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.
Beauty, Artifice, and Truth ThemeTracker
Beauty, Artifice, and Truth Quotes in Memoirs of a Geisha
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.