Murasaki who bears a resemblance to Fujitsubo. Despite Genji’s desire to take her away, the bishop, identifying Murasaki as Prince Hyōbu’s daughter, refuses to allow it. Genji reluctantly returns to the city and finds solace in the company of Aoi, although his thoughts often wander to Murasaki.
Genji takes the chance to visit Fujitsubo while she is unwell and pressures her into having sexual intercourse. After a few months, it becomes clear that she is expecting, and both Fujitsubo and Genji worry that the Emperor will find out the child’s true father. But, Genji’s pursuit of obtaining custody of Murasaki consumes his attention. He eventually kidnaps her and brings her to the palace, where he lavishly presents her with gifts until she forgets she was ever taken.
In February, Fujitsubo gives birth to a son named Reizei. When Reizei is later brought before the court, Genji is startled by the child’s uncanny similarity to himself. Genji neglects Aoi even more as he spends all of his time on Murasaki to divert his attention from this reality. Genji is disappointed when Fujitsubo is named empress in the summer since he thinks she is now out of his reach. Over the spring, Genji attends several concerts and parties. While at one party, he unknowingly has sex with Oborozukiyo, one of Kokiden’s sisters. Unaware of her identity at the time, he later discovers the truth when he attends a grand celebration hosted by the Minister of the Right. Determined to find out which of the Minister’s daughters he slept with, Genji identifies Oborozukiyo.
At this point, the Emperor hands up the throne to Suzaku and asks Genji to look over Reizei. The Rojukō Lady is aware that the change in power has made Genji less interested in her. She resolves to do so by accompanying Akikonomu, her daughter, to her position as the high priestess of the Ise Shrine. The Rojukō Lady attends a procession before leaving, where Aoi and her entourage purposefully ignore her and destroy her carriage.
After hearing about this happening, Genji becomes enraged, but the Rojukō Woman is visibly upset. Aoi, who is expecting, suffers from a severe illness and is possessed by a bad spirit. Genji splits his focus between his wife and the Rojukō Lady, who believes that Aoi is under the control of her spirit. Regrettably, Aoi delivers her baby too soon and is still in serious condition. When Genji visits her, the Rojukō Lady speaks to him via Aoi. Aoi passes away soon after. Before saying goodbye to his in-laws, Genji spends a few weeks alone. The Minister of the Left finds solace in the belief that Genji will return to see his son, Yūgiri, whom he fathered with Aoi. After completing his duties at the palace, Genji decides it is time to marry Murasaki. However, Murasaki feels betrayed since she had regarded Genji solely as a father figure. Her ladies-in-waiting, on the other hand, are thrilled. Genji devotes himself to Murasaki, while the Rokujō Lady sinks deeper into despair. He visits her once, but she remains steadfast in her decision to go to Ise. In the summer, the Rokujō Lady and Akikonomu depart.
The Emperor’s health progressively declines in the fall. He entrusts Suzaku with the custody of Reizei and advises him to consult Genji. Unexpectedly, the Emperor passes away. Now powerful and unwilling to live in court with Kokiden, Fujitsubo leaves and goes back home. Oborozukiyo advances in the palace’s hierarchy while maintaining her romantic relationship with Genji. Genji makes an effort to visit Fujitsubo and renew their romance, but she rejects him. Genji responds by ceasing communication with her and ignoring Reizei. Fujitsubo eventually concludes that she must make amends with Genji to protect their child.
Although Suzaku is aware of Genji’s relationship with Oborozukiyo, he doesn’t seem bothered. Genji and Fujitsubo, however, face rising hostility from the court. Fujitsubo declares her decision to become a nun in December to release the strain. The nightly meetings between Genji and Oborozukiyo resume next autumn. Fearful Genji is visited by the Minister of the Right one stormy night, who finds him in bed with Oborozukiyo. The Minister and Kokiden react violently, both enraged.
Relationships with two sisters who were formerly close to his father, Reikeiden and the Lady of the Orange Blossoms, provide Genji with comfort. These relationships serve as a brief diversion from the courtroom crisis that breaks out when Genji’s relationship with Oborozukiyo is made public.
Genji visits his father’s grave, writes Reizei a letter, and banishes himself to Suma. He keeps in touch with all the city’s women, including the Rojukō Lady, while thinking about taking Murasaki with him. Nevertheless, Kokiden puts an end to the letters when she learns that Genji is still in touch with Suzaku. Tō no Chūjō starts a conversation about the Akashi Lady, the governor’s daughter, with one of Genji’s attendants, Yoshikiyo, during a brief trip to Suma.
