The Emperor's concubines are disgruntled to discover that he favors a woman known as the Lady of the Paulownia Court more than them. They find her presumptuous and torment her incessantly. This causes the lady to become very ill, though she soon gives birth to a baby boy: Genji. When the child is three, the Lady dies.
Genji is magnificent, even more so than his older half-brother Suzaku, the crown prince. This makes Suzaku's mother, Kokiden, very nervous. She complains so much that the Emperor decides to not name Genji a crown prince, making him a commoner instead. The Emperor, still grieving the Lady of the Paulownia Court, hears of a young woman named Fujitsubo who resembles his dead lover and summons her to court.
Fujitsubo is almost more perfect than the Paulownia Lady and because of the resemblance, Genji begins to fall in love with her. When Genji comes of age, his father arranges for him to marry the Minister of the Left's daughter, Aoi, instead of letting Suzaku marry her. This angers the Minister of the Right and Kokiden, though Genji is also unhappy in his marriage.
One evening Genji passes a house with white flowers on it, which he learns are called "evening faces." An intriguing young girl gives Genji's attendant a scented fan on which to place a flower. Later, Genji finds his interest piqued by the poem written on the fan. He begins corresponding with the Lady of the Evening Faces and spends little time with Aoi, which angers her. He also begins neglecting another lover, the Rokujō Lady. He eventually discovers that the Lady of the Evening Faces is a former lover of his brother-in-law, Tō no Chūjō. Genji begins visiting the lady in disguise and doesn't reveal to her who he is. In the fall, he decides to take her away to a deserted house for a night. Past midnight, Genji sees an apparition of a woman near his pillow and when he wakes, the Lady of the Evening Faces is dead.
In the spring, Genji begins suffering from malaria, so he goes to the mountains to see a renowned sage. Near the sage's cave is a house where a bishop lives with several women and children. In the evening, Genji goes with his personal attendant Koremitsu to spy on the house. Inside, he sees a beautiful ten-year-old girl who resembles Fujitsubo named Murasaki. Genji begins to plan how he can take the child, but the bishop, who explains that Murasaki is Prince Hyōbu's daughter, won't allow Genji to have her. The nun, Murasaki's grandmother, won't allow it either. Genji unwillingly returns to the city and sees Aoi, but he spends most of his time thinking of Murasaki.
Fujitsubo becomes ill and leaves to spend time with her family. Genji takes the opportunity to visit her and forces Fujitsubo to have sex with him. Within three months, it's clear that she's pregnant. Fujitsubo is terrified of the Emperor discovering the paternity of her child. Genji worries too, but he's also caught up in fighting for custody of Murasaki. Eventually, Genji simply steals Murasaki and installs her in the palace. He gives Murasaki so many toys that she soon forgets she's been kidnapped.
Fujitsubo finally gives birth to Reizei in February. Later, when the child is moved to court, Genji is terrified to see that he looks just like him. He distracts himself by spending time with Murasaki and continues to neglect Aoi. Fujitsubo is named empress in the summer, which upsets Genji—he knows she'll be out of his reach now.
Genji attends several concerts and events in the spring. At one party, he discovers an open door and has sex with Oborozukiyo, one of Kokiden's sisters, though he doesn't realize this at the time. Not long after, the Minister of the Right throws a lavish party. Genji takes it upon himself to discover which of his daughters he slept with and finds Oborozukiyo.
Around this time, the Emperor hands the throne over to Suzaku, though he asks Genji to be Reizei's guardian. The Rokujō Lady finds that with the change in regime, Genji doesn't have much time for her. Because of this she decides to accompany her young daughter, Akikonomu, to her post as the high priestess of the Ise Shrine. The Rokujō Lady first decides to go to a parade but while she's there, Aoi and Aoi's footmen rudely pretend not to recognize her and then destroy her carriage.
Genji is angry when he finds about this later, but the Rokujō Lady is distraught. Aoi, who is pregnant, becomes very ill and is possessed by an evil spirit. Genji splits his time between his wife and the Rokujō Lady, who fears that her spirit is the one possessing Aoi. Aoi gives birth prematurely and remains very ill. Genji goes to her and the Rokujō Lady speaks to him through her body. Not long after, Aoi dies. Genji spends several weeks in seclusion and then bids his in-laws goodbye. The Minister of the Left is comforted, as he believes that Genji will have to come back to see his son by Aoi, Yūgiri.
