The Tale of Genji

The Tale of Genji Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Shikibu Murasaki's The Tale of Genji. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Shikibu Murasaki

Raised by a respected scholar of poetry and Chinese classics, Murasaki Shikibu had an extremely unconventional upbringing. Though women at the time were forbidden from learning Chinese, Murasaki did—and proved an adept student. What’s more, rather than remain with her mother and marry as a teen, Murasaki accompanied her father when he went to Echizen Province as a governor and didn't marry until 998 at age 25. She had one daughter before her husband's death two years later. Murasaki began writing The Tale of Genji around the time of her husband's death and continued to write chapters after she was sent to serve as a lady in waiting at the Empress Shōshi's court. There, she served until at least 1014 and possibly until 1025; the exact year of her death is unknown. During her time at court, she covertly taught the Empress Chinese writing, which, according to her diary entries and those of several female contemporaries, was considered extremely scandalous. Edward Seidensticker embarked upon translating Murasaki's work in the 1970s with the goal of condensing Arthur Waley's six-volume translation of Genji. An American, Seidensticker had learned Japanese during World War II and spent several decades after the war living in Japan. He's known for translating a number of seminal Japanese novels and his translations of modern Japanese works helped him earn the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968. He died in 2007.
Get the entire The Tale of Genji LitChart as a printable PDF.
The tale of genji.pdf.medium

Historical Context of The Tale of Genji

The Heian period in Japan spanned from 794-1185 BCE and is considered the last division of classical Japanese history. It encompasses the height of the Japanese imperial court, which Genji describes in detail, and is also known for female authors' literary and poetic works. The Fujiwara clan held much of the power at court; most emperors' mothers were from the Fujiwara family and Murasaki Shikibu herself was a part of the family, as well as women in the novel such as Kokiden. Life at court was extremely far removed from the lives that lower-class Japanese people led. Adult women spent much of their lives hidden behind screens and blinds (though men could, in most cases, come behind screens as they saw fit) and wore layered robes with flowing sleeves. Their sleeves became a courting device, as it's often the first glimpse a man would get of a woman. Women's hair was also grown out as long as it could go. Individuals at court were expected to compose poetry for all manner of occasions and to communicate with each other. It was also considered rude to refer to people by name; men were often referred to by rank, while women were known for colors they commonly wore or their relationships to men. This, coupled with the extremely complex grammatical structure of Heian period Japanese, means that the original text was nearly unreadable even just 100 years after it was written; people have been reading translations since the twelfth century.

Other Books Related to The Tale of Genji

In addition to The Tale of Genji, Murasaki is also known for a volume of poetry (Poetic Memoirs) and copies of parts of her diary have also survived (The Diary of Lady Murasaki). In 1920, Kochi Doi and Annie Shepley Omori published a combined translation of Murasaki's diary and those of two other female poets in Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan. Though it's uncertain whether Murasaki was in direct contact with other contemporary writers, she disparages several female writers in her diary including Sei Shōnagon (The Pillow Book) and the poet Izumi Shikibu. Because of the focus on court intrigue, romance, and politics, Genji shares a number of broad similarities with books as varied as George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, novels such as Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and Shakespeare's political plays such as Henry V and Richard III. The Tale of Genji is commonly taught in Japanese schools in much the same way that Beowulf or Shakespeare plays are taught in schools in the west.
Key Facts about The Tale of Genji
  • Full Title: The Tale of Genji
  • When Written: 1000-1012 BCE
  • Where Written: The Heian-kyō imperial court
  • When Published: The original was published as 54 individual chapters as they were written. The English translation used in this LitChart was published in 1976.
  • Literary Period: Classical Japanese (Heian)
  • Genre: Tskuri-Monogatari (a Japanese genre that describes extended prose narratives that deal specifically with court intrigue and romance)
  • Setting: Heian, Japan (now Kyoto), approximately 900-940 BCE
  • Climax: Genji returns to court from exile
  • Antagonist: Minister of the Right and Kokiden
  • Point of View: Third person omniscient

Extra Credit for The Tale of Genji

The Longest Hair. Heian women were expected to grow their hair out at least to the floor. One woman reportedly took this requirement to the extreme—her hair was seven meters long!

But Who Is She? Nobody knows who exactly Murasaki Shikibu was; the name she's known by now isn't her real name and instead, likely references her father and colors she commonly wore. This mystery has also led to questions of authorship, as some historians believe she only wrote some of the 54 total chapters in Genji. However, all of this is extremely difficult to prove one way or another given that the original text didn't survive and her readership often copied the original chapters to read, which may account for some of the syntax differences.