The Tale of Genji

The Tale of Genji Lavender Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Genji starts to suffer from repeated malaria attacks in the spring. None of the religious services help at all, but he hears about a sage in the northern hills who is an accomplished healer. Because the sage refuses to come to Genji, Genji decides to go to him. He takes only a few attendants and on the way they all admire the mountain cherry blossoms, which bloom later than those in the city. Though Genji doesn't reveal his identity, the sage knows immediately that Genji is very important. He prepares medicines and performs incantations as Genji looks down a path to a house that's nicer than those around it.
When people like the sage and the priests at the temple in the last chapter can tell that Genji is important and special without even knowing who he is, it again shows that there's something about him that signifies his exceptionalism. When the narration makes a note of the cherry blossoms, it suggests that Genji is experiencing a period of rebirth after the death of the Lady of the Evening Faces: the blossoms are a symbol of spring and of new life.
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The sage explains that a bishop lives there. Genji believes he's not dressed well enough to call on the bishop, so he insists that his presence be kept a secret. The sage also mentions that the bishop has a woman living with him, though her identity and relationship to him are a mystery. Genji sends his attendants to investigate and they return with news that there are several women of varying ages and children living there as well.
Genji's insistence that he's not dressed well enough to see the bishop begins to paint a picture of what proper courtly behavior looks like and, more specifically, it shows that what one wears is extremely important. In turn, this also offers a clue as to how low-level the sage is, as Genji's dress is presumably fine to be around him.
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Genji suffers another malaria attack, so the sage tells him he needs to think of other things. His attendants follow him up the mountain to admire the landscape and tell him stories of mountains and the Akashi coast, where a former governor lives with his wife and daughter. The daughter (the Akashi Lady) is, according to the attendants, pretty and pleasant and her father apparently has grand plans for her. They joke about Genji's affinity for interesting women and he quite enjoys the diversion.
The way that Genji's attendants joke with him about this woman (who is the Akashi Lady) suggests that it's no secret that Genji has relationships with a number of women at one time and is always looking to add to his string of lovers. This also offers the possibility that his attempts to hide his lovers aren't particularly successful.
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The sage asks that Genji stay the night as he believes Genji has been possessed by a hostile power. That evening, Genji and Koremitsu go back down to the bishop's house. They stand at the fence and watch a nun struggling to read, flanked on either side by beautiful young women. Children run through and Genji takes notices of one crying girl who he can tell will be a great beauty when she grows up. The girl (Murasaki) sobs that one of her playmates let her baby sparrows loose. Her nurse, Shōnagon, comforts her, but the nun insists it's a sin to cage a bird. As Genji watches, he realizes that the young girl resembles Fujitsubo. He nearly cries.
Though the novel never says in so many words, the nun acts as Murasaki's grandmother. Murasaki's escaped baby sparrows act as a symbol for her, as Genji quickly decides he needs to take the child for his own; this symbolism and the fact that he goes on to do just that shows that Genji isn't particularly interested in reading signs like this when they have to do with women he wants.
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The nun calls Murasaki to her and wonders what will happen to the girl, as she's immature for her age. The girl's mother apparently died, and the nun and Shōnagon exchange poems hoping that the "tender grasses" will be properly nurtured. The bishop interrupts and tells the women that Genji is around. The nun lowers the blinds. Genji is thrilled with his discovery of Murasaki. He begins to make plans to somehow take the child to the palace.
Remember that characters earlier have worried about how women will fare in life without powerful female relatives; this plays out here with Murasaki, and shows that even women who aren't yet at court must worry about how they appear to the outside world in terms of connections and relationships.
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That night, as Genji sleeps, a messenger comes for Koremitsu and begs him to have Genji visit the bishop's house. The bishop himself also comes to ask Genji to visit and finally, Genji agrees. He finds the simple house and garden very charming. The bishop talks at length about his spiritual wellbeing. Finally, Genji seizes his chance to ask about Murasaki. He learns that the bishop is her uncle and her father is Prince Hyōbu, which explains her resemblance to Fujitsubo—Prince Hyōbu is Fujitsubo’s brother. Genji admits it's a strange and forward request but asks to take responsibility for Murasaki. He notes that his motives aren't improper. The bishop insists that Murasaki is too young, says the matter must be taken up with the nun, and frostily excuses himself to pray.
