Memoirs of a Geisha

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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Memoirs of a Geisha, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

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…

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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…

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Memoirs of a Geisha belongs to the literary genre of the bildungsroman, or coming-of-age. Novels in this genre portray the psychological development of the protagonist as he or she grows from a youth into an adult. Memoirs follows this trajectory as it illustrates Chiyo Sakamoto’s transformation from the daughter of a poor fisherman into the renowned Kyoto geisha, Sayuri Nitta. At the beginning of the novel, young Chiyo lives in an obscure Japanese fishing…

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The events of Memoirs of a Geisha occur during a time in Japan when geisha played an integral part in social life. In the West, “geisha” is basically synonymous with “prostitute.” However, in actuality, a geisha was an elite entertainer who mastered the arts of singing, dancing, playing instruments, and telling stories. Though a geisha might flirt with the men she entertains, the clients must satisfy themselves with the illusion of sex rather than the…

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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…

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