The Tale of Genji
Author | Murasaki Shikibu
Lifespan | b. c. 973 (Japan), d. c. 1014
First Published | 11th century
Original Language | Japanese
Original Title | Genji Monogatari
The Tale of Genji is the earliest work of prose fiction still read for pleasure by a substantial audience today. Written at least in part by Murasaki Shikibu, a woman at the imperial court at Kyoto, its loose structure revolves around the love life of an emperor’s son, the handsome, cultured Genji.
The young man undergoes complex emotional and sexual vicissitudes, including involvement with the mother-figure Fujitsubo and with Murasaki, whom he adopts as a child and who becomes the true love of his life. Forced into exile as the result of a politically ill-judged sexual adventure, Genji returns to achieve wealth and power, then, grieving after Murasaki’s death, retires to a temple.
With Genji sidelined, the book moves on to a darker portrayal of the succeeding generation, before ending apparently arbitrarily—opinions differ as to whether the work is unfinished or deliberately inconclusive.
The Tale of Genji opens a window upon a distant, exotic world—the aestheticized, refined court life of medieval Japan. In this lies much of its enduring appeal. Fiction works its magic to bridge the historical, cultural, and linguistic gulf between Murasaki’s world and our own.
Much may be lost in translation, but modern readers are charmed to identify with familiar emotions in such a remote context, and fascinated when characters’ responses and attitudes prove startlingly unexpected.