14 Feb 2012
A Contemporary Critique on Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji
The Heian court and the social structure it provided is a compelling aspect of Japanese history. The 21st century reader is intrigued by such an era and its artistic representations because the general norms, collective conscious, and interpersonal relationships seem to be in clear contrast with the social practices of today. At face value, it appears that Murasaki Shikibu’s discontentment with the aforementioned characteristics of court life manifested itself within the pages of The Tale of Genji. The acclaimed Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov once stated, “A masterpiece of fiction is an original world and as such is not likely to fit the world of the reader.” Thus, although Murasaki Shikibu’s work is deeply rooted in exposing the pretense associated with Heian court social rank, marriage practices, and feminine submissiveness, she managed to create a world for Genji which tested the limits of his emotional threshold and, by default, relatable with modern/epic protagonists. Moreover, because the modern audience can at times feel sympathetic toward Genji by relating to his emotional range (i.e grief through ecstasy) and psychological abnormalities, The Tale of Genji’s status as a timeless masterpiece is merited. Had Genji been a detached lover with no emotional and psychological depth, Murasaki Shikibu’s work and reputation would not have seen the light of day outside of the court she was heavily critiquing. This essay will compare the qualities depicted in The Tale of Genji with other works that are highly regarded as masterpieces while shedding light on the differences which can be seen as a more direct jab at Heian readership.
There is a notion in philosophical theory that is used to show that the ‘robber and the robbed’ share a mutual existence dictated by past events. Their meeting, the robbery, is the climax of their distinct lifelong plots. The idea that humans are simply ‘victims of circumstance’ applies directly to Genji as can be seen through his decisions and amorous plight. Through the first few chapters of Murasaki Shikibu’s tale, the audience can infer on the surface that the plot revolves around the development of the protagonist’s Oedipus complex. Upon meeting young Murasaki whose resemblance to Fujitsubo was ‘astonishing’, the author specifies Genji’s yearning for Fujitsubo as the reason he was brought to tears (Murasaki 71). Although inquiries of Genji’s psychological state are not without merit, the bond between Murasaki’s work and Sophocles’ Oedipus the King delves much deeper. The growth and development of Genji’s character and traits do a bit more than clarify his current actions: should one have started reading at the “Lavender” chapter, it provides an insight to a past riddled with complexity. Through Genji’s dialogues and decisions regarding dilemmas of the heart the readership is given a man who, involved with the particular situations Genji had experienced, would most likely act in a similar fashion to Genji.
Every act through Oedipus the King paints a picture for the reader of the power that emotional disposition has over Oedipus and his quests, which is not at all unlike Genji himself. After hearing about the crimes he was to commit, how can a reader not feel sympathetic towards his pursuit for independence from the oracle? In similar fashion to this masterpiece, Murasaki utilized the tool of plot reappearance across characters and time settings to give readership the sense that Genji was predisposed to repeat past deeds. After the death of Genji’s mother, the emperor (Genji’s father), was in mourning and grief and seeking to fill the void left over. After coming across the remarkable beauty of Fujitsubo and in an effort to bring her in, the emperor stated that he would “treat the girl as one of his daughters” and adding that given Genji’s resemblance to her, she “could pass for his...
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