The Emperor's high-ranking ladies are upset when they discover that he favors a woman known as the Lady of the Paulownia Court more than any of them. They find the Paulownia Lady a "presumptuous upstart" and because of their abuse, the lady becomes ill. Not thinking about the consequences, the Emperor remains infatuated with her. His court discusses that they just watched this same kind of misguided infatuation destroy a Chinese emperor, but the Emperor pays no heed. Fortunately, the lady survives.
That the narrative begins with these accounts of extremely toxic female rivalry makes it clear that female jealousy is something extremely powerful (given how sick it makes the Paulownia Lady) and, importantly, that this jealousy happens because women fight for men's attention. This suggests that male attention equals social currency.
The Lady of the Paulownia Court soon has a son (Genji) who is a magnificent infant. The Emperor brings Genji to court the first chance he gets, and it's clear that the baby is superior to the Emperor's older son, Suzaku. This makes Kokiden, Suzaku's mother, nervous, as she fears that her son won't be named crown prince now that the Emperor has another son he likes better. Kokiden voices her complaints loudly and often, and the Emperor can't ignore her.
The fact that Genji is so perfect from the outset suggests that one's own popularity with the court doesn't necessarily have any bearing on one's children. Because Genji is perfect despite his comparatively humble origins, this implies that he's perfect because of something else not connected directly to his parents.
Though the Lady of the Paulownia Court remains the Emperor's favorite, other women torment her constantly. This is made worse by the fact that her chambers are the farthest away from the Emperor's, which means that the other ladies see them visiting each other every time they do so. After several ladies lock her in a gallery one evening, the Emperor moves her to the chambers closest to his, though this does little to stop the abuse.
Here, keep in mind that the other ladies are clearly willing to flirt with angering the Emperor in order to torment his favorite lover. This shows that in terms of female relationships in the novel, it's far more important for women to put other women down in a way that will allow them to make gains than it is to do anything else.
When Genji turns three, the Emperor makes sure that the ceremony that gives Genji his first pair of pants is extremely elaborate. Though this angers people, many find that Genji is so perfect it's impossible to hate him. That summer, the Lady of the Paulownia Court asks to go home due to illness. The Emperor refuses until she's extremely ill, and after the two exchange parting poems, the lady slips off. The Emperor promptly sends a messenger to the lady's home and the messenger returns the next day with news that the lady died. In tears, the Emperor locks himself away, especially sad that there's no precedent that would allow him to keep Genji with him.
It's worth keeping in mind that at this time in Japanese history, men and women kept separate households (even if they were married) and women raised any children; this is why the Emperor can't keep Genji. When those who would like to hate Genji find that he's too perfect to do so, this foreshadows that he's going to be able to get away with all manner of shenanigans later; he's too perfect to face real consequences in most cases.
The Paulownia Lady's mother is distraught as she begins to arrange the funeral. To attempt to make her feel better, the Emperor raises the Lady of the Paulownia Court's rank posthumously, which some people still resent. Kokiden spends the next several months mocking the Emperor's grief, which colors everything he does. Even when he's with Suzaku, he dwells on Genji. He sends the best nurses and serving women to Genji and one chilly autumn evening, he remembers how he and his love had played the koto for each other. He sends a messenger woman named Myōbu to the Paulownia Lady's mother's home.
The fact that Kokiden feels comfortable speaking so horribly about the Lady of the Paulownia Court even after her death, when the lady has no power, does two things. First, it suggests that Kokiden still sees Genji as a major threat and, second, it indicates that Kokiden feels assured of getting to keep her powerful position at court, no matter what happens. In turn, this shows that she has the Emperor's affections without question.
When Myōbu reaches the house, she's shocked to see that it's covered in weeds. The Paulownia Lady's mother is barely able to greet Myōbu, who explains that the Emperor lives as though he's in a nightmare. He asks that she come to court with Genji so that the child doesn't have to live in "this house of tears," and suggests that they both think of Genji as a memento of his mother, the Paulownia Lady. Gathering herself, the lady's mother refuses the invitation for herself but says that Genji should go to live with his father.
The state of one's landscaping becomes a motif that signifies either sadness or neglect or happiness and wealth. This shows how the natural world is very connected with the world of the humans that live in it, as it's possible to read human emotions in the state of the surrounding nature. Thinking of Genji as a memento of his mother opens up the possibility that he will have to struggle much like she did at court.
As Myōbu gets up to leave, the Paulownia Lady's mother explains that the Lady of the Paulownia Court's father had desperately wanted the lady to go to court, even though she didn't have appropriate support. Myōbu explains that the Emperor believes their relationship may have been fated to be brief, and he's almost constantly in tears still. Myōbu leaves the house, gazes at the moon and the autumn grasses, and then composes a poem for the lady's mother about her grief. The lady's mother replies, using similar imagery, and sends a set of robes and hair combs for the Emperor.
The Paulownia Lady's mother's discussion of her husband wanting their daughter to go to court begins to show that one's reputation isn't built only on the actions of the individual in question. Instead, one must have connections, relationships, and support at court in order to have a successful career there. This also shows that even being the Emperor's favorite isn't enough to succeed.
Myōbu finds the Emperor waiting up for her in a beautiful garden. She tells him about her time with the Paulownia Lady's mother and passes him her letter and the mementos. The Emperor finds the lady's mother's poem a little odd, especially since it implies that the Emperor cannot protect Genji. He again loses himself in sorrow and thoughts of the dead Lady of the Paulownia Court. He sits outside for hours, composing sad poems, and finally goes to his chambers early in the morning. He refuses to eat for much of the next day. In private, Kokiden mocks the Emperor.
