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 act itself. After all, if a man simply wanted sex, then he could visit one of the many legal brothels in the city. Instead of trading in sex, the geisha trades in the illusion of love, giving men the psychological gratification of feeling as though these beautiful geisha desire their company.
But this is not to say that sex plays no part in a geisha’s life. Wealthy men bid to take an apprentice geisha’s virginity, while more experienced geisha seek to establish an exclusive relationship with a danna, the Japanese word for patrons who provided for the geisha in exchange for sex. Most geisha in the novel see their patrons as privileged clients rather than romantic partners, and so sex itself becomes a currency rather than an emotional connection or even a pleasurable experience for the geisha. It is notable however, that the real-life geisha Mineko Iwasaki—whom Golden interviewed for the novel—has since refuted Golden’s sexualized portrayal of geisha culture, and wrote her own autobiography in response.
In the novel’s world—where love is only an illusion that conceals the true economic relationship between geisha and danna, most geisha believe that love is not possible for them. Sayuri, however, is the exception. After the Chairman bestowed an act of kindness on her when she was only a teenager, Sayuri began to yearn for him, working her entire life to be a good enough geisha so that he would want to be her danna. Even after Sayuri’s mentor Mameha tells her to give up her illusions of love—since all a geisha can ever hope for is to have a wealthy danna who isn’t cruel—Sayuri’s belief in the possibility for love remains resolute. Though it might seem overly sentimental, this conviction, in addition to her growing willingness to define her own path in life, ultimately leads her to a loving relationship with the Chairman by the book’s end.
Sex and Love ThemeTracker
Sex and Love 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.
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.
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!
“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.”
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.
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.
And so you can imagine that this kiss, the first real one of my life, seemed to me more intimate than anything I'd ever experienced. I had the feeling I was taking something from the Chairman, and that he was giving something to me, something more private than anyone had ever given me before.