Memoirs of a Geisha

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Beauty, Artifice, and Truth Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Destiny vs. Self-Determination Theme Icon
Beauty, Artifice, and Truth  Theme Icon
Growing Up Theme Icon
Sex and Love Theme Icon
Tradition, Ritual, and Gender Theme Icon
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Beauty, Artifice, and Truth  Theme Icon

In the history of Western philosophy and literature, scholars and artists have often suggested that beauty and truth are one and the same: truth must be beautiful and the beautiful must be truth. This idea is encapsulated in the poet John Keat’s famous line, “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’” Memoirs of a Geisha, however, contradicts this view of beauty. Though the word “geisha” means “artist” or “artisan,” geisha are just as much the art itself as they are the artist. To fit the Japanese standard of beauty, geisha craft a highly artificial appearance: they dress in beautifully-patterned kimono, wear elaborate hairstyles, and paint their faces white in order to appear as if they are wearing masks. While these beautiful artifices conceal the geishas’ actual appearances, geisha must also conceal their desires, true feelings, and inner self so that they can shift their personalities in order to please or amuse their male clients. The novel thus argues that beauty is more about artifice and concealment than truth.

As an extension of this idea, outward appearances in the novel often deceptively conceal characters’ true selves. Despite her cruel personality, Hatsumomo is one of the most popular geisha in Kyoto because of her beauty. She successfully disguises her cruelty from her male clients by acting like a polite geisha, but as Sayuri recognizes, whenever people glimpse the true mean-spiritedness of her personality, they begin to see her beauty wane. On the other end of the spectrum, people often mistake Nobu’s heavily scarred face and brash personality for an inner cruelty. Yet Nobu proves himself to be one of the kindest and most loyal men in the novel, affirming the idea that outward appearances do not necessarily correspond to inner personality.

While beauty might not provide access to truth in the novel, it does serve a more utilitarian purpose of providing comfort. Working in Kyoto while Japan is at war in Manchuria, Sayuri realizes that her beauty serves an important function in comforting the soldiers returning from the front lines. Sayuri claims that in the dark brutality of war, these men can think about geisha and hold firm in their belief that there is beauty in this world worth fighting for. Though the presence of beautiful things provides comfort in themselves, the novel also suggests that beauty can soothe our suffering by reminding us of the ephemerality of all things. As Sayuri comes to recognize over the course of the novel, all things that are beautiful eventually fade. Like flowers in spring that die in winter, or a young geisha who ages into an elderly woman, everything in life—both the triumphs and the agonies—passes away. While this truth might sound depressing, it provides Sayuri with a melancholy sort of comfort that allows her to appreciate the fleeting joys of the present, as well as to know that her struggles will eventually come to an end.

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Beauty, Artifice, and Truth Quotes in Memoirs of a Geisha

Below you will find the important quotes in Memoirs of a Geisha related to the theme of Beauty, Artifice, and Truth .
Chapter 3 Quotes

I found myself wondering if my sister was standing before some other cruel woman, in another house somewhere in this horrible city. And I had a sudden image in my mind of my poor, sick mother propping herself on one elbow upon her futon and looking around to see where we had gone. I didn't want Mother to see me crying, but the tears pooled in my eyes before I could think of how to stop them.

Related Characters: Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto (speaker), Mother/Ms. Nitta , Satsu Sakamoto , Mrs. Sakamoto
Related Symbols: Sayuri’s Eyes
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sayuri (at this point still Chiyo) has been sent to work under Mother at an okiya, a place for training geishas. As she looks at her "Mother"--not really a mother at all, just a supervisor--Chiyo finds herself thinking of her real family: her sick mother and her sister, who has also been "sold." For the time being, Chiyo has no real control over her own feelings: she's just a little girl, and she can't stop herself from crying.

The passage is moving, but it also conveys an important point: Chiyo is a novice in the world of geishas, and the world of appearances. To become a geisha, Chiyo will have to learn how to control her true feelings, suppressing disgust and contempt when such emotions aren't useful. By the same token, she'll have to turn her back on her biological family in order to focus on her surrogate family at the okiya, as well as the men she encounters as a geisha.


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Chapter 5 Quotes

You see, when a geisha wakes up in the morning she is just like any other woman. Her face may be greasy from sleep, and her breath unpleasant. It may be true that she wears a startling hairstyle even as she struggles to open her eyes; but in every other respect she's a woman like any other, and not a geisha at all. Only when she sits before her mirror to apply her makeup with care does she become a geisha. And I don't mean that this is when she begins to look like one. This is when she begins to think like one too.