Grandparents play a very important role in the novel and often show themselves to be more protective of their grandchildren than the children's own parents. The Paulownia Lady's mother here finds that because she was on the outside of court life, she actually has more power to go against the Emperor's wishes. This suggests that there's some degree of power to be had by removing oneself from the system.
After a time, Genji returns to live at the palace. In the spring, when it's time for the Emperor to name a crown prince, he desperately wants to name Genji but fears that the child would be destroyed like his mother was. He thus names Suzaku crown prince but continues to grieve for the next several years. Genji also grieves as he grows, though he continues to show that he's absolutely an exceptional child. Even Kokiden likes him. He learns the classics and to play the flute and the koto, and his musical talent is shocking.
The Emperor's mental gymnastics here makes it clear that nobody, no matter how powerful, is exempt from court politics. Nobody can make decisions based only on what they want; there are other important people who must be appeased. The fact that the Emperor needs primarily to appease Kokiden is one way the novel shows that in some cases, women actually have a surprising amount of power.
When an embassy arrives from Korea, the Emperor disguises Genji as the son of the grand moderator and sends him to visit them. The Korean emissary is so taken with Genji that he quietly says that the child should be "father to the nation." The emissary's remarks about Genji leak, raising the suspicions of the Minister of the Right, Kokiden's father. He becomes very suspicious, though he soon discovers he has no need to be. The Emperor, recognizing that Genji's status as a crown prince would be extremely precarious without a powerful mother, decides to make him a commoner, where he could more easily have power. He also encourages Genji in his studies.
Again, the Korean emissary's reaction to Genji tells the reader that regardless of Genji's status at court and the fact that others don't like him, there's something about him that's different and exceptional. Keep the emissary's words in mind going forward; Genji's children later rise to very high ranks. This tells the reader that utterances like this should be taken seriously, as they often foreshadow all manner of events.
As the years pass, the Emperor struggles to forget the Lady of the Paulownia Court. He begins to summon women, but none of them resemble his dead love. Finally, he hears word of a young princess named Fujitsubo, who, according to another lady at court, closely resembles the Paulownia Lady. The Emperor summons her, but Fujitsubo's mother declines, fearing that Fujitsubo will suffer the same fate as the Paulownia Lady. When Fujitsubo's mother dies suddenly, however, her brother, Prince Hyōbu, agrees to send Fujitsubo. Her beauty and childlike shyness make the Emperor nearly forget his former love, and since she's almost more perfect than the Paulownia Lady, none of the other women resent her.
Again, the way that Fujitsubo's mother argues successfully against sending her daughter to court makes it clear that women do have some degree of power, though their wishes can easily be overridden as soon as the women are no longer there to vocalize them. Fujitsubo begins to take on a similar role as Genji when the narrator mentions her perfection making her impossible to hate. This suggests that, like Genji, there's something innately exceptional about her that transcends court politics.
Because Genji sees the Emperor so often, it's difficult for Fujitsubo to keep herself hidden from him. He doesn't remember his mother, the Paulownia Lady, and so is very moved when he learns that Fujitsubo resembles her. He wants to be with her all the time. Kokiden is very upset about all of this. Genji is far more handsome than her own son, Suzaku, and this earns him the nickname "the shining one," while Fujitsubo becomes known as "the lady of the radiant sun."
Women are expected to keep themselves hidden from men other than their husbands and fathers at this point in time (and presumably, their sons as well). The Emperor's blessing that allows Genji to see Fujitsubo indicates that he believes there's something very important about having some sort of connection between son and "mother."
When Genji turns twelve, he goes through the initiation ceremonies to become an adult. The Emperor again makes sure that the festivities are equal to or better than those that Suzaku enjoyed. Though the Emperor is distraught when Genji's hair is cut in the adult fashion, Genji is so beautiful in adult dress that he nearly cries for joy. Soon, the Emperor and the Minister of the Left decide that the Minister's only daughter, Aoi, should be given to Genji rather than to Suzaku as a wife. This will give Genji the powerful female relatives he lacks. The Minister and the Emperor exchange gifts and Genji goes home with the Minister to observe the marriage ceremonies. Aoi, who is several years older, isn't thrilled with her young husband.
The political calculus that goes into deciding that Genji should marry Aoi shows that women do, in some ways, have a great deal of power, even in the eyes of men. However, it's also worth keeping in mind that Aoi doesn't necessarily have power all by herself; her power is linked to her father and to her father's positive relationship with the Emperor. It's also interesting that Aoi's opinions about having to marry Genji are voiced. This could be a symptom of a female author who witnessed these kinds of arrangements; however, the fact that Aoi has to marry Genji anyway suggests her opinions matter very little.
The Minister of the Right feels put out about all of this, but he offers the hand of his favorite daughter to one of the Minister of the Left's sons to help smooth things over. Genji spends most of his time with the Emperor and not much with Aoi in Sanjō, mostly because Genji is desperately in love with Fujitsubo. However, now that he's an adult, he's no longer allowed behind her curtains. He resents this rule, though he and Fujitsubo play music for each other through the curtains some evenings. The Minister of the Left is unconcerned with Genji's constant absence and takes it upon himself to arrange diversions sure to capture his interest.
Though the narrator doesn't elaborate on who's getting married here, this marriage is between Tō no Chūjō, Aoi's brother, and an unnamed daughter of the Minister of the Right. This marriage reinforces that marriage in general is seen more as a political tool than as something undertaken for reasons of love or affection, especially given that the narrator doesn't name the bride and groom--in other words, they as individuals don't matter; the political result matters.