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the tale of genji

The Tale of Genji: One of the World’s Greatest Novels

Devon Lord-Moncrief

Devon Lord-Moncrief

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A scene from "The Tale of Genji".

For thousands of years, many classic texts, books, and stories have helped shape world literature. While these stories have gained worldwide fame and recognition, The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu, is one of Japan’s oldest stories, a work so celebrated that it has even been called Japan’s most remarkable novel.

Who was Murasaki Shikibu?

Born in 973 CE, Murasaki Shikibu was a woman of the Imperial Court during the Heian period (794-1185). Shikibu was born into power and privilege due to her family’s political standings before her birth. She lived a sheltered but ample life as a member of the aristocracy. 

A statue of Murasaki Shikibu in Kyoto.
Murasaki Shikibu had a well-rounded upbringing that contributed greatly to her art. Image via Shutterstock

Much of her youth was spent living in her father’s residence, writing and learning classical Chinese, a rarity for a woman of her rank. Shikibu would later marry Fujiwara no Nobutaka and later still become a lady-in-waiting for Empress Shoshi. During these times, Shikibu wrote poetry and stories, the most famous being The Tale of Genji.

What is it about?

The Tale of Genji is a product of its time, both in style and substance. It tells a story of Imperial life, focusing on the titular character, Genji. Unlike other stories, The novel is unique because it doesn’t address its characters by their real names. Doing so in the Heian high court was considered rude, so characters are referred to by their stations or appearances. 

It loosely follows the life of the court noble and some four hundred other characters. The events that unfold involve courtly intrigue, romance, and political drama. The story was meant to entertain 11th-century Heian courts so it can be challenging for modern readers, but current translations have fixed many of the text’s obstacles.

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Who are some notable characters in The Tale of Genji?

Genji

The titular character of the novel. The son of Emperor Kiritsubo, Genji engages in constant love affairs and secret trysts. He is married yet seeks other women, even going so far as to fall in love with his stepmother. The novel follows Genji throughout his life, chronicling the drama and intrigue he sows.

A scene from Murasaki Shikibu's first novel.
This novel is an epic romance about Heian court life. Image via Japan Times

Emperor Kiritsubo

Emperor Kiritsubo is the reigning emperor at the beginning of the story. He is Genji’s father, and he grants his son an unprecedented amount of power and influence throughout his life. Genji’s mother dies when he is three years old, which casts Emperor Kiritsubo into a depression. When he hears of a woman who resembles Genji’s mother, he chooses to marry her, setting the stage for further drama.

Murasaki no Ue

A ten-year-old girl who possesses outstanding beauty. Genji becomes so infatuated with her that he kidnaps her away from her village and takes her back home with him. Genji eventually falls in love with Murasaki when she grows older, and the two enter into a passionate, albeit controversial, relationship.

A scene from "The Tale of Genji".
The story has an otherworldly quality to it. Image via Artellino

Why did it have such a significant impact on Japanese literature?

While there has been contention over the years about whether The Tale of Genji deserves its status as Japan’s first novel, many academics and scholars still credit it. It is not Japan’s first written work, but it is the first written work to constitute the definition of a novel. It has a progressive plot; its characters age in time with one another, events that affect the course of the plot, and it possesses psychological insight that differentiates it from other prose works. 

A woman from the Heian era.
This story is famous worldwide. Image via Nippon

Of course, many of these finer points are subjective in nature and have been and will continue to be argued over. Regardless, the novel remains a cultural and national classic in Japan, and its historical context is as educational as it is entertaining. Its legacy can still be seen today in countless adaptations in cinema, plays, novels, anime, and manga.

Why should I read The Tale of Genji?

The Tale of Genji is a classic, plain and simple. It is one of the world’s oldest stories and possibly the world’s first novel. It may be dense and challenging to follow for modern readers, but its legacy and historical importance cannot be overstated. Reading the story is like stepping into a time machine back to the days of Japanese antiquity. 

A scene of two ladies in "The Tale of Genji".
Have you ever read “The Tale of Genji” before? Image via Ukiyo-e

It proves that even though over a thousand years have passed since its debut, people today are still incredibly similar to those of yesteryear. It is a seminal piece of world literature and an incredible Japanese culture that should not be overlooked. Have you ever read The Tale of Genji? Which version did you read? Did you enjoy it? Please let us know in the comments below! We would love to hear your thoughts on this timeless piece of Japanese literature.

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