Related Characters: Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto (speaker), Hatsumomo
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Chiyo watches as a popular geisha, Hatusomomo, wakes up and puts on her makeup. As she watches, Sayuri notes that a geisha first waking up is just like any other woman: greasy skin, bad breath, etc. A woman becomes a geisha, however, when she puts on her makeup and uses artifice and decoration to make herself look beautiful in a certain way. Being a geisha isn't just a combination of appearances, though--it's a state of mind. As Sayuri implies, geishas are highly trained professionals, taught how to be civil and charming at all times; in other words, taught to think like geishas. Even though being a geisha is largely about outward appearances, it's also about cultivating a certain mental image of oneself, too.

In fact, a geisha leaves a tiny margin of skin bare all around the hairline, causing her makeup to look even more artificial, something like a mask worn in Noh drama. When a man sits beside her and sees her makeup like a mask, he becomes that much more aware of the bare skin beneath.

Related Characters: Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto (speaker), Hatsumomo
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

Chiyo watches as the popular geisha Hatsumomo puts on her makeup; as she watches, she describes the way that a geisha decorates her own face. A geisha wears extremely thick makeup, to the point where the contours of the face are largely hidden. And yet the geisha also doesn't try to pretend that the thick white makeup is the same color and texture as her skin; on the contrary, she makes it clear that the makeup is artificial, leaving a thin layer of naked skin around her forehead.

The geisha's makeup is highly erotic, though the eroticism of the makeup could easily be lost on readers. Paradoxically, the whole point of thick, heavy makeup isn't to disguise the skin so much as it is to encourage the client to think about the skin underneath. Appearances are important to geishas, but not just as ends in themselves; rather, they're designed to communicate something about what lies beneath, either literally or metaphorically.

Chapter 8 Quotes

Two seasons have passed since you left Yoroido, and soon the trees will give birth to a new generation of blossoms. Flowers that grow where old ones have withered serve to remind us that death will one day come to us all.

Related Characters: Ichiro Tanaka (speaker), Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto
Page Number: 102
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Chiyo receives a message from Mr. Tanaka, the man who largely arranged for Chiyo and her sister to be sold into servitude. Tanaka tells Chiyo that her parents have died, and her sister has run off with a lover. Tanaka seems sympathetic to Chiyo's sadness for her family, and yet he's oblivious to the fact that he is responsible for much of Chiyo's sadness. He tries to paper over the issue by making an eloquent observation about the way that beauty replaces death and sadness, if given enough time.

One should take Tanaka's observations with a grain of salt, of course, but they're not entirely wrong (and he seems to be misguided more than malicious in his intentions). As we'll see, Chiyo finds the courage to move past tragedy by finding beauty in her otherwise sad life. Furthermore, Tanaka's observation conveys the kinship between beauty and death--the very sight of beauty is also a sign of death, and vice-versa. There is, one could argue, something sad about beauty itself--one of the central ideas of a novel about geishas.

The training of an apprentice geisha is an arduous path. However, this humble person is filled with admiration for those who are able to recast their suffering and become great artists…This humble person has been alive long enough to see two generations of children grow up, and knows how rare it is for ordinary birds to give birth to a swan. The swan who goes on living in its parents' tree will die; this is why those who are beautiful and talented bear the burden of finding their own way in the world.

Related Characters: Ichiro Tanaka (speaker), Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Mr. Tanaka, the man who caused Chiyo to be sold into slavery, continues to offer Chiyo some encouragement. He tells Chiyo that her parents have died, but urges her to move past the tragedy. It's easy for Mr. Tanaka to talk about "moving on"--it's not his parents. But Mr. Tanaka also makes a good point: Chiyo can't spend the rest of her life mourning for her parents. Like the swan of his metaphor, she must eventually move past the tragedy and find beauty on her own terms.

Tanaka's words symbolize the importance of optimism and beauty in fighting tragedy. Beauty can be an important force in fighting off the specter of sadness, but it's also a reminder of sadness itself: the more beautiful something or someone is, the more ephemeral and fragile it often is, and so the greater its potential for sadness. In short, Tanaka's words are inspiring and yet full of contradictions. Beauty helps people move past sadness, and yet it also reminds them of their own sadness.

Chapter 9 Quotes

So many things in my life had changed, even the way I looked; but when I unwrapped the moth from its funeral shroud, it was the same startlingly lovely creature as on the day I had entombed it…It struck me that we—that moth and I—were two opposite extremes. My existence was as unstable as a stream, changing in every way; but the moth was like a piece of stone, changing not at all. While thinking this thought, I reached out a finger to feel the moth's velvety surface; but when I brushed it with my fingertip, it turned all at once into a pile of ash….Now I understood the thing that had puzzled me all morning. The stale air had washed away. The past was gone. My mother and father were dead and I could do nothing to change it.