A furious spring storm appears out of the blue. The storm wreaks havoc on the city for several days. As Genji learns about the dangerous weather, he starts to pray. The dead Emperor counsels Genji to leave Suma in a dream. A few hours later, the previous governor’s boat arrives, telling Genji that they were guided by heavenly indications to leave during the storm. Genji requests permission to stay in Akashi with the former governor and is granted his wish. Genji is fascinated by the Akashi Woman and the beautiful Akashi shoreline. Her father is keen to have a relationship with Genji and has been luring him with tales of his daughter’s musical prowess. Genji and the lady start writing to each other, which eventually results in Genji going to her house. He coercively starts a sexual relationship with the woman and tells Murasaki about it later. Genji begins journaling and making drawings while keeping up his friendship with the Akashi Woman. Suzaku, who hasn’t felt well since the storm, decides to resign and calls Genji back to court. The Akashi Woman is distraught and expecting a child, and her future is unknown.
Upon arriving back in the capital, Genji sees Reizei take the king, Suzaku abdicate, and himself appointed as a minister. Genji starts working on a house that belongs to his “neglected favorites.” He makes arrangements for a suitable nurse for the infant after discovering that the Akashi Lady has given birth to a daughter. He continues to write to his other lovers, but their contact with him lessens. In the autumn, the Akashi Lady, who arrives later, and Genji unknowingly arrive at the Sumiyoshi shrine on the same day. She feels inferior in the face of the extravagant offerings made to Genji and leaves without ever speaking to him. When Akikonomu and the Rojukō Lady get back to the city, the Rojukō Lady soon develops a serious illness. She begs Genji on her deathbed to take care of her daughter and not make her a lover. With Fujitsubo, Genji considers the potential of proposing Akikonomu as Reizei’s bride. Fujitsubo is in favor of the proposal because the only other options are Prince Hybu’s little daughter or the Kokiden girl, Tō no Chūjō’s daughter. Tension develops from Suzaku’s dislike of Reizei marrying Akikonomu, despite his love for her.
As soon as it becomes apparent that Prince Hybu’s desires will not be followed, a rivalry develops between the Kokiden girl and Akikonomu. With Reizei’s passion for the arts, Akikonomu, who is an accomplished painter, captures his attention. Tō no Chūjō starts giving his daughter paintings. Fujitsubo advises holding an art criticism competition to resolve the issue. A conversation between the women ensues, and until Genji exhibits paintings from his time spent in Suma and Akashi, the contest appears to be hotly contested. The room is silenced by their extraordinary beauty, and Akikonomu wins. Genji considers stepping away from politics after that.
How does Genji’s pursuit of multiple women affect him in The Tale of Genji?
Genji’s life is both made happier and more complicated by his pursuit of several women. His acts cause tension, jealousy, and disagreements among the women involved as well as with his wife, Lady Aoi, and mistress, the Lady of Rojukō, even if he likes romantic adventures and finds pleasure in his relationships. Tragic situations and broken relationships are ultimately the results of his actions.
What leads the Lady of Rojukō and Princess Wistaria to retreat from society in The Tale of Genji?
The Lady of Rojukō and Princess Wistaria’s ties with Genji change as they become nuns and withdraw from society. Part of their desire to thwart Genji’s approaches is what drives them to keep their distance from him. It is unknown how their transition to nunhood will affect their relationship with Genji and whether their paths will cross again.
How does Genji cope with his exile and the loss of his friends and lovers in The Tale of Genji?
Loneliness and longing for his friends and lovers characterize Genji’s exile. Although being alone, he fills his days with painting, reflection, and chats with fishermen. His desire for friendship and his dreams of his father, however, are eventually what motivates him to brave the choppy waters and go back to court.
How does Genji’s dream of his father influence his decision to return from exile in The Tale of Genji?
Genji’s father’s dream is what prompts him to leave exile and come home. The dream convinces Genji to return to the palace and inspires him to face challenges. It represents a summons to live out his destiny and denotes a change in the circumstances that resulted in his exile.
What are the consequences of Lady Rojukō’s spirit attacking Yūgao and Lady Aoi in The Tale of Genji?
The attack on Yūgao and Lady Aoi by Lady Rojukō’s spirit has serious repercussions for Genji. Tragically, Yūgao passes away, and Lady Aoi gives birth to a son before passing away soon after. The disputes and tensions between Genji and others around him become more pronounced as a result of these events, which also cause sadness and loss.