The Tale of Genji

The Tale of Genji A Picture Contest Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Fujitsubo desperately wants Akikonomu to come to court. Genji has decided to not bring Akikonomu to his own house as to not anger Suzaku, but he knows Suzaku is still upset. Suzaku sends gifts for Akikonomu to commemorate coming to court, and Genji feels as though they're ostentatious mostly to put Genji off. Genji feels extremely guilty for depriving Suzaku of his love interest and encourages Akikonomu to write to Suzaku. She tries to refuse but finally writes him a short poem and doesn't let Genji see it. Genji feels as though it's true that Suzaku and Akikonomu would've been a perfect couple, but it's too late now.
Because Genji has chosen to not pursue Akikonomu romantically, she shows here that she has marginally more power to stand up to him when she refuses to let him see her letter to Suzaku. Again, this indicates that the only way that women can gain power through their relationships with men is by removing themselves from the culture or the relationships themselves in some way.
Themes
Women, Sex, and Power Theme Icon
Genji helps install Akikonomu at court and feels the Rokujō Lady would be proud. Fujitsubo tells Reizei about the new lady. Reizei fears that because she's older than he is she'll be hard to talk to, but he finds he likes her nevertheless. Reizei begins splitting his time between Akikonomu and the Kokiden girl, whom he loves to play with. This worries Tō no Chūjō. Reizei begins spending more time with Akikonomu when he learns she's an artist; he loves paintings more than anything.
The way that the adults and the narrator describe Reizei in particular makes it very obvious that he's an easily manipulated child first and foremost, as his affections are easily won at this point. This turns what happens next into a chess game of sorts between adults, in which children are the pieces.
Themes
The Parent-Child Relationship Theme Icon
Catching on, Tō no Chūjō commissions painters to illustrate classic stories and installs the paintings in the Kokiden girl's apartments. Reizei loves them but is sad when Tō no Chūjō won't let Akikonomu look at the paintings. Genji ransacks his art collection and sends Reizei a number of paintings to do with what he pleases. He also pulls out his sketchbooks and journals from exile to show to Murasaki. They move her to tears with their beauty.
Now that both Genji and Tō no Chūjō are fathers (or are acting as fathers), their rivalry returns. Now, however, it's far more consequential, as there are actually major gains to be had by having their daughter earn Reizei's affections.
Themes
Heian Court Culture Theme Icon
The Parent-Child Relationship Theme Icon
Nature, Poetry, and Beauty Theme Icon
Tō no Chūjō decides to offer his art collection for royal review. By now, the palace is filled with the Kokiden girl and Akikonomu's favorite art. Their two styles are very different. Fujitsubo, a great art lover herself, decides that the court ladies should split into two sides and engage in a contest of art critique. Akikonomu's side enters an illustration from the tale The Bamboo Cutter, while the Kokiden girl's side presents one from The Tale of the Hollow Tree. The ladies discuss both pieces in terms of how they represent their stories and the painting styles. The Kokiden girl's side wins. The next two entries engage the women in endless debate.
This organized competition between women is a powerful way for the novel to explore how female rivalry functions within the novel, especially since the prize for winning this contest is the affection of one of the most powerful men at court. Fujitsubo's role in organizing the competition illustrates how women perpetuate this system and make sure that it persists, even if it doesn't actually serve them.
Themes
Heian Court Culture Theme Icon
Women, Sex, and Power Theme Icon
Nature, Poetry, and Beauty Theme Icon
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Genji notices the contest and suggests that Reizei should be present for the final judgments. The narrator notes that by now, the most important business at court is collecting fine art and presenting it to one's favored side. Genji makes veiled jabs at Tō no Chūjō's secret studio, suggesting they should only offer paintings that have been in their collections for a long time. Suzaku gives some paintings to Akikonomu, some of which he painted himself. Suzaku and Akikonomu exchange notes and Akikonomu refuses Suzaku's advances, which angers him. He begins giving paintings to the Kokiden girl.
When Suzaku switches sides, it's important to keep in mind that he's actually reaffirming his loyalty to his birth family as much as he's attempting to punish Akikonomu for standing up to him. The fact that Akikonomu is punished at all for this again shows that women simply can't win in this system: even if she wins the competition, she's still lost the support of an important man because she refused his advances.
Themes
Women, Sex, and Power Theme Icon
The Parent-Child Relationship Theme Icon
Finally, the final contest is arranged. The ladies' chambers are elegantly decked out and Tō no Chūjō, Genji, and other courtiers attend. Reizei asks Prince Hotaru, his uncle, to act as umpire. The debate is lively and by evening, Hotaru still hasn't reached a decision. Finally, Akikonomu's side brings out one of Genji's paintings from Suma. The painting that the Kokiden girl's side offers simply can’t compete. The courtiers fall silent admiring the work and thinking of Genji in exile. Akikonomu's side wins.
Genji's win here again conflates Genji himself with the perfection of nature, as his paintings of the natural world are beautiful enough to win this competition with no questions asked. Again, this shows that Genji himself is more exceptional than anyone else and importantly, is able to remain that way even after exile—but only because he embraced the natural world while he was exiled.
Themes
Heian Court Culture Theme Icon
Nature, Poetry, and Beauty Theme Icon
Before daybreak, Genji becomes melancholy. He says that as a child, he excelled in painting without having to practice much. Prince Hotaru admits that in most cases masters must make a concentrated effort to get better at their craft, but that's not true for art. He cries drunkenly that the Emperor doted on Genji, and they ask for instruments. Hotaru, Genji, and Tō no Chūjō play until morning.
Even though the competition wasn't necessarily about men, this drunken conversation and concert brings the narrative back to focus on the male characters over the female ones, reminding the reader that these men are the true heroes in the story while the female characters are merely tools.
Themes
Women, Sex, and Power Theme Icon
The court turns to examining Genji's journals and Genji gives his paintings to Fujitsubo, promising to one day tell her everything. Tō no Chūjō hopes that Reizei won't forget the Kokiden girl after her loss in the art contest. Genji is thrilled to have things going his way, so he begins to make plans to withdraw from public affairs when Reizei is a little older. He purchases land in the mountains, sets up a chapel, and dedicates his time to educating his children.
When Genji makes plans to spend his later years away from court and specifically, in nature, it again reinforces his exceptionalism: because of his children's positions at court, Genji can afford to leave and surround himself with nature. While this might damage someone else's reputation, Genji's exceptionalism means he'll be just fine.
Themes
Heian Court Culture Theme Icon
The Parent-Child Relationship Theme Icon
Nature, Poetry, and Beauty Theme Icon