Related Characters: Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto (speaker), Minoru Sakamoto , Mrs. Sakamoto
Related Symbols: Water, Rivers, and Streams
Page Number: 107-108
Explanation and Analysis:

One year earlier (around the time she learned of her parents' deaths), Chiyo "buried" a tiny moth and hid it in the foundations of the okiya. A year later, she retrieves the dead moth and finds that it looks exactly the same. In a world in which everything seems to be changing, the dead moth is a symbol of stability and comfort for the young Chiyo. Chiyo has lost her parents, been sent to a new, difficult life, etc.--even the tiniest constant in her life makes her feel better.

The passage is one of the turning-points in the novel: the moment in which Chiyo seems to reach some acceptance with her parents' deaths, and begins to try making a name for herself on her own. Chiyo will not dwell in the past any longer; instead, she'll try to find fortune on her own terms.

Chapter 14 Quotes

It was as if the little girl named Chiyo, running barefoot from the pond to her tipsy house, no longer existed. I felt that this new girl, Sayuri, with her gleaming white face and her red lips, had destroyed her.

Related Characters: Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto (speaker)
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Chiyo becomes Sayuri--a transformation that symbolizes her growth into the role of geisha. Sayuri is a little uncomfortable with her new name: she recognizes, accurately, that by taking on a new name, she's turning her back on her old life and starting again.

The notion that choosing a new name could cause a spiritual transformation is consonant with the novel's view of appearances and outward beauty. Appearances are never arbitrary in the novel: when Chiyo takes on the name Sayuri, she changes her entire being, not just her name. By the same token, Sayuri begins to turn her back on her past: she's no longer fixated on her old life, and has even become a new person altogether--a geisha.

Chapter 15 Quotes

I was hardly worthy of these surroundings. And then I became aware of all the magnificent silk wrapped about my body, and had the feeling I might drown in beauty. At that moment, beauty itself struck me as a kind of painful melancholy.

Related Characters: Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto (speaker), Mameha , The Baron
Page Number: 187
Explanation and Analysis:

As Sayuri embarks on her career as a geisha, she finds it impossible to imagine herself even attaining much success: when she and Mameha entertain an important client like the Baron, who's seated next to her in the scene, she finds herself feeling insecure and childish. She's highly conscious of the layers of clothing and makeup adorning her body, and feels that she's never be able to live up to the standard of the other geishas.

For the time being, it's not so easy for Sayuri to adjust to her new life: she remembers her old life too vividly, and feels the contrast her current beauty and her previous sadness. This passage, then, makes another strong connection between beauty and suffering. Sayuri doesn't feel that she deserves all this beauty, and her self-doubts, a "kind of painful melancholy," return.

Chapter 17 Quotes

“I'm the one who picked it,” Mameha said. "The fortune-teller doesn't pick names; he only tells us if they're acceptable."
“One day, Mameha,” Nobu replied, “you'll grow up and stop listening to fools.”
“Now, now, Nobu-san,” said the Chairman, “anyone hearing you talk would think you're the most modern man in the nation. Yet I've never known anyone who believes more strongly in destiny than you do.”
“Every man has his destiny. But who needs to go to a fortuneteller to find it? Do I go to a chef to find out if I'm hungry?” Nobu said.

Related Characters: Toshikazu Nobu (speaker), Chairman Ken Iwamura (speaker), Mameha (speaker)
Page Number: 200
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sayuri spends time with Mameha and her clients, the Chairman and Nobu. Nobu is interested in how Sayuri chose a name for herself--tellingly, Mameha answers on her behalf, illustrating that Sayuki is still nervous around her future clients. Nobu rejects the idea that a fortune-teller is needed to choose a choose's name (a belief that was supposedly a popular part of Japanese culture at the time). Nobu implies that fortune-telling in general is an illusion--it has no real bearing on life. And yet the Chairman points out at Nobu, for all his exasperation with superstition and ritual, is just as superstitious as the average person: he believes in destiny.

What does the Chairman mean by "destiny?" Nobu seems to subscribe to the belief that everyone has a destiny, even if it's sometimes hard to see (a fortune teller who claims to be able to understand destiny is just a liar). Nobu's observations relate back to Sayuri's own: she feels that she has a destiny, although she sometimes struggles to understand it.

Chapter 25 Quotes

Since moving to New York I’ve learned what the word “geisha” really means to most Westerners. From time to time at elegant parties, I've been introduced to some young woman or other in a splendid dress and jewelry. When she learns I was once a geisha in Kyoto, she forms her mouth into a sort of smile, although the corners don’t turn up quite as they should… This woman is thinking, “My goodness. I'm talking with a prostitute.” A moment later she's rescued by her escort, a wealthy man a good thirty or forty years older than she is. Well, I often find myself wondering why she can't sense how much we really have in common. She is a kept woman, you see, and in my day, so was I.

