2 Reading BackgroundThe Tale of Genji was written at about the same time as Beowulf, between and It is considered by many to be the finest example of early Japanese prose that exists. It is also the first real novel in world literature. (The English novel form did not develop until the late 17th - early 18th century.) After reading this selection, you might be surprised to learn that the author is a woman. The subject of this tale is a young nobleman. In fact, he is the son of an emperor. Like the young hero of the Bhagavad-Gita, this young, privileged nobleman is faced with a dilemma. Unlike Arjuna, however, his is not one of philosophy and righteousness.Instead, Genji's dilemma is one that might best be summed up in the modern concept of "too many women, too little time." What follows is a tale of a promising young man with few or no restrictions, or rather every concession, who makes his way through life womanizing and carousing. His behavior and treatment of women may be shocking to us and our modern, western sensibilities. We must remember that this story is set in a very different culture and a very different time. Moreover, it involves a very different mindset concerning social rank and privilege. Keep in mind these very significant differences as you read, and this tale should be better in focus for you.
3 Weekly NotesThe Tale of Genji is about the human ability to be touched by other people and by the outside world, about the tantalizing line between love and lust, and about the vulnerability of women in a male-dominated world.It celebrates the power of poetry, music, and dance to shape society and give depth to human life.
4 SummaryGenji decided to abstain from all sexual and seductive affairs because he was afraid if he did them secretly, that people would begin to gossip, which would spread and stain his name for generations. He was serving as Middle Captain in the Palace Guard at the time and due to this, he stopped visiting his wife as often. During this time, he would occasionally have a relationship where he would forget about moderation and become obsessed with the woman. The relationships usually would bring him stress and pain, making him act in a manner that was anything but proper. During a long rainy season, Genji and his wife's brother, can't go visit their wives because of a directional taboo. On a particularly rainy day, Tō no Chūjō, Genji's brother-in-law who is also Genji's best friend, remain inside Genji's quarters discussing Genji's many letters from women. Tō no Chūjō begins complaining about women, in which Genji questions his views. Soon, a guard and warden enter Genji's quarters and tell them the weather will not permit them to leave the palace and Tō no Chūjō asks them their opinion of his thoughts. They give their thoughts and soon begin discussing stories of strange women and their faults and good traits. Genji is apparently super attractive, being compared to a woman's beauty. They basically describe their dream women and how they believe women should think and act in certain ways. The Warden warns them of women leading them on. "They'll cheat on you and make you look foolish in the eyes of others." They tell stories of different kinds of women. The Warden also says that just because women have not had a formal education, they can still retain knowledge of public and private affairs. Genji compare his woman to the women in these stories that are told and believes she is that special, rare type of women.
5 DiscussionWhat is the situation of women in medieval Japan based on The Tale of Genji? How does it compare with what we have seen of women in medieval Europe? Is it similar or different than in ancient literature?
6 Part AThe Tale of Genji refers to Buddhist values quite a bit. Genji imitates the Buddhist belief of the time, by stating, “ If they were not fundamentally evil they would not be born a woman at all.” The author, illustrates the use of women for political advancement through marriage throughout the plot line. This mirrors the common use of woman during that time period, by forming political alliances obtained through arranged marriages made by fathers.
7 Part BJapan and Europe were similar in the treatment of women in medieval times. Both countries did not allow women much, if any autonomy. They had to obey whoever their main male was, whether it was her father, her husband, her brother, or even her own son! If the woman was from a poor family then she would work hard her entire life, if she was from a rich or royal family then, chances were she did not participate in the politics, and just lived to satisfy her husband. They did not have a choice in the most important aspects of their lives; whether or not to marry, to have children, to choose an occupation. This was decided by their father or husband.