About the Book

Book Protagonist: Hikaru Genji
Publication Date: 1021
Genre: Classic, Fantasy

Themes and Analysis

The Tale of Genji

By Murasaki Shikibu

'The Tale of Genji' is a rich and multifaceted work that delves deep into the intricacies of human emotions and relationships. At its core, the novel revolves around the theme of love and the complexities that arise from it in a highly structured and hierarchical society.

‘The Tale of Genji’s’ detailed portrayal of Heian-era court culture is essential. It is a cultured, peaceful society that interacts with other people regularly. In the opening chapter, a Korean envoy makes an appearance. Other Asian religions are practiced, and characters write poetry in Chinese meter. The imperial court is strengthened by these outside influences rather than diminished. The Heian era’s culture is sophisticated and intricate, dedicated to beauty, complexity, and a deep appreciation for varied ideals of harmony. The Tale of Genji‘ itself is shockingly modern in its careful exposition of the title character’s personality.

The Role of Beauty in The Tale of Genji

The story of ‘The Tale of Genji’ exemplifies the profound ability of beauty to console, heal, and articulate emotions. Throughout the novel, beauty acts as a powerful antidote to the effects of life’s natural cycle, societal expectations, and internal struggles. The characters in this literary masterpiece find solace in their surroundings, even amidst moments of sadness and grief. Nature, with its captivating allure, empathetically mirrors their happiness, longing, grief, and affection. It serves as a constant reminder of the universal beauty that exists, while also symbolizing the ever-changing cycle of life.

One such instance is when Kaoru, amidst contemplation of the deaths of Agemaki and Ukifune, finds himself drawn to the dew-kissed morning glory flowers in Yugiri’s yard. In this poignant scene, the delicate beauty of nature becomes a source of solace for Kaoru, offering him a momentary respite from his sorrow. The profound impact of beauty in ‘The Tale of Genji’ extends beyond mere aesthetics. It serves as a profound expression of the human experience, transcending societal norms and expectations. By immersing ourselves in the beauty that surrounds us, we are reminded of the transient nature of life and the eternal cycle of existence.

‘The Tale of Genji’ exhibits the idea of miyabi, or the pursuit of beauty, grace, and elegance in everyday things. An individual’s character and thinking are continually assessed through handwriting analysis. A near-perfect writer is someone who is both internally and externally beautiful. Playing musical instruments displays miyabi, which also reflects a person’s character and traits. Those who play well are regarded as being sophisticated, clever, and enthusiastic. Someone’s grace and elegance can also be seen in the way they dress, including their style and appearance. Attractive hair and apparel are signs of a high caliber and refined individual.

Courtly Life in Heian Period

In the early to mid-tenth century, which is when ‘The Tale of Genji’ is considered to have taken place, the main character is followed from the year before his birth to what most scholars assume to be some time in his forties. Due to the relocation of the nation’s capital to Heian-kyō (now Kyoto), this period in Japanese history is known as the Heian period. It was generally a period of prolific poetry, music, and literary creation. In the Heian period, several rules and norms also governed court life; depending on how Genji feels about a particular circumstance, each of these can either aid or hinder him. In particular, ‘The Tale of Genji’ delves into the profound influence of poetry and writing conventions, the customs of court life, and the significance attributed to the urban environment during the Heian period. These factors play a pivotal role in shaping Genji’s decisions and motivations. Ultimately, the narrative reveals that Genji and his contemporaries operated within a multifaceted system that simultaneously facilitated and impeded their pursuits.

Easter Eggs, Foreshadowing, and Omens

Death is frequently predicted by omens in ‘The Tale of Genji.’ When Genji and Yūgao arrive at the deserted estate where Genji plans to hide Yūgao, Genji notices the neglected garden. There is a “pond choked with weeds. It was a wild and desolate place … there was no sign or sound of life.” Genji, who is horrified by the picture, exudes confidence for his sweetheart while reassuring her “We have arrived in a weird and abandoned place. But while I am here, no ghost or malicious fairy will try to assault you.” Following the couple’s moment, a malevolent ghost with the appearance of a lady strikes Yūgao with great force.

Yūgao is killed as a result of the attack while a tremendous storm rages around him. The number 37 carries a foreboding portent that is less violent than usual. Genji worries for the health of those he cares about as they reach this “hazardous age” even though the occurrence is left unexplained. Fujitsubo, Genji’s mistress, passes away at the age of 37, while Murasaki develops a demon possession and serious illness in her 37th year. Dark calamities are also foretold by weather. A frigid breeze that Murasaki is drawn to foretells would bring to her demise.