From what the reader knows of Genji thus far, it's fairly clear that Genji is lying and his motives for wanting Murasaki are absolutely improper. Again, this continues to show that Genji is suffering major damage from the loss of his mother and is attempting to fill her place with women who look like her, even if that connection is no longer the one in the forefront of his mind (he's more interested in the fact that she looks like Fujitsubo).
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Feeling unwell, Genji watches a spring shower pass overhead and listens to the bishop's intonations. He can hear the women in the house's inner rooms and behind screens. He pushes aside a panel a few inches and rustles his fan, which arouses the curiosity of two women. He asks them to pass a poem onto the nun about being enchanted by "the fresh young grasses." They obey, and the nun finds his note shocking. She believes that Genji thinks Murasaki is much older than ten and responds with a poem rebuking him. They pass several more poems and finally, the nun agrees to speak to Genji in person.
The spring shower here symbolizes Genji's sadness that he cannot have Murasaki outright; again, this shows how the natural world can be used as a metaphor to help the characters make sense of their emotions and given situations. This is the same thing they're doing when they exchange poems about the "fresh young grasses"—which refer to Murasaki and allow Genji to talk about her in a way that's more appropriate for court culture.
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Genji finds the nun intimidating but says that he feels a kinship with Murasaki, having lost his own mother very young, and that he wishes to adopt her. The nun assures him that she's too young and uneducated. Though Genji argues, the nun finds the whole thing outrageous. At dawn, Genji sends a poem to the bishop revealing how upset he is that the bishop won't hand over Murasaki, but the bishop's poem in reply says that he and his house are happy and firm in their decision. In the morning, Genji receives a summons from the Emperor and eats breakfast with the bishop. He promises in parting to send his friends up the mountain to see the mountain cherry blossoms. He, the sage, and the bishop exchange parting gifts.
The nun's argument that Murasaki is too uneducated for Genji begins to offer insight into how, exactly, ladies do need to be trained if they wish to go to court; this suggests that the ability to write and behave like a proper lady are extremely important. This also suggests that if Genji is able to bring Murasaki to court, she may be treated much like the Lady of the Paulownia Court was because of her lack of education and the fact that she wasn't raised from infancy to excel at palace life.
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The bishop and the nun discuss Genji's proposal and decide that if he's still interested in five years, they can consider it then. They exchange poems with Genji, who then prepares to leave. He's interrupted, however, when a group from the Minister of the Left's house, including Tō no Chūjō, arrives. They decide to stay and enjoy the cherry blossoms. They drink wine, play music, and sing. The bishop even talks Genji into playing the koto. This impresses all the priests and nuns and, importantly, Murasaki. She deems him handsomer than her father, and the bishop suggests she be his little girl. Murasaki begins naming the handsomest male dolls and pictures "Genji."
When the bishop and the nun take it upon themselves to turn Genji away so strongly and make sure that Murasaki is allowed to grow up before becoming a lover, it suggests that Genji may have had to grow up faster because he didn't have parent figures like that to care for him. It's worth considering that his father the Emperor is surely very busy, and though he may have dedicated time to dealing with Genji, Genji was still married to Aoi at about age twelve.
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Immediately upon reaching the palace, Genji looks in on the Emperor. The Emperor vows to promote the sage for his good work. The Minister of the Left is in attendance and convinces Genji to recover from his journey at the Sanjō mansion with Aoi. Genji unenthusiastically agrees. Aoi is stiff and remote per usual and has to be coaxed into coming down to see her husband. He says that it'd be nice if she acted more wifely, but Aoi implies that her behavior is to punish Genji for never visiting. Genji finds this very offensive and leaves for the bedroom in a huff.
