prefatory material includes a list of the chapter headings from
The Tale of Genji and a genealogical chart for the characters from
the novel. Bowring's book is very readable, excellent as an introduction
to Murasaki and her writings.
first chapter is entitled "The cultural background" and he subdivides
this chapter into six parts: "Politics," "Murasaki Shikibu," "Religion,"
"Language," "A grammar of sexual relations," and "History and fiction."
classifies The Tale of Genji as the greatest achievement not only
of the Heian Period (794-1192) in which it was written, but of all
Japanese literature. While this novel was written at a time when
Chinese literature and ideas were still an apparent presence and
influence in Japan, this book is distinctively Japanese. It reflects
particularly the Japanese traditions and does not draw from the
familiar Chinese poetry and prose.
politics of the Heian Period contributed to the creation of Shikibu's
novel. China was not an immediate threat to the Japanese society.
Japan had been able to maintain its hereditary succession and to
keep its aristocratic political system. The politics of marriage,
so apparent in The Tale of Genji, determined the real power behind
the throne. While the recognized leader was the Emperor, the real
power and decision maker was the Regent. The Regent was determined
according to his blood relationship with the Emperor.
Murasaki's life, the Fujiwara family dominated Japanese politics.
The Emperor was six years old when he was crowned. Installing an
Emperor too young to rule was one of the common practices the Regents
used to garner or to maintain their power. Often considerable rivalry
ensued as the various possible candidates for regents vied for office.
Because of the rules of hereditary succession, this often meant
that the treachery used to obtain office involved the brothers,
nephews, cousins, or uncles within one family.
women, then, played a significant role in the power politics. To
ensure the continuing rule of any given family, they were necessary
first to provide the male successor and their influence increased
as they were the primary caregivers to the future Emperor or Regent.
However given the life of seclusion imposed on the Japanese aristocratic
women, their power was often limited to their ability to produce
a male offspring.
sets of religious beliefs Shinto and Buddhism, play a major role
in The Tale of Genji. The right to divine rule was tied to Shinto
beliefs. Shrines were established for the exclusive use of the imperial
family and were used in connection with imperial succession. So
Shinto was primarily a set of beliefs important for public concerns,
whereas Buddhism was important in the Japanese people's private
basic beliefs of Buddhism play such an important role in Japanese
life that understanding them is central to understanding the events
in Shikibu's novel. The important beliefs include
is characterized by suffering.
is created by desire, pleasure, attachment to this world, and rebirth.
nothing is done to end the cycle of rebirth, it will continue forever.
law of karma determines whether the cycle of rebirth is broken.
way to end the cycle and reach eternal bliss (nirvana) is to give
up human desire.
can only subvert desire through intense intellectual and spiritual
potential to reach nirvana, the divine state, is possible for all
toward nirvana is achieved by performing good deeds and engaging
in right thinking. This is only possible when one is able to eradicate
desire. When a person fails, hope still exists, because compassion
is central to the Buddhist belief.
vows is seen as a way to renounce the pleasures of this world, subvert
desire, and move toward achieving nirvana.
influence of Chinese culture and politics merge in the state of
the languages used in Japanese court. For a number of centuries
Chinese was the language used for government documents and records.
Using Chinese as the official language eased the government's ability
to keep the participation in politics to a limited few. Women were
not taught to read or write Chinese. Some women, however, were able
to find their own means of getting around this restriction. Murasaki
learned how to read Chinese by listening to her brother while he
was taught the language. She was such a natural at language acquisition,
that she was soon able to translate the passages her brother found
too difficult. Intimidated by the public opinion of a woman who
could understand the Chinese language, she pretended to be unable
to translate even the simplest inscriptions even while she continued
to read the Chinese classics in secret. Although in 905 a Japanese
anthology of poetry, the Kokinshu, was published, during the Heian
period, the writing in Japanese was dominated by women. Japanese
was so considered to be a private, and therefore female, medium,
that well-known poet, Ki no Tsurayuki, wrote his diary in Japanese
pretending to be a woman.
is apparent in The Tale of Genji, the woman's place was relegated
to the private sector. In this polygamous society both the man's
wives and his mistresses waited behind doors until their men decided
to understanding the beginning of Murasaki's novel is to understand
the meaning of the word genji. Genji refers to someone of first
generation royal blood who has been declared unfit to be named Emperor.
So, a genji can be viewed as only a very weak threat, someone who
has lost his potential birthright.
includes a very brief plot summary of the entire Tale of Genji,
dividing his discussion and summary into five parts. The first part
(chapters 1-12) is entitled "sexual politics." Important to the
first twelve books is the patterns of repetition. Similar to the
way seasons repeat each other, so different characters mirror each
other as they carry out their human desires.
mirrors his father. Like his father, Genji allows his worldly passions
to cloud his better judgement. He, like his father, mourns for Kiritsubo
and falls for her substitute, Fujitsubo. Bowring explains this is
not incestuous. While sexual relations between close members of
a family is considered taboo, the main problem here is political,
not moral. Genji is tampering with imperial succession.
marital relationship with Aoi would have more closely resembled
real life. After marriage, husbands and wives generally lives apart,
the husband making occasional visits. Genji's living arrangement
then, with Murasaki would have seemed like a story-book romance
in many respects. She is much his inferior, socially and politically
and their domestic co-habitation was nearly unheard of.
surprising in a society which allows men to move so freely and to
have sexual relationships with so many women, the dominating feeling
the women possess is jealousy. Lady Rokujo is the prime example
of just how destructive jealousy can be. Her jealousy is responsible
for the death of Aoi and the destruction of Murasaki.
his chapter, "Language and style," Bowring discusses the function
of the narrator and the uses of the 795 poems included in The Tale
of Genji. Poetry is connected with love, sexual attraction and the
divine. He ends this chapter with a discussion of the problems of
his last chapter "Impact, influence, and reception," Bowring gives
a chronological account of the writing and publication of the numerous
versions of The Tale of Genji and the eastern and western writers
who have admired this novel.
ends with a bibliography, including almost fifty books, articles,
and dissertations, for anyone who wants to do further study of Murasaki
Shikibu's The Tale of Genji.