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Polygamy Rocks If You're Rich: Defending Genji

Updated on July 23, 2015
Bernadette Harris profile image

Bernadette is a proofreader, online blogger, and freelance writer. She graduated from Franciscan University with a B.A. in Literature.

A Translator's Degrading Simplification

In his translation of The Tale of Genji, Kencho Suematsu makes the bold assertion that one of Lady Shikibu’s primary goals in composing the novel was “to display the intense fickleness and selfishness of man” (Shikibu, The Tale of Genji, 16). While even the most benevolent critic cannot deny that Genji is somewhat impulsive and immature at times, this claim is nevertheless a degrading simplification of his character. It is a condemnation that arises chiefly from a misinterpretation of Genji’s love affairs, which, when examined closely, are in fact the very tool Lady Shikibu uses to expose to the audience the gentle and forgiving nature of his character.

I just want to make you a princess!
I just want to make you a princess!
The world...understands me not...
The world...understands me not...

The Prince and the Violet

Genji’s attachment to Violet, for example, is one of the earliest manifestations of his compassionate heart. At first his interest in the girl is a bit startling because it is revealed that Violet has barely reached puberty. A closer look, however, reveals that his interest in her is not of a shameful nature, though he carries out his plan in an admittedly brash manner. Although it is implied that he plans to marry Violet in the future, he is consistently conscious of her youth; throughout the novel he does not at any time approach her in an inappropriate manner. It would have been relatively easy for Genji to simply take what he wanted from Violet and then evict the girl from his home; he would not have had to suffer any social consequences. He clearly desires her companionship more than he desires any kind of sexual favor; he dotes on her with an affection that is largely paternal: “He ordered for her a beautiful doll’s house, and played with her different innocent and amusing games” (119). Furthermore, Violet herself does not seem to find their living arrangement displeasing: “[…] Genji, whom she had learned to look upon as a second father, was the only one for whom she cared” (119). She possess a character that is free from those jealous feminine dispositions that regard “every little trifle in a serious light” (119), and Shikibu further states that with Violet “things were very different, and she was ever amiable and invariably pleasant” (119).

Let's be friends! Here's a pregnancy.
Let's be friends! Here's a pregnancy.
Now wait just a minute!
Now wait just a minute!

Friends, not Objects

Violet is not the only woman with whom Genji forms a genuine attachment. She is simply the first. His relationship with Yugao, for example, and specifically his reaction to her death, reveals the profound emotional depth that he is capable of experiencing: “His own fears were all forgotten in his anxiety on her account […] He threw himself beside her, and embracing her passionately, cried, ‘Come back! come back to me, my darling!’[…] her small mouth, still parted, wore a faint smile. The sight distressed both the eyes and heart of Genji” (86-88).

This same compassion is displayed when he impregnates the Maiden of Akashi. Not only does Genji take responsibility by raising the child as his own, but he invites the Maiden back to the capital even after she has given birth so that she may pass her days in comfort: “[…] and as he thought of sending for her, as soon as the condition of the young mother’s health would admit, he hurried forward the repairs of the eastern mansion. He also thought that as there might not be a suitable nurse at Akashi for the child, he ought to send one from the capital” (201). He is also quite kind to Cicada, a young woman who repulses the advances he makes to her. Rather than becoming offended, Genji respects her for it; at the end of the novel it is mentioned that a friendly “correspondence now and then passed between them” (213). He would hardly admit defeat in courtship with such good grace if his character was as undeserving as Suematsu claims.

Sure, He's Nice...To The Pretty Ones

Yet it is still possible for the stubborn critic to insist that Genji would never be so kind to someone that he was not attracted to romantically. This criticism, however, reveals to be groundless when readers examine Genji’s non-romantic relationships. The most touching of these relationships is his involvement with Princess Hitachi. When he first meets the Princess, he finds her boring and unattractive: “He then tried to speak of this thing and that indifferently, but all hopes of agreeable responsiveness on the lady’s part being vain, he coolly took his leave, and left the mansion, much disappointed […] her stature was very tall, the upper part of her figure being out of proportion to the lower, then one thing which startled him most was her nose. It reminded him of the elephant of Fugen” (127-130). Despite these initial feelings of revulsion, Genji becomes very kind to Hitachi. He goes out of his way to take care of her when he witnesses her dilapidated living conditions:

This he did because he pitied the helpless condition and circumstances he had witnessed more than for any other reason. He also sent her rolls of silk…some damask, calico and the like […] nor did Genji do this from any other motive than kindness […] The Princess continued to live in the mansion for two years […] under the kind care of the Prince […] (132, 210)