Related Characters: Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto (speaker)
Page Number: 291
Explanation and Analysis:

Sayuri, returning to her present self as the narrator in New York, offers some thoughts on the relationship between geishas, prostitutes, and "kept women." Many Americans think that "geisha" is synonymous with prostitute. Sayuri, however, wishes she could correct these people: a geisha, she insists, isn't a prostitute, since she's trained to entertain men at a higher, more cultured level. Furthermore, geishas don't just have sex with their clients--the majority of their clients don't have any kind of romantic encounters with them, sexual or otherwise. A geisha is more like a "kept woman"--i.e., a Western woman who relies completely on her boyfriend or husband for money and housing.

The point here isn't that geishas are entirely different from prostitutes--as we've already seen, geishas do encounter sexual advances from their clients, and even initiate bidding wars about who gets to have sex with them (at least in the world of the novel). Geishas and prostitutes are both sexualized objects, passed between clients--even if geishas are more trained and cultured. The point of the passage, rather, is that Westerners hypocritically criticize geishas when there are plenty of women in their own culture who navigate their ways through upperclass society in much the same way as geishas, and never get any real criticism for doing so. The Western world hypocritically criticizes geishas for their vulgarity, when the West itself is full of women who play a similar part.

The only parties at which I managed to convince myself that my life might still have some purpose, however small, were the ones attended by military men…For several generations, army and navy officers had come to Gion to relax. But now they began to tell us, with watery eyes after their seventh or eighth cup of sake, that nothing kept their spirits up so much as their visits to Gion. Probably this was the sort of thing military officers say to the women they talk with. But the idea that I—who was nothing more than a young girl from the seashore—might truly be contributing something important to the nation…I won't pretend these parties did anything to lessen my suffering; but they did help remind me just how selfish my suffering really was.

Related Characters: Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto (speaker)
Page Number: 296
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sayuri thinks about her work as a geisha during the war. During the late 1930s, when Japan was locked in military conflict with China, Sayuri entertained many soldiers, giving them a sense of happiness and optimism when they needed it most.

The passage shows Sayuri becoming more mature and channeling her maturity into her profession. Sayuri has become so used to being a geisha that she lives in an isolated world, mostly separate from the war and society at large. But now she feels like she can bring some happiness to those who need it, and in doing so serve her country in some small way. She's begun to take pride in her work, and notes with hope that she may have improved the lives of noble Japanese soldiers. In this, Sayuri also gains new perspective on her own selfish desire to be with the Chairman: there's more to her life, she realizes, than finding the right mate.

Chapter 28 Quotes

“Sayuri,” he said to me, “I don't know when we will see each other again or what the world will be like when we do. We may both have seen many horrible things. But I will think of you every time I need to be reminded that there is beauty and goodness in the world.”

Related Characters: Toshikazu Nobu (speaker), Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto
Page Number: 343
Explanation and Analysis:

As the war gets more dangerous, Nobu and Sayuri are both thrust into dangerous positions. Here, Nobu says good bye to Sayuri, thanking her for showing him beauty and happiness. Nobu seems to genuinely love Sayuri: he's stuck his neck out for her many times, saving her from a career in the factories (a fate that killed some of Sayuri's geisha friends). Nobu's love for Sayuri seems to contrast with the Chairman's behavior toward Sayuri--Sayuri loves the Chairman, but it's not really clear that the feeling is mutual.

Nobu's love for Sayuri also seems pure and deep: he doesn't think of her as an object for his gratification, but rather a woman who's shown him how to be happy. It's implied that Nobu's memories of Sayuri will bring him joy during the dark days of the future, when he's locked in the middle of a war.

Chapter 29 Quotes

Because I’d lived through adversity once before, what I learned about myself was like a reminder of something I'd once known but had nearly forgotten –namely, that beneath the elegant clothing, and the accomplished dancing, and the clever conversation, my life had no complexity at all, but was as simple as a stone falling toward the ground.

Related Characters: Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto (speaker)
Page Number: 348
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sayuri becomes filled with despair. she's separated from the Chairman, the love of her life, and becomes sure that she'll never see him again. Sayuri takes no more pleasure in her work--gone are the days when she felt proud of herself for bringing joy to a group of soldiers--and thinks of her life as a dull, miserable fall.

Sayuri's chosen metaphor is interesting because it conveys a sense of inevitability: a stone falling toward the ground has no control over its movement; it just obeys the laws of gravity. The metaphor is even more fatalistic than Sayuri's previous nature metaphor of choice--water (water, at least, can flow in different directions as it moves down the stream, as Nobu pointed out--a falling stone moves in one direction, and one direction only). The metaphor reflects the fact that Sayuri has become deeply depressed due to her circumstances.