After making his rounds at the palace, Genji decides that it's time to marry Murasaki. She feels betrayed, as she'd thought of Genji only as a father. Her ladies, however, are thrilled. Genji dedicates himself to Murasaki and the Rokujō Lady becomes more and more despondent. He visits her once, but her mind is made up to go to Ise. She and Akikonomu leave in the summer.
In the fall, the Emperor's health takes a turn for the worse. He makes Suzaku promise to turn to Genji for advice and to care for Reizei and then dies suddenly. Fujitsubo has no interest in living at court with Kokiden now that she's all-powerful, so she returns home. Oborozukiyo rises in rank at the palace and continues to see Genji romantically. Genji tries to visit Fujitsubo and have sex with her again, but she fights him off. To punish her, Genji stops writing and ignores Reizei. Finally, Fujitsubo realizes she needs to make peace with Genji for the sake of their son.
Suzaku is aware that Genji is seeing Oborozukiyo, but he's unconcerned. The climate at court, however, is very hostile towards Genji and Fujitsubo. In December, to escape it, Fujitsubo announces that she's going to become a nun. The following fall, Oborozukiyo and Genji begin seeing each other nightly again. One night, a thunderstorm terrifies everyone, and in the morning, the Minister of the Right discovers Genji in bed with Oborozukiyo. He and Kokiden are both filled with rage.
Genji rekindles a relationship with two sisters, Reikeiden and the Lady of the Orange Blossoms, who had been close with his father. They're a lovely distraction from the scandal that erupts at court when news of Genji and Oboruzkiyo gets out.
Genji visits his father's grave, sends a note to Reizei, and sends himself into exile in Suma. The entire time that Genji is gone, he considers bringing Murasaki with him. He keeps up correspondence with all the women in the city, including the Rokujō Lady. When Kokiden learns that Genji is still communicating with Suzaku, she puts a stop to the letters. Tō no Chūjō makes a short visit to Suma and one of Genji's attendants, Yoshikiyo, begins communicating with a former governor about the governor's daughter, the Akashi Lady.
Very suddenly in the spring, a storm blows up out of nowhere. It continues for days and when Genji learns that the city is also experiencing horrendous weather, he dedicates himself to prayer. In a dream, the Emperor comes to Genji and tells him to leave Suma. Hours later, a boat from the former governor arrives to tell Genji that he'd received signs from above to set sail in the storm. Genji asks if he can stay in Akashi with the former governor, and the governor agrees.
The Akashi coast is gorgeous and Genji is secretly interested in the Akashi Lady. Her father desperately wants her to begin a relationship with Genji and tempts him with tales of her musical talent. Genji and the lady begin to write to each other. Finally, the governor arranges for Genji to visit the lady's house. Genji forces himself on the lady and later, confesses his affair to Murasaki. He begins keeping journals and sketchbooks and continues to see the Akashi Lady. Suzaku has been ill since the storm and after the New Year, he decides to abdicate and call Genji back to court. The Akashi Lady, now pregnant, is distraught.
Back in the city, Suzaku abdicates, Reizei becomes emperor, and Genji is made a minister. Genji starts to remodel a house for his "neglected favorites" and when he learns that the Akashi Lady gave birth to a daughter, he finds her an appropriate nurse. He sends several letters to his other lovers but doesn't see them much.
In the fall, Genji unknowingly travels to the Sumiyoshi shrine on the same day as the Akashi Lady, who arrives later. When she sees his elaborate offerings arranged everywhere, she feels inferior and leaves without seeing him. Akikonomu and the Rokujō Lady return to the city and soon, the Rokujō Lady becomes very ill. On her deathbed, she asks Genji to care for her daughter and not make her one of his lovers. Genji asks Fujitsubo about offering Akikonomu to Reizei as a possible bride, and she loves the idea, as the alternative is Prince Hyōbu's young daughter or Tō no Chūjō's daughter, the Kokiden girl. Suzaku is in love with Akikonomu and resents that Reizei should have her, however, and this creates a great deal of tension.
When it becomes clear that Prince Hyōbu won't have his way, a rivalry develops between the Kokiden girl and Akikonomu. Because Reizei loves art, he loves Akikonomu, who is a painter. Tō no Chūjō begins giving paintings to his daughter. At one point, Fujitsubo suggests an art critique contest. The women discuss the art and it seems a close call until Genji offers paintings from his time in Suma and Akashi. They're so beautiful that the whole room falls silent, and Akikonomu wins the contest. After this, Genji makes plans to withdraw from public affairs.