Genji's reluctant visit to Aoi shows that he does have a sense of needing to maintain the appearance of being a loving husband who is intimate with his wife. Aoi's ability to reprimand Genji, apparently with few or no consequences, suggests that within her marriage, she's actually quite powerful. When placed alongside Kokiden (who it’s suggested is married to the Emperor), this suggests that married ladies have much more power than their unmarried peers.
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Genji lies in bed and thinks of Murasaki. He recognizes that she's too young for him now, but he wonders if there's some way to bring her to the palace anyway. The next day, he writes to the nun. He attempts to impress upon her that his request is serious, and includes a tightly folded note for Murasaki. It says that the "mountain blossoms" are still with him and he's still with the blossoms. The nun writes back that Murasaki can't write properly yet and implies that Genji's interest is a passing fancy. The bishop writes a similar reply to Genji.
Genji's unwillingness to drop the issue suggests that because he's so exceptional and knows it, he may be unused to not getting his way. This shows how court life can turn individuals like Genji into especially entitled men, particularly since he is wholly unwilling to respect the bishop and the nun's attempts to act as Murasaki's parents and keep her safe.
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Genji sends Koremitsu up the mountain to speak with Shōnagon. Koremitsu explains how serious Genji is, but the nun and the bishop continue to think his interest will be fleeting. Genji sends another note for Murasaki with Koremitsu, asking to see her calligraphy exercises. The nun replies insinuating that Genji is shallow, but Shōnagon tells Koremitsu that they can speak again when they return to the city.
The fact that Shōnagon appears more willing to entertain Genji's request suggests that she understands that if Genji were to follow through, Murasaki may be able to rise far higher in the court ranks than if she didn't have someone as powerful interested in her.
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Fujitsubo falls ill and goes home to spend time with her family. Genji feels bad momentarily for the Emperor, but he soon starts planning how he can see Fujitsubo. He spends his days alone and, in the evenings, asks her maid Omyōbu to pass notes and arrange a meeting. Miraculously, Omyōbu is able to arrange one. Fujitsubo is very upset and tries hard to turn Genji away, but this only makes him want her more. He forces her to have sex and in the morning he cries at the thought of having to leave her. This makes her feel sorry for him. Genji spends a day in bed, crying and terrified the Emperor might find out.
Here, Omyōbu's willingness to arrange the meeting regardless of Fujitsubo's wishes mirrors Shōnagon's willingness to talk with Genji despite the nun and the bishop's wishes; this shows that even though Shōnagon and Omyōbu are just serving women, they actually have a great deal of power over which men their charges see. This is likely because as their ladies rise in rank due to these relationships, so do they.
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Fujitsubo gets sicker and sicker. After three months, it becomes clear that she's pregnant. Her attendants find her unwillingness to inform the Emperor strange. Omyōbu allows the Emperor to believe that a spirit is possessing Fujitsubo, but this leads the Emperor to send constant messengers, which make Fujitsubo feel even worse. Genji begins having bad dreams that he consults a soothsayer about, and the soothsayer suggests he keep it to himself. Several months later, Fujitsubo returns to court. The Emperor is overjoyed at her pregnancy and keeps her and Genji close to him. This is torture for Fujitsubo, who just wants to forget the night she spent with Genji.
Fujitsubo's reaction to being raped and becoming pregnant suggests that even if Genji got his way, he did actually transgress important boundaries when he did so. In particular, her fear can be attributed to the fact that she relies wholly on the Emperor's attentions to maintain her position as his favorite at court, something that would be jeopardized were he to find out that the baby is Genji's. This also underscores that while women can hold power in this world, they are still ultimately at the mercy of men; Genji’s transgression becomes her own.
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When Genji learns that the nun is now living in the city, he begins to write her more often. She continues to deny him custody of Murasaki but Genji doesn't worry; he's too caught up in worrying about how things are going with the Rokujō lady. As he prepares to visit the lady one night, Genji is sidetracked when Koremitsu points out the nun's house and explains that she's become very ill. Genji decides to stop in and check in with her. He's a little put off by how dark and gloomy the house is. The nun sends a note out saying that she hopes Genji will still care about Murasaki when she's no longer a child.
