As The Tale of Genji follows multiple generations both within and outside of Genji's immediate family, the novel necessarily becomes acutely concerned with the relationships between parents and children. By exploring the ways in which children are allowed to form—or are kept from forming—relationships with their parents, as well as the innumerable instances in which Genji upends conventions guiding parent-child relationships, the novel ultimately suggests that parents are immensely powerful guiding forces in their children's lives. At the same time, it similarly illustrates how children have the power to help the adults in their lives simply by existing in the first place.
The cultural norms guiding the Heian courtiers dictate that children are extremely valuable for a number of reasons. In the cases of young Murasaki and Genji's son Yugiri, both children are described as "mementos" of their parents or other family members. Indeed, Genji is interested in ten-year-old Murasaki because she looks like her aunt Fujitsubo, whom Genji is in love with, while Genji's wife Aoi dies after giving birth to Yugiri. In this way, children provide a tangible way for their parents or guardians to remember lost loved ones or denied romances, which in turn makes the children themselves all the more valuable. Murasaki, for example, eventually grows up to be Genji's favorite lover and in doing so, is afforded a great deal of power. In other cases, children become the way by which women especially are able to gain political power or favor. Kokiden's power expands dramatically after her son, Suzaku, takes the throne, despite the fact that Suzaku himself is described as being a relatively ineffective and even sickly emperor. In other words, the merits—or lack thereof—of a given child often matter less than a parent's ability to use their child as a bargaining chip or as an in to take power for themselves.
The consequences, in turn, of losing out on a parent-child relationship are explored most fully through Genji himself, who loses his mother, the Lady of the Paulownia Court, when he's about three years old. When Genji is seven or eight, the Emperor brings a young Fujitsubo to court as a companion because she closely resembles his dead lover. Genji is allowed behind Fujitsubo's curtains and screens as a boy and, because of his constant contact with her and her resemblance to his dead mother, he soon falls in love with her. Genji then spends a great deal of time attempting to secretly woo Fujitsubo (with only one "success," in which he rapes her and she becomes pregnant with his son Reizei); after later discovering ten-year-old Murasaki, Fujitsubo's niece, he spends even more time "training" Murasaki to grow up to be his ideal companion—that is, to be in every way possible, a memento of his mother and of Fujitsubo.
Genji's fixation on recreating an image of his mother suggests the intensity of the bond between children and their parents—though it's also important to note that Genji is well aware that what he's doing with both Fujitsubo and Murasaki is questionable, to say the least, and wouldn't go over well with those at court were it to get out. This is why all of his overtures to Fujitsubo happen in secret, and also why he keeps young Murasaki hidden from other ladies for several years until she moves into the role of his favorite lover; he knows they'd be upset to learn he brought a child to court for this purpose. Taken together, this suggests that the loss of one's mother is something that a child must try (and inevitably fail) to make up for throughout their life—in Genji's case, through objectively unhealthy means.
In short, while children hold the keys to their parents' happiness and successes in life, a parent's presence in a child's life also fundamentally influences how that child grows up to conceptualize sex, romance, and their relationships to their own offspring later. In this way, the instances in which Genji shows his own children that he cares for them and is willing to support their ascensions through the court ranks—all of which also helps him—reinforces the novel's assertion that the relationships between parents and children are mutually beneficial and can lead to great successes for all parties, even when those relationships are unconventional or even unhealthy.
The Parent-Child Relationship ThemeTracker
The Parent-Child Relationship Quotes in The Tale of Genji
Once more there was malicious talk; but the prince himself, as he grew up, was so superior of mien and disposition that few could find it in themselves to dislike him.
Fond of the child she has reared, a nurse tends to look upon him as a paragon even if he is a half-wit. How much prouder was the old woman, who somehow gained stature, who thought of herself as eminent in her own right for having been permitted to serve him.
She was of an extraordinarily gentle and quiet nature. Though there was a certain vagueness about her, and indeed an almost childlike quality, it was clear that she knew something about men. She did not appear to be of very good family. What was there about her, he asked himself over and over again, that so drew him to her?
The weak ones do have a power over us. The clear, forceful ones I can do without. I am weak and indecisive by nature myself, and a woman who is quiet and withdrawn and follows the wishes of a man even to the point of letting herself be used has much the greater appeal. A man can shape and mold her as he wishes, and becomes fonder of her all the while.
Murasaki was the perfect companion, a toy for him to play with. He could not have been so free and uninhibited with a daughter of his own. There are restraints upon paternal intimacy.
Fujitsubo was tormented by feelings of guilt and apprehension. Surely everyone who saw the child would guess the awful truth and damn her for it. People were always happy to seek out the smallest and most trivial of misdeeds.
In the Seventh Month, Fujitsubo was made empress [...] Making plans for his abdication, the emperor wanted to name Fujitsubo's son crown prince. The child had no strong backing, however [...] The emperor therefore wanted Fujitsubo in an unassailable position from which to promote her son's career.
Genji felt like a child thief. The role amused him and the affection he now felt for the girl seemed to reduce his earlier affection to the tiniest mote. A man's heart is a very strange amalgam indeed!
Though avoiding display, he took great pains with her initiation ceremonies. She found the solicitude, though remarkable, very distasteful. She had trusted him, she had quite entwined herself about him. It had been inexcusably careless of her.
Memories had dimmed over the years, but now the astonishing resemblance did a little dispel his gloom. The dignity that quite put one to shame also reminded him of Murasaki. He could hardly think of them as two persons, and yet, perhaps because Fujitsubo had been so much in his thoughts over the years, there did after all seem to be a difference.