Writers of the Heian Era: Fiction, The Tale of Genji 1
The greatest work produced during the Heian era was The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, lady-in-waiting to Empress Akiko. Considered the world’s first novel, Genji is written as an absorbing portrait of Heian court life, the splendor of its rituals, and aesthetic culture. One of the most fascinating passages in the novel is a long conversation among the hero, Genji, and his friends one rainy night about women (where Genji himself remains mostly silent, an interested and sometimes skeptical listener) that has since become known among Genji-philes as “the rainy night disquisition on the types of women.”
Several recognizable types are taken up and critiqued by the men, who profess the greatest difficulties in finding and even determining what constitutes the ideal woman or the one who would make a good wife. Not the least interesting aspect of this discussion is the fact that it transpires among men only, but was conceived by a woman writer; this factor suggests that the men’s opinions should be read with some irony or the proverbial grain of salt. Nevertheless, the “disquisition on types of women,” which occurs early, in Chapter 2 “The Broom Tree,” has also been read as a key to the subsequent development of the novel’s plot and the various types of women who make their appearance in its pages.
What is indubitable is that it is a key to understanding gender relations in the Heian period. The first passage below presents a striking analogy between the wife and the emperor’s minister; the second reveals the taboo against a woman openly expressing extreme emotions like anger and the male expectation that she will “overlook” his indiscretions and show understanding instead of resentment.
Men Hold Forth on Women
They talked on, of the varieties of women.
“A man sees women, all manner of them, who seem beyond reproach,” said the guards officer, “but when it comes to picking the wife who must be everything, matters are not simple. The emperor has trouble, after all, finding the minister who has all the qualifications. A man may be very wise, but no man can govern by himself. Superior is helped by subordinate, subordinate defers to superior, and so affairs proceed by agreement and concession. But when it comes to choosing the woman who is to be in charge of your house, the qualifications are altogether too many. A merit is balanced by a defect, there is this good point and that bad point, and even women who though not perfect can be made to do are not easy to find. I would not like to have you think me a profligate who has to try them all. But it is a question of the woman who must be everything, and it seems best, other things being equal, to find someone who does not require shaping and training, someone who has most of the qualifications from the start. The man who begins his search with all this in mind must be reconciled to searching for a very long time.”
“There are those who display a womanly reticence to the world, as if they had never heard of complaining. They seem utterly calm. And then when their thoughts are too much for them they leave behind the most horrendous notes, the most flamboyant poems, the sort of keepsakes certain to call up dreadful memories, and off they go into the mountains or to some remote seashore. When I was a child I would hear the women reading romantic stories, and I would join them in their sniffling and think it all very sad, all very profound and moving. Now I am afraid that it suggests certain pretenses.
“It is very stupid, really, to run off and leave a perfectly kind and sympathetic man. He may have been guilty of some minor dereliction, but to run off with no understanding at all of his true feelings, with no purpose other than to attract attention and hope to upset him—it is an unpleasant sort of memory to have to live with. She gets drunk with admiration for herself and there she is, a nun. When she enters her convent she is sure that she has found enlightenment and has no regrets for the vulgar world.
“Her women come to see her. ‘How very touching,’ they say. ‘How brave of you.’
“But she no longer feels quite as pleased with herself. The man, who has not lost his affection for her, hears of what has happened and weeps, and certain of her old attendants pass this intelligence on to her. ‘He is a man of great feeling, you see. What a pity that it should have come to this.’ The woman can only brush aside her newly cropped hair to reveal a face on the edge of tears. She tries to hold them back and cannot, such are her regrets for the life she has left behind; and the Buddha is not likely to think her one who has cleansed her heart of passion. Probably she is in more danger of brimstone now in this fragile vocation than if she had stayed with us in our sullied world.
“The bond between husband and wife is a strong one. Suppose the man had hunted her out and brought her back. The memory of her acts would still be there, and inevitably, sooner or later, it would be cause for rancor. When there are crises, incidents, a woman should try to overlook them, for better or for worse, and make the bond into something durable. The wounds will remain, with the woman and with the man, when there are crises such as I have described. It is very foolish for a woman to let a little dalliance upset her so much that she shows her resentment openly. He has his adventures—but if he has fond memories of their early days together, his and hers, she may be sure that she matters. A commotion means the end of everything. She should be quiet and generous, and when something comes up that quite properly arouses her resentment she should make it known by delicate hints. The man will feel guilty and with tactful guidance he will mend his ways. Too much lenience can make a woman seem charmingly docile and trusting, but it can also make her seem somewhat wanting in substance. We have had instances enough of boats abandoned to the winds and waves. Do you not agree?”
Tô no Chûjô nodded. “It may be difficult when someone you are especially fond of, someone beautiful and charming, has been guilty of an indiscretion, but magnanimity produces wonders. They may not always work, but generosity and reasonableness and patience do on the whole seem best.”
Seidensticker, Edward, trans. Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.