The novel's unwillingness to say outright what's going on with the Rokujō Lady is likely a symptom of being translated and condensed, though others believe that some of these earlier chapters were actually written out of order or by someone else entirely. Regardless, note that Genji is passing over the Rokujō Lady to spend time with others. This continues to build up a history of neglect in his relationship with the lady.
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Genji reminds the nun that he's entirely serious about taking custody of Murasaki, insisting that their relationship is so strong, it must have begun in a different world. He asks to speak to Murasaki, but the nun, through a note, says Murasaki is asleep. Just then, however, Genji hears Murasaki run to the nun and encourage the latter to go talk to Genji herself rather than send notes. Genji finds this very amusing but pretends not to hear. He decides he'll be her teacher as she grows.
Murasaki's behavior here makes it very clear that she's very much a child without a complete understanding of how the world works and specifically, of what Genji wants from her. This helps to cast her as a victim of predatory behavior even more obviously.
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The next day, Genji sends a note asking after the nun and includes a note for Murasaki, written in a childish hand. Murasaki is meant to copy it and send her copy back. Shōnagon answers that the nun is so ill, they're sending her to the mountains and they believe she'll die there. Genji spends his evening longing for Murasaki, though he fears that if he were to bring her to the palace, he'd be disappointed. He composes a poem referring to Murasaki as the lavender he'd like to bring in from the moor.
Lavender is used as a symbol of affection or love; by referring to Murasaki as a lavender plant, Genji is able to voice his "love" for her in a culturally appropriate way. The rest of his poem about specifically bringing her in from the moor suggests he views her as something wild to be caught and tamed, not something with her own mind and agenda.
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Over the next month, Genji gets caught up in court events and doesn't ask after the nun for a while. When he finally does, the bishop writes that she has died. Genji knows Murasaki must be very sad and sends Shōnagon a sympathetic letter. Several days later, Genji learns that Shōnagon and Murasaki are back in the city, so he goes to visit. Shōnagon tells him about the nun's final days and mentions that Prince Hyōbu has expressed some interest in taking her in, though he knows his other ladies will be awful to her. She again laments how immature Murasaki is, but Genji tells her to stop: his mind is made up and he wants to take her to the palace. They exchange poems in which Shōnagon again tells Genji no.
Prince Hyōbu's worries about Murasaki being bullied shows that the kind of abuse that the Lady of the Paulownia Court suffered isn't unique to the Emperor's ladies; that kind of toxic rivalry between women possibly takes place among the lovers of every man. It's telling, however, that Prince Hyōbu worries about this happening to a child, as it suggests that like Genji, Murasaki is somehow special enough to garner special interest and stir up a sense of rivalry.
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One of Murasaki's playmates tells her that a gentleman is visiting. She races out, believing she'll see her father. Genji admits he's not her father but says he's just as important. He calls Murasaki to him to sleep on his lap. Murasaki is embarrassed and shy, but Shōnagon pushes her forward. Murasaki pulls away from Genji and Genji slips behind the screens with the women. Though Shōnagon reprimands Genji, he insists that it's too stormy for the women to be alone. He goes to Murasaki's bedroom, covers her, and tells her that he has dolls and pictures for her at his house. Shōnagon feels she has no power to stop this. Genji and Shōnagon sit with Murasaki all night, and the other women whisper that Genji is certainly helping with their fear of the storm and they wish that Murasaki were older.
Again, when Shōnagon encourages Murasaki to get close to Genji and do as he says, it's likely because she recognizes that Murasaki will benefit from Genji's attentions—and Shōnagon will benefit as well. The fact that no one here is willing to listen to Murasaki's clear desire to have nothing to do with Genji shows that she's disadvantaged twice: once as a woman and again as a child. This is reinforced when the other women wish that Murasaki were older, as it implies that then, they'd be pushing for Murasaki to have sex with Genji in order to benefit them, regardless of her thoughts on the matter.
