Throughout the novel, the protagonist Sayuri Nitta describes herself as a river, a metaphor that captures the dueling forces of destiny and self-determination in her life. At times, Sayuri is like a river guided by external forces, unable to control the direction her life takes. For example, when Sayuri was a child, her father sold her and her sister Satsu to an okiya (a geisha boarding house). While Satsu takes control of her fate by running away and starting a life with the boy she loves, Sayuri passively accepts her dismal circumstances and learns the arts of being a geisha. Though Arthur Golden rarely investigates sexism or gender roles in Japanese society in the novel, Sayuri’s passivity must also be understood through the lens of the sexist conditions in Japan during the 1930s. With few opportunities for women who did not come from wealthy families, Sayuri believes that becoming a geisha is better than her other two options: becoming a maid or a prostitute. Sayuri remarks, “We don’t become geisha because we want our lives to be happy; we become geisha because we have no choice.” Believing that she is unable to make a better life for herself, Sayuri resigns herself to becoming a geisha. In this way, she is a passive object tossed about by the wills of other people rather than an active agent determining her own life. She is like a river guided by the banks around her.
In contrast, Sayuri’s friend and client Nobu thinks of destiny and self-determination as the same thing. Nobu recognizes that Sayuri’s conception of destiny is simply an excuse for her passivity. He chides Sayuri for sleeping with any man, no matter how boorish or vile, who is willing to become her patron. To Nobu’s disgust, Sayuri shirks responsibility over these matters by saying that she must follow the path set out for a geisha. In response, Nobu explains that destiny is not a set of predetermined events that will happen to an individual, but instead a personal purpose or meaning towards which we strive. Thus, Nobu encourages Sayuri to recognize that although a river cannot pick its direction, water moves freely within the river, determining for itself where inside the river it will flow. In this way, Nobu suggests that Sayuri still has the freedom to actively move closer to fulfilling her personal destiny.
In an act of tragic irony, Sayuri takes Nobu’s advice about self-determination when she decides to betray him. Nobu tells Sayuri that he wants to be her patron, but Sayuri loves his best friend and business partner, Chairman Ken Iwamura. In the world of the geisha, two business partners would never compete over the same geisha, so Sayuri knows that if Nobu shows interest in her, then the Chairman will never be free to pursue her. As a result, Sayuri purposefully sleeps with a man Nobu despises in order diminish his interest in her, leaving her available for a relationship with the Chairman. Through this act, Sayuri asserts her identity not as a passive plaything of powerful men, but instead as a woman in charge of her own destiny. As readers, however, we should also be critical of how Golden, a male author, portrays this woman’s destiny as revolving entirely around a man she loves rather than around her own autonomy, freedom from being a geisha, or personal self-actualization.
Destiny vs. Self-Determination ThemeTracker
Destiny vs. Self-Determination Quotes in Memoirs of a Geisha
Suppose that you and I were sitting in a quiet room overlooking a garden, chatting and sipping at our cups of green tea while we talked about something that had happened a long while ago, and I said to you, “That afternoon when I met so-and-so…was the very best afternoon of my life, and also the very worst afternoon.”
Water flows from place to place quickly and always finds a crack to spill through. Wood, on the other hand, holds fast to the earth.
“I’ve found a place to spend my life. I'll work as hard as I have to so they don't send me away. But I'd sooner throw myself off a cliff than spoil my chances to be a geisha like Hatsumomo.”
Auntie took Hatsumomo by the arms and held her from behind, while Mother began to pull open the seams of Hatsumomo's kimono at the thigh. I thought Hatsumomo would resist, but she didn't. She looked at me with cold eyes as Mother gathered up the koshimaki and pushed her knees apart. Then Mother reached up between her legs, and when her hand came out again her fingertips were wet. She rubbed her thumb and fingers together for a time, and then smelled them. After this she drew back her hand and slapped Hatsumomo across the face, leaving a streak of moisture.
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.
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.
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.
But how can I describe what I saw in that instant? He was looking at me as a musician might look at his instrument just before he begins to play, with understanding and mastery. I felt that he could see into me as though I were a part of him. How I would have loved to be the instrument he played!
“Those of us with water in our personalities don't pick where we'll flow to. All we can do is flow where the landscape of our lives carries us.”
“When I say successful, I mean a geisha who has earned her independence. Until a geisha has assembled her own collection of kimono – or until she's been adopted as the daughter of an okiya, which is just about the same thing –she'll be in someone else's power all her life.”
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.
“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.
I would gladly have exchanged the robe the Baron was offering me for some way out of the situation. But he was a man with so much authority that even Mameha couldn't disobey him. If she had no way of refusing his wishes, how could I?... I suppose I finally came to the conclusion that I had no choice but to obey him and pay the consequences, whatever they might be. I lowered my eyes to the mats in shame; and in this same dreamlike state I'd been feeling all along, I became aware of the Baron taking my hand and guiding me through the corridors toward the back of his house.
“You geisha! There was never a more irritating group of people. You go around consulting your almanacs, saying, ‘Oh, I can't walk toward the east today, because my horoscope says it's unlucky!’ But then when it's a matter of something affecting your entire lives, you simply look the other way.”
“I wish I could believe life really is something more than a stream that carries us along, belly-up.”
“All right, if it's a stream, you're still free to be in this part of it or that part, aren't you? The water will divide again and again. If you bump, and tussle, and fight, and make use of whatever advantages you might have…”
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.
In the instant before that door opened, I could almost sense my life expanding just like a river whose waters have begun to swell; for I had never before taken such a drastic step to change the course of my own future. I was like a child tiptoeing along a precipice overlooking the sea. And yet somehow I hadn't imagined a great wave might come and strike me there, and wash everything away.