From the daily interactions with male clients to the ceremony of losing her virginity, tradition and ritual govern almost every facet of the geisha’s life. Throughout the novel, Sayuri must navigate the social terrain of these customs, learning when to abide by tradition and when to flout it. Sayuri enters the geisha world as a complete novice who is unfamiliar with how an apprentice geisha must act or speak to those around her. By focusing on a character who is completely ignorant of geisha practices, the novel is able to more thoroughly explore and represent them—because the protagonist (like the average Western reader) must learn them for the first time as well. Over time, Sayuri learns to master these traditions, becoming the most successful geisha in Kyoto.
For Sayuri, as well as most geisha in the novel, tradition rarely seems to have value in itself. Instead, Sayuri and the other geisha use tradition as a means to an end—by perfectly embodying these traditions, Sayuri can live up to the expectations of her clients and, in doing so, achieve a modicum of financial security. This practical use of tradition suggests that geisha, at some level, know that the established practices of their profession are oppressive towards women. This is made most obvious in the fact that it is traditional for a teenaged geisha-in-training to lose her virginity to the man who pays the most to sleep with her. Yet it is also evident on a more day-to-day level, in that traditional geisha are forced to conform to the fantasies of their male clientele, who want the women to remain beautiful objects or playthings for their amusement, rather than nuanced and complicated human beings with their own desires and dreams. Thus the geisha only adopt these traditions as a way of succeeding in a society that allows them few other paths for autonomy.
These practices, moreover, become a constrictive force for Sayuri. Though she only learned the traditions in order to make use of them, she begins to rely on them so much that she forgets how to break the rules when necessary. For example, the social norms that prevent geisha from expressing themselves make her feel incapable of voicing her affection for the Chairman. Thus, by the end of the novel, Sayuri must, in a sense, relearn her childhood disregard of the rules. She does so when she neglects the traditions of the geisha by sleeping with a man who is not her danna, thereby betraying her loyal client Nobu. This “transgression” allows Sayuri to break free of the oppressive norms that privilege a client’s desires as more important than a geisha’s. In this way, the novel ends with Sayuri fulfilling her own desire—rather than a client’s—by becoming the geisha of the Chairman, the man she loves.
Tradition, Ritual, and Gender ThemeTracker
Tradition, Ritual, and Gender Quotes in Memoirs of a Geisha
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.