The Tale of Genji: A Summary
The world of the Tale of Genji is aristocratic Japan of the tenth century. The society was polygamous and imperial. The Emperor would take several wives, each daughters from prominent aristocratic families, in order to establish his line. He would have one main wife known as the Empress, several consorts, and several “intimates” or consorts of low rank. Genji’s mother is one such Intimate. She is adored by the emperor, but the jealousies of other women at court are so distressing to her that she falls sick and dies when Genji is still very young. The Emperor is devastated, and chooses a new wife that looks like his former love.
Genji, our hero, is the son of the Emperor, but he will never rule. His mother’s rank had been too low. The Emperor favors him and wants to appoint him as his heir, but he can get no political support. As an alternative, he removes Genji from the imperial family and gives him his own surname, Minamoto, in order to allow him to make his way as a commoner in the government. While he is technically a commoner, he still enjoys the favor of his father and freedom in the court. He grows to be a handsome, intelligent, but reckless young man.
Genji, like almost all aristocrats, is entered into a political marriage with the daughter of an influential member of court. He is only an adolescent, and does not care about his new wife Aoi, who is four years older. As is Japanese custom, he does not have to live with her, so he basically ignores her existence. His sights are set on the Emperor’s wife Fujitsubo who looks so much like the mother he never knew. Eventually, he sleeps with Fujitsubo, who becomes pregnant with his son. They pass the boy off as the child of the Emperor.
Knowing he cannot possess Fujitsubo because she is his father’s, Genji seeks love elsewhere – a young girl who looks just like Fujitsubo named Murasaki. She is Fujitsubo’s niece, and only ten at the time that Genji focuses his affection on her. He takes over her care and raises her as a daughter, then, in Woody Allen-fashion, marries her as soon as she comes of age.
Chapter 2 (“The Broom Tree”) shows us a teenage Genji who is still confused about love. He hears three young men talk about their secret loves. It is an illuminating conversation for him! He begins a series of affairs. The author makes him almost irresistible to women – at least on the surface. He is gorgeous, charming, intelligent, affectionate, wealthy, and well-connected politically. His talents also raise him politically, and he grows more influential and powerful in court. Before long, Genji has had a sexual affair with the daughter of his main political opponent, and is caught by him in the act! The girl’s older sister, who is the mother of the current imperial heir, vows revenge. He has to go into exile to escape her wrath.
He winds up in Suma by the Inland Sea of Japan, in what is now Kobe. He cannot bring Murasaki with him, and he is very lonely without her. Alone and in the wild, he must endure hardships and is almost killed by a storm. When the storm ends, however, a wealthy aristocrat rows by and invites Genji to join him at his home in Akashi.
Genji goes with the man and, at Akashi, meets his daughter and adds her to his list of conquests. When he finally goes back to court, she is pregnant with his baby. The girl is his third child – in addition to the child he had with the Empress, he had a son named Yugiri by his first wife, now dead. Eventually, Yugiri will become Empress herself.
After returning to court in Chapter 13 (“Akashi”), Genji tries to control his sexual urges more effectively. He concentrates on promoting himself and increasing his power at court. He focuses on only one woman in the next 20 chapters, Princess Asagao. Their love is short, ending badly. Genji continues to rise in wealth and power, even if he is not lucky in love. By Chapter 33, he has four mansions linked together, each representing one of the four seasons and each the residence of a favored lady. He is appointed “Honorary Retired Emperor” by his secret son with Fujitsubo, who is now Emperor.
In Chapter 34 (“Spring Shoots I”), Genji agrees to marry the daughter of his half-brother. After they are married, Genji finds her to be unsatisfying as a wife. When Murasaki becomes sick, Genji abandons his new wife to be with his old love. While he is away, a man comes in and sleeps with his new wife, getting her pregnant. The son she bears, Kaoru, is passed off as Genji’s, but Genji knows the truth. The true father dies from the shame of the discovery of his illicit affair. Genji’s new wife decides to become a nun rather than continue with him, to Genji’s great embarrassment. About three years later, Murasaki dies. Genji is devastated by the loss and goes to live in a temple, dying a couple of years later in his fifties.
After his death, the book continues to tell the tale of his two descendents after an eight-year gap. Kaoru is now a young man. His best friend is Niou, Genji’s grandson by the girl he made love to at Akashi. Kaoru and Niou are best friends who become rivals in love.
Kaoru hears of a prince who has retired to a religious life with his two daughters. Intrigued, Kaoru visits him and learns his true parentage. He also sees the daughters, Oigimi and Naka no Kimi. He thinks they are beautiful and tells Niou about them. Niou courts and seduces the younger, Naka no Kimi. However, Niou does not visit often, spending most of his time at court. Naka no Kimi is lonely, and she and her sister believe that she never meant anything to Niou. Oigimi sees her sister’s devastation and refuses Kaoru, thinking that he will treat her just as Niou treated Naka no Kimi. She becomes so depressed that she starves herself to death, to Kaoru’s grief.
Afterwards, Niou brings Naka no Kimi to court so they can be together. He cannot make her his main wife, though, due to political pressure. He marries his cousin. Meanwhile, Kaoru begins to realize that he truly loves Naka no Kimi. Noticing the way Kaoru acts around his wife, Niou becomes jealous. Naka no Kimi solves the problem by introducing Kaoru to a half-sister named Ukifune who looks just like Oigimi, and he pursues her instead. Before he can leave with his new love, Niou also sees her and wants her. When Kaoru moves with Ukifune to his home in Uji, Niou hunts her down and makes love to her.
Ukifune cannot decide who she wants. Kaoru is more powerful, but Niou is more sexually attractive. Unable to decide, Ukifune throws herself into the river in order to kill herself. The family discovers her missing and holds a fake funeral in order to save face. Unbeknownst to them, she is still alive. She is found by monks, crying and unable to speak. They take her to the head nun and it is discovered that she has amnesia and seems to be mentally unbalanced. She stays this way for two months, until a cleric exorcises her. She does regain some of her memory, but will not tell anyone anything she has remembered, and instead asks to be made a nun.
A year later, Kaoru has heard of the nun with amnesia who looks like Ukifune. He discovers it is her and tries to contact her by sending a letter through her half-brother, but she pretends not to recognize the boy and refuses the letter. Kaoru wonders if she is being kept there by someone else. The tale ends there. Is it unfinished? Is it intentionally left open? No one knows.
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