The Tale of Genji: What Is It?


Arts & Culture

A woodblock print from 1852 featuring a scene from The Tale of Genji

The Tale of Genji—what is it? It is a super-long, super-detailed proto-novel, written in Japan in the early years of the eleventh century. It was written by a woman whose personal name is lost but who acquired the nickname “Murasaki” on account of its being the name of the most important female character in the book.

Murasaki means lavender. There’s a Japanese ink, purple of course, named after Nippon’s #1 purple girl —$20 a bottle on Amazon, if you’re into purple ink. (Probably a lot of purple things in Japan are named after Lady Murasaki.)

Now, what do I mean by “super-long.” I mean 1,135 pages in the handy one-volume version of the Arthur Waley translation (originally published in six volumes, 1925–1933), 1,090 pages in Edward Seidensticker’s translation (two volumes, 1976), and I don’t know how many pages in Royall Tyler (2001) and in Dennis Washburn (2016). At any rate, it’s like with Proust: one narrative, a half-dozen novel-sized books.

What’s it about? It’s about the life (especially the erotic life) of a very glamorous, heart-crushing, multi-talented dude: Genji. That’s about two thirds of it. Later, it’s about the next generation: Genji’s son, and these other ones, including a guy whom everyone thinks is his son…

Doesn’t sound all that interesting, right? Oh, but it is! Because of the way the material is handled. The narrator, in fact a court lady who all her life dealt with Genjis and sub-Genjis and all their women and all their children, tells the story with a very modern-seeming strategic restraint. Her characters are selfish and generous, foolish and wise, from one minute to the next, and she simply tells you what they said, thought, and did, without overtly judging them. Now, this approach doesn’t amount to squat, when a narrator is describing beings whose moral status is perfectly clear, but the effect becomes exciting and engrossing for readers the second they find themselves longing to be told what to think.

There are lots of tales in this world of ours where the reader wants to say to the narrator: “You can’t just tell us what happened. What’s your take on all this?” When that kind of thing kicks in, the reader will look harder and harder for evidence of the author’s point of view. Is Murasaki describing such-and-such scene with tongue in cheek? Is she being mocking? Is she bought-into Male Mystique here? Or is she resisting it in a very refined and elegant way? Reading The Tale of Genji, your mind never stops ticking on questions like that. The author won’t let you relax for a second, and this, much more than information about a bygone era (though of course it’s loaded with that), keeps you turning those pages. Makes you put on a pot of coffee at two in the morning.


The first thing that will really strike readers in 2019, of course, is the fact that Prince Genji is a kind of #MeToo nightmare. He could be worse, heaven knows, but he’s … not good. It is simply impossible for him to cross paths with a female whose looks appeal to him without attempting to secure her for himself. The girl is married? The girl is a daughter of his friend? The girl is the niece of the love of his life? The girl is the daughter of his dead ex-lover? The girl has just taken religious vows? The girl is between ten and eleven years old? The girl is completely, completely, completely unwilling? It’s not like these things don’t matter to him at all, but they never stop him from proceeding.

On the other hand, he’s never animated by malice. He’s selfish and irresponsible, blind and self-conning, but you can’t quite call him a pig, because contempt never has any role to play in his erotic imagination. More, having seduced or absconded with a given female, he really does try to incorporate that female into his life, if at all possible. By the time Genji reaches middle age, he has indeed had a little walled town built (as it were) to house some of the women of his life, including ones to whom he feels hardly any erotic inclination anymore.

Are you starting to get interested? Again, the ticklish question is, Okay, Lady Murasaki, what do you think of all these doings? Are you saying Genji is possessed by some kind of supernatural love drive, and that all this anxiety and misery he creates, every step of the way, is just a fact of nature with which we must all reconcile ourselves?

Probably a lot of people who have read the book over the centuries took it precisely that way—but did its author? Because, after all, if that’s what she was saying, wouldn’t you expect her to soften the rendition of all the jealousy and anguish that Genji causes? And would she have made the female characters (some of them, a least) so shrewdly critical of Genji? There’s the rub.


Virtually all U.S. children can be counted on to respond to two outstanding appurtenances of the ancient world: the Greek myths and the Egyptological death-cult stuff. About the latter, it’s enough to remind oneself of what happened when one first saw an image of a mummified cat. One’s whole spirit rose up and said something like, “Finally!! A culture that gets it.” Whereas, the Greek myths represent something less satisfactory, darker.

The Greek myths say the same things to the child that they said to the Greeks themselves. And these are fundamentally upsetting things. Yet, at the same time, people invariably rejoice to be in on the secret. Namely, that beauty and sex are a person—and that person is deeply unfair. Authority and power are a person. That person is an emotional infant. Wisdom is a weapon. Luckily, nobody has it for more than a second. And the lot of the wife, naturally, is unhappiness.

The Tale of Genji, too, puts the adult reader right back where he or she was, in childhood, facing the Greek myths—but with a difference. Not for a microsecond does one think that Ovid (for example) has any resistance to the Cult of Beauty. You can see he’s a pervert, through and through. The suffering involved in all that love stuff is part of why, according to him, the shit is good. Ovid—and the Romans in general—saw absolutely nothing wrong with gladiatorial combat, even if the weapons involved were people’s genitals. Whereas one can never comfortably class Murasaki in that same category. With her, you’re closer to Milton’s mind or Dostoyevsky’s mind. She is able to disagree with something she idolizes; she doesn’t make herself agree with it because she idolizes it. Her mind is strong, strong.


Enough about how great she is; how does one manage to actually read the book? Gotcha covered.

First Concept: Get one of these:

Why? Because Waley is famously an A-1 writer. He ain’t perfect, but he doesn’t need to be. And he divides the thing up into six doable units.

Second Concept: Take advantage of those doable units; there’s no need to rocket through the whole thing in one shot. Take month-long breaks. You’re not gonna keep all this stuff straight anyway. Which brings me to…

Third Concept: Get William Puette’s Guide to The Tale of Genji. People are basically giving them away on the internet, four or five bucks. Among other things, Puette summarizes all fifty-four chapters—two, three hundred words per chapter. You’re gonna read and reread those summaries, you watch. (Tip: get the original hardcover. It’s no more expensive and it’s bound in signatures, with thread and all that. Which is good, because the book’s gonna take a beating.)

Fourth concept: Every time you take an exit ramp off the main highway, gas up with some satellite books: Sarashina DiaryThe Gossamer Years (two diaries by Heian court ladies, more or less contemporary with Murasaki); other translations of whatever chapters you’ve read; classic secondary material in English (e.g. Ivan Morris’s The World of the Shining Prince); and above all: Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book. Which we should all probably memorize.

For me, the “other” translation of Genji is Seidensticker’s. Besides his other merits, he comes with a unique bonus. Dude kept a diary while he was translating Genji—a nifty document basically modeled on those Heian diaries I just mentioned. It’s called Genji Days and it’s a well-kept secret. I’ve never heard anyone refer to it in any way. Yet, Seidensticker must have had a million IQ. Every page has insights and speculations; it’s just a joy to read. Plus it turns out he was gay and lonely, shuffling around Ann Arbor, buying flowers, hating the hippies. Reading his thing alongside the Murasaki is like having an ideal friend, intelligent and interested, with whom to talk everything over.

Lastly: Make your own “map” of the main characters. Don’t be like me. Don’t realize this would have been a good idea when you’re halfway through. Trust me! However, don’t think for a second you’re gonna get out of reading the whole thing twice…

She gonna getcha. She gets everybody.


Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.