The Role of Sex in The Tale of Genji

The interaction between men and women, as well as the roles that each sex is expected to perform in Heian court culture, are of utmost importance in a book that is predominately about Genji’s multiple sexual quests. ‘The Tale of Genji’ specifically shows how laws and practices in the world that women live in disadvantage and disempower them, while simultaneously implying that women might gain some measure of control over their life by either breaking those customs or very carefully courting the affections of strong men.

Women are largely shown in the first half of the book as being at the mercy of the whims and wishes of the men in their lives. This is particularly true when it comes to sexual activity and relationships, and more specifically, the interactions that are deemed suitable between men and women. Other than their dads and husbands, all of the women of Genji are required to remain concealed. To accomplish this, they live concealed behind screens or drapes and converse with males primarily through written poetry that is sent back and forth with the aid of messengers.

Women were not given much privacy despite the screens’ presence, and the screens did little to shield them from men’s eyes. Men frequently peer behind screens, particularly Genji, to capture views of women they find attractive, and the screens offer males secret locations where they can start sexual connections with women, frequently through rape. Further, the women that Genji coerces into having sex with him frequently feel powerless to seek assistance because they are expected to be hidden and frequently shoulder the blame for men’s deeds; doing so would harm both their reputation and Genji’s, making caving into Genji’s demands the lesser of two evils.

Key Moments in The Tale of Genji

  1. Prince Genji is born to the emperor and Lady Kiritsubo, but his mother tragically dies soon after childbirth, setting the stage for his emotional journey.
  2. Due to his resemblance to the late Empress Kokiden, Genji is exiled to Suma, where he expresses his loneliness and longing through poetry.
  3. Genji becomes infatuated with Fujitsubo, his father’s consort, leading to a forbidden love affair within the imperial court.
  4. Genji enters into various relationships and marriages with women from different social classes, exploring themes of love and societal expectations.
  5. Lady Rokujō, a former lover of Genji’s, places a curse on him due to her obsession, introducing supernatural elements into the tale.
  6. The Uji chapter focuses on the lives of Genji’s descendants, emphasizing the theme of transience and the passing of generations.
  7. Genji discovers Murasaki, a young girl with whom he falls deeply in love and eventually takes as his wife.
  8. Genji’s talents and charm lead to his political ascent, becoming a powerful and influential figure in the court.
  9. The tale follows Genji’s life until his death, exploring themes of impermanence and the passage of time.
  10. The tale concludes with an elegiac tone, reflecting on the legacy of Prince Genji and the transient nature of human existence.


What is the primary theme of The ‘Tale of Genji’?

The main theme of ‘The Tale of Genji’ is the exploration of love and relationships in a complex and hierarchical society, intertwined with reflections on the impermanence of human existence and the transience of beauty and life.

Were there instances of non-consensual sexual encounters in ‘The Tale of Genji’?

Certainly, there are situations in ‘The Tale of Genji’ where encounters with questionable or non-consensual sex take place that some readers interpret as rape. The episode involving Yūgao is one such instance. In this experience, Genji enters her room while she is dozing off and starts a potentially non-consensual sexual relationship. It is important to note that ‘The Tale of Genji’ was written in the Heian period, a time when societal norms and attitudes towards relationships and consent were different from contemporary perspectives. The work reflects the cultural values and attitudes of its time, and modern readers may find certain aspects of the narrative troubling or problematic.

Did sexual relations with a prominent man improve one’s standing in ‘The Tale of Genji’?

Yes. A perfect example is the Akashi Lady, a young woman of modest (i.e., rural) origin, whose her sexual connection to Genji elevated her to the rank of a court lady. Genji promises to take her and the child to court once she gives birth to his one and only daughter, who is prophesied to become emperor one day. This is an unprecedented promise that would enhance the Akashi Lady’s reputation as a significant figure and a respectable force, despite the disadvantage of being born and reared outside the city.

How does ‘The Tale of Genji’ address the theme of emotional and spiritual growth in its characters?

In addition to delving into the characters’ emotional experiences, ‘The Tale of Genji’ also examines their spiritual and personal development. Throughout the story, the main character, Prince Genji, through enormous changes, growing more emotionally and spiritually as he deals with the difficulties of love, grief, and societal expectations. The story examines the enormous influence that life experiences have on a person’s character formation and inner growth.

In what ways does ‘The Tale of Genji’ depict the complexities of power and politics in the imperial court?

The novel intricately weaves themes of power and politics into its narrative, portraying the cutthroat world of the imperial court during the Heian period. It examines the intrigues, rivalries, and strategic alliances that shape the characters’ destinies, offering insights into the intricacies of courtly life and how individuals navigate the web of authority and influence.

Charles Asoluka
About Charles Asoluka
Charles is an experienced content creator, writer, and literary critic. He has written professionally for multiple reputable media organizations. He loves reading Western classics and reviewing them.
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