A Romantic Hero in The Tale of Genji

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Western criticism of the art and text in Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji functions similarly to the consideration of Genji as a hero of the work. While the trend in literary analysis has been towards the realization of universal human truths among world literature, a paradox has emerged: In trying to universalize the human experience, we have often pushed ourselves further away from the true meaning of texts which would otherwise seem familiar. Similarly, when we look at the accompanying art, we have to be aware of our Western lens. This is true for criticism of The Tale of Genji. Contemporary criticism of the book has fought to categorize the work as essentially prosaic, and, in turn, has undermined its poetic and artistic value by focusing only on the book as the world’s first novel, as notable as this is. The text, however, should not overshadow the images of the narrative, which complement and mimic Shikibu’s techniques of repetition and substitution that we also see in the accompanying artwork, as critic Richard Bowring notes. In order to deny the traditional nativist reading of The Tale of Genji, western critics have turned to a diegetic interpretation of the text. By taking this western view of the work as simply a narrative, criticism then struggles to find a hero of the tale by western definition.

The most telling scene of the character of Genji is later on in the text when he retreats to Suma. When we look at this image and use it to retrospectively analyze both the entirety of the artwork and the text, the true image of Genji emerges. As the protagonist of the world’s first novel, Genji does not do anything heroic in the western sense of the word. As Alan Priest writes in his article, “The Take of Genji,”

Archaeological reviewers would doubtless have raised a dubious eyebrow as to the entire accuracy of the background and conversation. But it is not a contemporary English novel-it is eleventh-century Japanese-and no one can question Lady Murasaki's details much. After all she was there. (1)

In the West, we identify heroism with chivalry or valiance. In this way, figures like The Odyssey's Odysseus or Beowulf seem much more fitting than the depictions we see of Muraski’s protagonist. Genji, in contrast to the western hero, does not slay dragons or show courage in battle. Instead, he is a much different type of hero which would centuries later come to be known in the West as a romantic or Byronic hero. He is often pictured aloof from courtly society and in contemplative solitude, like when he is depicted thinking of Murasaki or pondering the ephemerality of life. The most notable image from the work is Genji’s retreat to Suma where the melancholic images of a despairing Genji invoke our Western sense of a Byronic hero.

The fact that we do not see him actively engaging in the celebratory features often associated with court life like a typical royal ruler would be is telling of his character type even more powerfully than the text that accompanies these images. This type of hero is associated with artistic achievement and individual development. In Melissa McCarthy’s article, “Genji Goes West: The 1510 ‘Genji Album’ and the Visualization of Court and Capital,” she writes of the work:

Authored about 1000 by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji is a fifty-four-chapter prose epic centered primarily around the exploits of the ideal courtier, the "shining prince Genji." Immediately popular among courtly circles, The Tale of Genji quickly became a societal influence in the Japanese literary canon. Its evocative depiction of the imperial court and the ritualized aristocratic calendar caused it to be regarded in later eras as an embodiment of a golden age of courtly life, especially in light of the aristocracy's increasing loss of political power. As we shall see, the constituency for whom The Tale of Genji embodied this bygone era of courtly splendor. (53)

Genji, we are told, has heightened sensibilities, which set him apart from the rest of Hein society. This is not traditionally associated with the image of a “shining price” or of “courtly splendor” that we see in the schools, particularly when he retreats out by the sea. His psychological isolation aids in his acute sense of aesthetics through both his poetry and appreciation for the natural world. Western readers have a difficult time considering Genji as a hero in this way because their system of analysis simply doesn’t translate when considering the canon of ancient hero tales. By looking too far to find a commonality between eastern and western literature, we have missed the middle-ground. Genji’s existence as a romantic hero proves that there is both a universality to the human condition over time and space and that it is wrong to discount the importance of the poetics in the work simply to classify it in the western diegetic form; The poetry of The Tale of Genji is what makes Genji, through both the way he lives his life and through his poetic expression, a romantic hero--a figure we know well in the West.

The view of Genji as a romantic hero is quite plausible when considering the traditional nativist interpretation of the text. In the article “Fractured Dialogues: Mono no aware and Poetic Communication in The Tale of Genji”, Tomiko Yoda explains that Motoori Norinaga, a nativist critic and Japanese literary scholar, used the poetic aesthetics in Genji to develop his own waka poetics (523-524). Norinaga’s reading of the text in this way established what Yoda calls “one of the principal paradigms for the modern understanding of the text...‘mono no aware’... one of the most well-known concepts in traditional literary criticism in Japan, emerged out of this mutual relationship between poetics and Genji in [Norinaga’s] thought” (524). Mono no aware is translated loosely as “the affective and aesthetic force of things in the world” (Yoda 524). It is, in essence, what the West would identify as a very romantic notion. The Romantic Era in Western literature came into existence around nine centuries after Shikibu wrote The Tale of Genji, and yet it is remarkable how closely Genji relates to the Romantic poets. It could be imagined that Genji and Wordsworth would share the same feelings about the importance of nature in its natural form. Genji and Lord Byron, from whom we get the term “Byronic hero”, would share their isolation and confusion over sexual affairs. Genji and Keats would share the understanding of the ephemerality of life. But most of all, all four of these poets, Genji, Wordsworth, Byron, and Keats, would appreciate the sublime quality to natural life. Mono no aware can be considered the eastern equivalent of what the romantics often referred to as the sublime. Genji’s heroism comes in to play because of his ability to not only remain aloof from the crowd that seeks to praise him, a seemingly opposite characteristic to the western chivalric hero, but also in his awareness and concern over the fleetingness of life.

