Essay Topic for Unit #2: Ancient Japan
Compared with China, writing came very late to Japan. The earliest works which come in the 8th century were histories like the Kojiki and Nihonshoki, and the compilation of poems and songs called the Man'yōshū. But by the 10th century, writing had evolved rapidly and a singular author, Murasaki Shikibu, produced a long, complex, psychologically rich and insightful tale of life at the Heian Court. Your task for this unit is to write an essay on The Tale of Genji. Wouldn't it be fair to say that great works of literature are usually "about" something? They embody something meaningful be it insights, perceptions, truths, artistry, aesthetics, some kind of re-creation or re-presentation of the "times." In the famous "Defense of Fiction" scene, reproduced in our Prologue, we are told that only fiction can do this, can tell the story of the times, their inner-working and their true spirit, in a way that the official histories of the ages can never do. So what does that mean for what the Genji monogatari has to say to us? How should we think about this work?
The following are possible examples of avenues you might explore in your essay. It is not meant to be an exhaustive list of things you have to include in your paper. Pick some of the ideas or ways of reading and interpreting the Genji that you think are the most interesting. But one caveat: Please do not base your paper on the idea that because Genji constantly pursues women in search of a powerful romantic, emotional and sexual connection that he is therefore just a superficial womanizer. While that is a typical response for a first time reader, it is not adequate for this paper. You, and the Genji monogatari are much better than that!
As one scholar points out: the Genji deals with "the portrayal of personal desire and the constraints that rank and gender in a highly hierarchical society place upon it, as well as the hidden tensions inherent in the conduct of Genji’s highly calibrated social and personal relationships. The novel is striking also for the compelling evocation of its characters’ minds, particularly of women of various ranks mulling upon their lot in life. In certain instances, these women exhibit an understanding of the workings of the psyche in terms almost modern." These are the kinds of things that are interesting about this text, not merely the fact that he pursues these relationships with women. Let us not forget that the author is a woman so why would she want to depict a male character in such great detail over the course of hundreds of pages if she had no respect, admiration or interest in/understanding of what was driving Genji and the forces that he was dealing with in his life? So, a paper that turns into a rant against the main character's poly-amorous lifestyle is just not going to be sufficient. You have to push beyond that and go deeper. If you have any questions about your approach, please contact me and we can chat or you can send me some ideas so I can respond to you in a timely manner.
So, we could ask the question, what is most noteworthy about this multifaceted narrative with its mixture of poetry and prose, politics, religion and gender relations? What does it tell the reader about the court life in Heian Japan? What stands out to you about this work? If you want to drill down into some specific moments in the text, how do the "Twilight Beauty (Yugao)" and the "Heart-to-Heart (Aoi)" chapters (Chs. 4 and 10 respectively) echo one another? What might this say about how the chapters of the Genji are so intertwined reflecting, perhaps, a view that the same is true of lived experience?
How do scenes like Genji dancing the "Blue Sea Waves" in Ch. 7, and the unveiling of his scroll paintings of the Suma landscapes in Ch. 17 convey a sense of how Heian courtiers appreciated the finer yet deeper things in life, the highly sensitive depiction of beauty, passion, sorrow, elegance, restraint, refinement, and the angst that seem to be at the heart of the human experience?
Royall Tyler, our translator, sees more serious things at stake in the Genji than just aesthetics, sensitivies, romance, manners, grace, elegance, rank and gender differentiation--though these clearly are all present. But power seems to lurk behind all of these things, as well. Little things like the Minister of the Left, early on in the Tale, deciding against marrying his daughter Aoi to the Heir Apparent (Lady Kokiden's son) and gives her to Genji instead: this seems to have set in motion a sequence of events that were powerful and compelling and had a lasting impact on the characters. Again, this is the kind of thing--a level of complexity, an attention to detail, and a concern with character's psychological states--that was not found in literature anywhere around the world at this time or even in the next several centuries!
Or, could it be that the Genji is about the jealousy, the hurt, and sometimes the unconscious rage that gripped Heian court women because of the double-standard that granted permission for the male courtiers to pursue and seduce women at will? Are there grounds for suggesting that the author is challenging the patriarchy?
Please work directly with some specific scenes or parts of the work so that your arguments about the significance or meaning of the text are bolstered by direct quotes from the Genji. When longer than a sentence or two, these quotes should appear as indented block quotes for which you do not need to apply quotation marks because the act of indenting tells the reader that this is a direct quote.