So, I don’t know if you read my twitter account, but if you do, then you’ve noticed that for roughly the past two weeks I’ve been tweeting about the ridiculousness of the Tale of Genji.
Until very, very recently (like…three weeks ago), I thought the Tale of Genji was about a bad-ass samurai who goes around slicing up dragons and evil warlords and shit like that. In my mind it was kind of in the same genre as The Epic Of Gilgamesh or The Legend of Hamza or Beowulf (except, of course, that it was prose. Even I knew that this was the “first novel” [although there were some Roman and Greek novels that I keep meaning to read]).
But it is not about that at all! The Tale Of Genji is twelve hundred pages (I read the single-volume unabridged Seidensticker translation) of solid domestic drama. The main character is this guy, Genji, who is the emperor’s favorite son (but for complicated reasons, can not become emperor himself) and who is super beautiful and loved by everyone. And this novel documents his relationships with about two dozen women (and then follows it up with 400 or so pages of a complicated story involving Genji’s son and grandson).
The Tale of Genji is really beautiful. And the writing is very modern. There’s a sense of grace and sadness that emanates from it, even from the very first pages, but which intensifies as you read on. It can be slow going (at least it was for me), but it’s also a really memorable and fascinating experience.
And it’s also really kind of a disturbing book. Because Genji rapes a lot of women in it. Like, at least five or six. And Genji is definitely the hero. He’s “shining Genji”. You’re supposed to love Genji (at least it seems that way) and see him as kind of a romantic ideal. But the book, although the book is euphemistic and indirect at places, it is also not the least bit ambiguous about saying that Genji forcibly has sex with women. For instance, take this example from the second half of the book, where he rapes the long-lost daughter of his best friend.
“The night was a lovely one. The breeze was rustling the bamboo, the wind had stopped, and a bright moon had come out. Her women had tactfully withdrawn. Though he saw a great deal of her, a better opportunity did not seem likely to present itself. From the momentum, perhaps, which his avowal had given him, he threw off his robe with practiced skill — it was a soft one that made no sound — and pulled her down beside him.
“She was stunned. What would her women think? She was sobbing helplessly. Her father might treat her coldly, but at least he would protect her from such outrages.”
Now, when I searched the internet to figure out what people think about this aspect of the Tale of Genji, I found articles like this one, which say, basically, “That’s how things were back then.”
But I don’t think that’s a very satisfying answer. A lot of books in them that have a lot of rape in them. For instance, does anyone think that Briseis consented to having sex with Achilles? But in cases where that rape is totally internalized as part of the culture of the author, it goes pretty unnoticed (as in the Iliad) and it is left to revisionist writers (like Euripides in The Trojan Women) to bring that sort of thing up.
I don’t know how common rape was in these social circles in Heian Japan. If I had to guess, I’d say that it was not as common as it is in the Tale Of Genji, because even in the novel, all the other characters will occasionally talk about how Genji is a little too interested in amorous adventures and hound-dogging on girls.
But even if it was common, this novel clearly views it as something emotionally traumatic and wrong. Over and over, you see women crying, or distressed, or offended by Genji’s rather forceful overtures.
But then again, they also usually recover, and come to love Genji.
It’s difficult. How can Genji engage in this behavior that is unforgiveable, in modern times, and pretty despicable, even by the standards of the book, and yet continue to be not only the hero of the novel, but also to held up as some kind of romantic ideal?
The book does not really offer an easy answer to that question. And that’s part of the reason why it’s worth reading.