The Tale of Genji: Japan’s Greatest Novel

From the lecture series: The History of World Literature

By Grant L. Voth, Ph.D., Monterey Peninsula College

A pillar of the world literary canon, The Tale of Genji is considered to be the world’s first novel.

image of a Japanese screen featuring scenes from The Tale of Genji
Japanese screen featuring scenes from The Tale of Genji (click to enlarge)
image of Murasaki Shikibu, the Japanese author of theTale of Genji
Murasaki Shikibu, the Japanese author of The Tale of Genji

Written in the early 11th century by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting at the Heian Court, The Tale of Genji has been praised for its analysis of the psychology of love and relationships in ways that still resonate with modern readers. Genji’s tumultuous affairs also provide readers with pointed looks at gender relations in Heian, Japan. Most literary critics agree that Murasaki simply began writing and allowed the work to grow organically over time. A series of themes that permeate the novel—the search for the perfect relationship, the effects of the passage of time, and the problems of desire—manage to hold the vastness of the work together through 54 lengthy chapters.

This is a transcript from the video series The History of World Literature. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.

The Child of a Great Love Affair

image of Prince Genji, the main character of the novel The Tale of Genji
Prince Genji, the main character of the novel

Genji is the child of a great love affair between the Emperor and a fascinating lady, with no strong family backing, who is hounded to death by the Emperor’s first wife—Lady Kokiden—and other powerful women at court. The Emperor mourns the death of Genji’s mother until he meets Lady Fujitsubo: a woman so like Genji’s mother that she becomes a substitute for the Emperor’s affections. She also exercises a strong fascination for Genji, who is too young to remember his mother; thus, Lady Fujitsubo becomes a substitute mother for him.

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Coming of Age

Genji grows up beautiful, bright, and sensitive—so much so that even his enemies at court are won over by his beauty and charm. At the age of 12, Genji passes his coming-of-age ceremony and is immediately married off to Aoi, the daughter of a powerful court minister; shortly after giving birth to their son, Yugiri, she dies. When Genji turns 18, he meets a young girl named Murasaki (then nine years old) who reminds him of Lady Fujitsubo; in fact, she is Lady Fujitsubo’s niece. Genji makes Murasaki his second wife, despite the fact that she has no political significance whatsoever.

Affairs of the Heart

image of Prince Genji and a woman from The Tale of Genji
Much of the plot of of the Tale of Genji revolves around the amorous relationships that Genji engages in and the pleasures and complications they create in the story of his life.

Lady Fujitsubo allows Genji to make love to her and eventually bears him a son. They manage to hide the secret of the child’s paternity from the Emperor; the child is presumed to be the Emperor’s son and will one day become an emperor himself. Genji also has affairs with other women, including the sister of Lady Kokiden. Genji’s affair with Lady Kokiden’s sister is discovered about the same time that Genji’s father retires as Emperor and then dies. Without a father as emperor to protect him anymore, and troubled by his affair with Lady Fujitsubo, Genji banishes himself to the ward of Suma.

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Exile and Return

While in exile, Genji has an affair with a priest’s daughter, Lady Akashi, who is virtually forced into Genji’s arms by her father; the affair produces a daughter. After another change in emperor, Genji is called back to court and takes both Lady Akashi and his daughter with him. Genji’s son by Lady Fujitsubo becomes Emperor; Genji also arranges for the daughter of one of his former lovers, Lady Rokujo, to become the new Emperor’s first wife.

The Heights of Power

image from The Tale of Genji
The novel provides a fascinating glimpse into gender relations in Heian era, Japan.

This point in The Tale of Genji marks the height of Genji’s political power. He creates a mansion for his four lovers and divides it into four courts based on the seasons, with the spring court (the season most cherished by the Japanese) being reserved for Lady Murasaki. But Genji’s political successes coincide with the gradual loss of control in his personal life. He fails to establish a relationship with Tamakazura, the daughter of one of his former lovers. At the same time, one of his new wives is unfaithful and bears a son to the son of Genji’s best friend. When he discovers the affair, Genji sees it as just retribution for betraying his father with Lady Fujitsubo.

Learn more about Murasaki Shikibu, the woman who wrote the world’s first novel: The Tale of Genji

Genji’s Final Years

Genji lives long enough to see Lady Akashi’s daughter get married to an emperor and bear a son who will one day be emperor himself. At the same time, Murasaki falls ill; Genji takes her to another one of his estates and tends to her himself. Genji dies at 52, a year after Lady Murasaki’s death. Then, the novel traces the careers of his flawed descendants, each of whom has inherited something of Genji’s shining qualities—but none of whom is like the magnificent Genji himself.

Common Questions About The Tale of Genji

Q: What makes The Tale of Genji important?

The Tale of Genji is important historically as it was the first novel ever written and provides a psychological look into Heian period court life.

Q: What is the primary meaning of The Tale of Genji?

The Tale of Genji is largely considered to be about the art of seduction, told with extremely subdued explication.

Q: What are the themes of The Tale of Genji?

The major themes encountered in The Tale of Genji are love, lust, seduction, affection, and family dynamics.

Q: Who created The Tale of Genji?

The Tale of Genji was written in the 11th century by Murasaki Shikibu, who was a noble lady-in-waiting.

This article was updated on 12/29/2019

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