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Posted on June 14th, 2012, by

The Tale of Genji is a very famous writing of the Heian Era. The author, Murasaki Shikibu, is a woman who tells us the story of the life of Genji but it also depicts historical, cultural, economical events of that epoch. On this background the themes of love, friendship, jealousy and loyalty are developed.

The Tale of Genji helps to understand the spirit of the epoch. Since the novel has several plot lines and many characters, we can see the development of not one separate character, but the life of Japanese people in the early 11th century. The story does not have one defined conflict and consists of small stories which compose the story of life. Genji, for centuries of Japanese readers as well as decades of Western ones, is Heian Japan, a lost world as strange to the citizens of modern Japan as modern Japan is to most Westerners (Nimura 11).

Despite romantic adventures of the protagonist, which make the core of this literary piece, we can also get an important information about social relations of the time described. Rulers of the 11th century Japan had been referred as those who were above the clouds. At the same time they did not notice ordinary people, who lived close to earth, such as peasants and small governors. Strive for beauty and obsession with the material world described in the book very vividly illustrates real attitudes of the epoch described. The cult of beauty, peculiar to contemporary aristocracy is also reflected in the book. Since men and women rarely glimpsed one another’s faces, aesthetic value depended on nuance alone: the tints of layered sleeves peeking from beneath a screen, the spray of seasonal blossoms attached to an intricately folded letter, the elegant allusions to nature and love in a poem (Bargen 20).

Actions were not as important as inner state and moods. The Tale of Genji also reflects this peculiarity of the epoch.

Numerous descriptions, small details and adoration of beauty show modern readers the attitudes peculiar to the time when The Tale of Genji was written.

A survey of marriage and the relations between men and women of those times are very interesting for us. The concept of the marriage was quite different during those times in addition to the difference between the eastern and western approach. Genji can seem a real Don Juan for modern readers as he meets several woman at the same time, he is unfaithful to his wives, does not follow social norms. But having relationships with several women was quite common for that time and Murasaki depicts him as a hero for being able to support several women. Genji passes all his adventures with a great dignity and follows his own moral norms and principles. He is described as a noble and aristocratic man who gives the example and way to follow for others. Genji seeks for harmony in self-perfection and cares about the destinies of other people. He puts the hopes and desires of other people above his interests and strikes for happiness for everyone (Bowring 106). But only highly developed and organized individual can influence the others and that makes the purpose of self-control of the main characters. Controlling yourself, your desires, dreams and hopes is a great sacrifice but great people do not see a sacrifice in it, as it is natural for them to care about the others, and I also think that self-control is a born natural quality of Genji.

The Tale of Genji is not only a precious work of art. It is also a book that sketches the epoch. As wrote Jorge Luis Borges: The Tale of Genji is written with an almost miraculous naturalness, and what interests us is not the exoticism the horrible word but rather the human passions of the novel. Such interest is just: Murasaki’s work is what one would quite precisely call a psychological novel (Borges 117).

The author very vividly describes the characters, typical for that time, their relations and lives. Modern readers can get an insight into Japan of the 11th century when reading this book. The very term novel can be applied to Shikibu’s work only relatively. Usually the novel assumes imaginary characters and events. Despite the characters, described by the author are imaginary, their preoccupations and their lives are real. All these portrayals are taken directly from the author’s life and we can not speak about imaginary events in this case. This makes this literary work even more valuable, since it shows true characters of the true epoch. All the characters described by Shikibu, such as monks, maids and princes are real life personages, which perfectly reflect the spirit of the epoch. This great piece of Japanese literature can help different people to understand the history and culture of this country better. The Tale of Genji gives the readers idea about different way of life and cultural traditions.

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