Shikibu even adds that as far as the world was concerned, Genji “was supposed only to cast his eyes on extraordinary and pre-eminent beauties; but we see in him a very different character in the present instance” (210). His relationship with his wife should also to be examined, because it is also a relationship that offers Genji little personal gain. It is established early in the book that Genji and Lady Aoi are incompatible; the lady is cold and detached, qualities that do not harmoniously coexist with the warmhearted and impulsive Genji: “She was older than Genji by four years, and was […] cold and stately […] ”(139) The two of them continue to be estranged throughout the book, but when Lady Aoi is stricken with a severe illness, Genji becomes very gentle and does not resent her for her past coldness: “He approached her, and taking her hand, said: ‘What sad affliction you cause us!’[…] He tried to soothe her, and said, ‘Pray don’t trouble yourself too much about matters. Everything will come right. Your illness, I think, will soon pass away’” (154).

No prob, bro! But I'll have to take a kidney
No prob, bro! But I'll have to take a kidney

Don't Worry, Guys. I Got This.

Genji always forgets the wounds of the past with a cheerfulness that can hardly be the signs of a “fickle” disposition. Lady Aoi is not the only example of this personality trait. While he is in exile, he is neglected not only by the peasants in the kingdom who are “indebted to him”, but by close friends as well. They either fear “possible slander” on their character or they forget about Genji altogether (179, 186, 212).Upon his return, many people regret their neglect, realizing the “bad taste” in following a man “when circumstances are flourishing, and deserting him in the time of adversity” (212). Genji, however, harbors no ill will towards any of them; he is not even angry at the betrayal shown by those closest to him: “Kokimi, as we know, had received much kindness from Genji […] but when Genji had to quit the capital he left him […] but Genji manifested no bad feeling to him, and treated him still as one of his household attendants” (212).

What could go wrong? Right, Oedipus?
What could go wrong? Right, Oedipus?
M-Momma...
M-Momma...

The Reason Behind The Affairs

It is worthwhile to note that Genji’s relationships with women all possess an underlying similarity: namely, that he appears to be looking for a woman who can replace his dead mother. One of the very first women that Genji is attracted to is Princess Wistaria, a young lady who looks very much like that deceased lady: “There was, indeed, both in features and manners a strange resemblance between her and Kiri-Tsubo […] Genji […] had no recollection of his mother but he had been told […] that this lady was exceedingly like her; and for this reason he often yearned to see her and to be with her” (29). Violet, too, is shown to bear this maternal resemblance: “One reason why Genji was so much attracted by her was, that she greatly resembled a certain lady in the Palace, to whom he, for a long time, had been fondly attached” (102). He experiences an intense longing towards the child, desiring to see her every day since he can no longer fix his eyes on “‘the fair loved one whom she resembles!’” (103) Indeed, his desire to take care of her stems from the loneliness he recalls feeling at the death of his own mother: “Genji […] thought how that little one who had depended on her must be afflicted, and gradually the memory of his own childhood, during which he too had lost his mother, came back to his mind” (113). By taking Violet into his home, Genji seeks to conjoin the role of son with his self-proclaimed position as her future spouse. His constant attempts to fuse two very distinct roles into one are what lead him to become attracted to multiple women throughout the novel, and additionally cause him to remain in romantic dissatisfaction. Although the other women he pursues are never directly compared to his mother, Genji nevertheless treats them with a tenderness and respect that could indeed be interpreted as filial. Once his affairs are understood in this light, Genji’s flirtations become less the actions of a womanizer and more the actions of a child seeking the maternal love that he never possessed.

Shikibu's Assertion and Suematsu's Ultimate Failure

What ultimately proves Suematsu’s assertion to be a critical failure is the fact that Lady Shikibu herself does not seem to share his view regarding her character’s disposition. If the authoress desired her readers to simply interpret Genji as he appears at surface level—namely, as a one-dimensional, womanizing personification of all men—she would hardly provide the readers with the following description: “ One may say that the character of Genji was changeable, it is true, yet we must do him justice for his kindheartedness […]” (174) While this is certainly an acknowledgement of Genji’s recklessness, it is not, at the same time, an irrevocable condemnation of his character. By brilliantly condensing the emotional complexity that has made her character enduring to so many readers throughout the centuries, Shikibu encourages audiences to dip beneath Genji’s façade of airy confidence. Only then will they be able to expose the admirable traits of a truly kind and compassionate hero, and to glimpse the beauty of a heart without guile.

* Quotes taken from Shikibu, Murasaki. The Tale of Genji, trans. Kencho Suematsu. Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle Publishing, 1974. Print.

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