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Genji prepares to leave just before dawn. He tells Shōnagon that he must bring Murasaki to the palace so she doesn't have to live in this terrifying house anymore, but Shōnagon tells him that Prince Hyōbu is going to come for his daughter soon. Genji suggests that both men are strangers to Murasaki and he believes he loves her more before taking his leave. He feels somewhat depressed and knocks on the gate of a lover on his way home. She invites him in, but he declines the invitation and goes home.
Notice how Genji phrases his desire to take Murasaki to the palace: he must bring her. He phrases it in such a way as to put himself in charge, rather than asking her to come in a way that would give her some agency in her life. This shows on a structural level that women like Murasaki don't have much power to dictate the course of their lives.
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Prince Hyōbu visits Murasaki later that day and comes to the same conclusion Genji did: Murasaki shouldn't live in the sad and gloomy house. Shōnagon asks that they wait a while so Murasaki has time to grieve. Prince Hyōbu thinks this is silly but agrees. He leaves in tears and Murasaki cries for days. Genji receives summons from the palace and so sends Koremitsu to call on Murasaki in his place. This worries Shōnagon and she shares some of her concerns with Koremitsu, including Prince Hyōbu's desire to take Murasaki away the following evening. Koremitsu relays this to Genji and then returns in the evening. Shōnagon is short with him.
Wanting to remove Murasaki from the house because it's sad and gloomy again ties in with the novel's insistence that one's surroundings are indicative of one's feelings or emotions. This shows that both Prince Hyōbu and Genji want to do their best to make Murasaki happy, even if Genji's proposed methodology is absolutely questionable. Shōnagon's worry shows that it's very important for men to woo women themselves without messengers, even though it's acceptable for women to use messengers.
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Koremitsu again relays this to Genji, who is at Aoi's house in Sanjō, bored as usual. Genji decides he must swear the women to secrecy and take Murasaki to the palace in the morning, as taking her from her father's house would look especially bad. Genji makes excuses to Aoi and sets off with Koremitsu. Shōnagon is annoyed with Genji's early visit and attempts to turn him away, but he forces his way inside, picks up a terrified Murasaki and tells her to think of him as her father. Shōnagon again tries to protest as he bundles the girl into the carriage, but she agrees to go with Genji and Murasaki.
The fact that Genji does take it upon himself to make excuses to Aoi suggests that he does have some respect for her, even if he doesn't actually like her that much. His decision to take Murasaki now so he doesn't have to take her from Prince Hyōbu's house shows that at least when it comes to biological fathers, Genji definitely respects that relationship and doesn't want to mess with it; taking her now allows him to simply avoid it altogether.
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At the palace, Shōnagon is worried. She knows that Prince Hyōbu will be upset, but she feels she has to remain loyal to Murasaki. Genji has Koremitsu set up screens and makes Murasaki lie down with him to sleep. Shōnagon sits up with them and they all rise late in the morning. Genji sends for little girls to play with Murasaki and tells his charge that she's not to sulk: she should do as she's told to make him happy. He thinks she's even prettier now and brings her pictures and toys to play with. He spends several days writing poems for her to copy on lavender paper and he finds her childish handwriting endlessly endearing. Soon, Murasaki forgets her troubles.
Shōnagon's choice to remain loyal to Murasaki shows that there can actually be real, caring relationships between women—provided there's a status difference between the women in question. Genji's desire to make Murasaki into the kind of woman he wants suggests that he's going to begin to blur the lines between being fatherly and being a lover, especially since the novel implies that Murasaki is too young to know much about men or sex at this point.
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Prince Hyōbu goes to fetch Murasaki on schedule. He's aghast to find her gone and her serving ladies can only tell him that Shōnagon spirited her away. He writes to the bishop and receives no information there. Murasaki continues to settle in at the palace, though she still sometimes cries for the nun. She becomes very fond of Genji and Genji of her. He thinks of her as a toy to play with and thinks their relationship is even better than that of a father and daughter.
When the other women are unwilling to tell Prince Hyōbu the truth about Murasaki, it shows that what's really going on here is that they're afraid of Genji and the power he has to make or break their lives. Even if they're not going to benefit from Murasaki since they didn't go with her, he could still make life difficult for them if they were to stand up to him through Hyōbu.
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