Genji’s isolation is apparent from the very beginning of the novel. Although he is always surrounded by the courtiers and his advisors, we get a sense that for Genji, life is more active psychologically than socially. Even Genji’s affairs are disconnected; he often never reveals himself to his lovers, nor does he know their true selves. However, Genji is a very sensual person in every meaning of the word. He appreciates beauty, not just of these many women he has affairs with but seems to instead fall in love with their poetry and their own connectedness to nature. He even associates women with nature calling them, for example, “Lady of the Evening Faces” after the flowers in the garden of one of his lovers. Genji’s isolation even becomes paradoxical. We get a sense that although he is often very detached from society because of his sensibilities, he comes to appreciate the connectedness of all living things. Genji’s isolation comes full circle when he exiles himself in Suma. Genji, in a sense, retreats into nature as an antidote for his distress over the affair with his father’s wife. His isolation and appreciation of nature as a means to seek both solitude and clarity prove him to be a Romantic.

Much of Genji’s poetry has nature imagery, much like the Romantics, and often these images are metaphors for love. Shikibu reminds us often of how Genji is received in his society, and it is suggested that his poetry is regarded as unparalleled. The “love poems” that Genji writes proves that for Genji, nature is where he receives inspiration, and where his thoughts may be “recollected in tranquility” as Wordsworth noted in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads. Genji is heroic in this way because of this ability to notice qualities of the natural world and how they are related to his own psychology, much like a romantic or Byronic hero. There are so many depictions of nature in the scrolls; even when the focus seems to be on court life, the beauty of the plant life or natural elements like wood, for instance, often takes over the scene. This understanding is very much tied to ephemerality, and Genji’s actions seem to take after a carpe diem mindset. He writes to the Lady of the Evening Faces: Though loath to be taxed with seeking fresher blooms. I feel impelled to pluck this morning glory. (37)

Genji is very aware of time and how quickly it passes. He is also very aware of and affected by the idea of imminent death. This is not to say that Genji fears death, only that he understands it to be a part of life, an expiration to time on Earth. This idea seems foreign in modern-day western cultures, particularly the United States, where death has become taboo; rarely do people ever see corpses in their lives. For Genji, witnessing the death of his beloved “fisherman’s daughter” reinforces for him the idea of fleeting life; there is no stopping time, once again a manifestation of mono no aware. Genji is very conscious of death and he understands that his legacy is a way to achieve immortality. Often Genji is anxious about how he will be remembered, worrying “he would gain immortality as the model of the complete fool” (54). Concerns over mortality and immortality were common among the English romantic poets, including Wordsworth and Keats. Perhaps Gengi’s battle with malaria was also a catalyst for his concerns of death as it was for Keats with tuberculosis. Ephemerality and concerns over immortality provide yet another example of how Genji’s practice of mono no aware relates to the Romantic writers.

Although Genji may seem like a “womanizer” to modern-day readers, he is extremely concerned with the well being of all the women he encounters. Genji’s most humanizing moment comes with the guilt he feels over his quasi-rape of Fujitsubo and the concern he feels for her welfare and that of their son following the death of the emperor. In the Preface, Wordsworth argues that poetry is “a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” and, that poetry should be about “what is really important to men” (Wordsworth). Genji expresses his feelings through poems to all of his women and often finds himself weeping at the overabundance of emotion he feels for the women, particularly Fujitsubo. Genji’s heroic qualities come out through his ability to love well, not in his ability to fight well, the former being a much nobler trait; the latter, much more primitive.

In attempting to view the text in this way, contemporary critics have over-looked the essence of the narrative--the psychology of Genji-- missing the very quality which makes this work still so relevant today. Theories of Euro-American narratology do not translate to the text in the same way the western archetypal hero figure does not translate to Genji.

Genji is a romantic hero for many different reasons. He shares many traits with the English romantic poets through both the way he lives his life and through his poetry. He understands and appreciates the ephemeral qualities of life, in turn giving him the heightened sensibilities required of a poet. Genji’s heroism is in stark contrast to the western heroic archetype of such old texts, yet he emerges as a hero in a much more profound and noble way. It is through the artistic depictions of Genji, particularly is isolation and retreat to Suma, that the melancholic Byronic hero emerges. Genji does not resort to barbaric fighting or gallantry to prove his heroism, yet in the end it is suggested that he achieves his immortality through the legacy he leaves behind. Genji values the sublime qualities of life and nature, he uses poetry as a spontaneous expression of his emotions, his relationships take precedence over his political status, and his psychological isolation sets him apart from everyday trivialities at court. For all of these reasons, Genji is heroic. He was a romantic hero even before the term came into existence. In this way he proves to be a recognizable hero for both eastern and western readers and views of the scrolls.

Works Cited

Bowring, Richard. Murasaki Shikibu: The Tale of Genji. 2nd ed. West Nyack, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.

McCormick, Melissa. “Genji Goes West: The 1510 ‘Genji Album’ and the Visualization of Court and Capital.” The Art Bulletin, 85.1. March, 2003. 54-85. Web. 15 November 2013.

Priest, Alan. “The Tale of Genji.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin , 15.1. Summer, 1956. 1-8. Web. 13 November 2013.

Shikibu, Murasaki. The Tale of Genji. ed. Edward G. Seidensticker. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.

Wordsworth, William. “The Preface to Lyrical Ballads”. UPenn English. 4.3. Spring 2006. Web. 15 November 2013.

Yoda, Tomiko. “Fractured Dialogues: Mono no aware and Poetic Communication in The Tale of Genji”. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. 59.2. Web. 13 November 2013.