A major ambition of many ranking gentlemen in the world of The Tale of Genji—the court in the imperial city that is now Kyoto—was to present a daughter to the Emperor or the Heir Apparent. For this reason the Emperor normally had a range of recognized relationships with women, less because of sexual acquisitiveness on his part than because he was required to make his prestige relatively widely accessible to the members of the upper aristocracy. Below his single Empress (Chugu) he had several Consorts (Nyogo) and, lower still, a certain number of Intimates (Koi). His Mistress of Staff (Naishi no Kami) in theory a palace official, easily could also be in practice a junior wife. These imperial women were not equal. An Empress was normally appointed from among the Consorts, but by no means did all the Consorts have any realistic hope of such success, and the Intimates had none at all. Their birth rank was too low, and they lacked the necessary weight of political support.

Genji, the hero of the tale, is an Emperor's son by an Intimate who has lost her father and so has no support of any kind beyond the Emperor's personal devotion to her. It is not enough. The Emperor longs to appoint Genji Heir Apparent over his firstborn, who is the son of a Consort, but he knows that the court would never stand for it. He therefore decides to remove Genji entirely from the imperial family by giving him a surname (the Japanese Emperors have none), so that he can serve the realm as a commoner and a senior government official.

The name he receives, Minamoto, was first conferred on a historical Emperor's son in 814 and so has appropriate associations. When the boy receives it from his father (in chapter 1, "The Paulownia Pavilion"), he becomes "a Genji"—that is to say, a bearer of the Minamoto (gen, another reading of the same character) name (ji). This device allows him to belong to both realms, the imperial and the common, and so gives him maximum scope as a character.

Some contemporary readers insist that The Tale of Genji is less about Genji himself than about the women in it—their feelings, their experiences, their fates. However, it is to Genji that the narrative returns again and again during his life. He is, so to speak, its home. That is why this summary will follow his story, passing over in silence along the way a great many characters and scenes. It is meant neither to exaggerate Genji's importance nor to replace a reading of the tale, merely to orient someone about to start the book.

At the end of chapter 1, Genji is married to the daughter of a particularly powerful courtier. No one consults him on the matter, and in fact he is too young for the marriage to affect him very much. His wife, known to readers as Aoi, continues to live at her father's, which was normal, while he remains in residence at the imperial palace. (For the meaning of "known to readers," see "Narration, Courtesy, and Names" on page xxi.) His mother died too soon after his birth for him to have known her, but he hears that his father's future Empress (Fujitsubo) resembles her closely, and in his earliest adolescence he comes to adore her. In time he will secretly make love to Fujitsubo, and their son will succeed to the throne.

Still, Fujitsubo is really beyond his reach, and he longs for someone who can be his alone. He finds this special love in a little girl who looks just like her. Murasaki, who is Fujitsubo's niece, is about ten when he first sees her. He brings her up personally, and when she is old enough he marries her. She is the true, great love of his life, and her death (chapter 40, "The Law") destroys him. In the meantime, however, he will have known many other women.

As a boy Genji seems to love Fujitsubo because people say she looks like his mother, and he is quite conscious of what draws him so uncannily to Murasaki. Much has been made of these substitutions, some readers suggesting that all Genji's other women are equally stand-ins for his mother. However, the narrative up to the time of his death does not encourage that view. Fujitsubo dies in chapter 19 ("Wisps of Cloud") and vanishes from his reported thoughts after chapter 20 ("The Bluebell").

In chapter 2 ("The Broom Tree") the teenage Genji listens while three young men share the secrets of their love lives. This is the famous "rating women on a rainy night" conversation, which opens his eyes to wider possibilities. Later in the same chapter he goes exploring, and in several succeeding ones he begins more affairs. This behavior has led to his being called a playboy, a profligate, or worse. However, several of these chapters are extremely amusing, and the author may have used him only to present the varieties of a youthful lover's folly in a series of brilliant episodes, ranging from tragic obsession to utter, hilarious disaster. Moreover, the narrator insists several times that Genji never forgot any woman he had once known, and the tale bears this out.

Genji the lover is devastatingly handsome, charming, and eloquent, and he seems to enjoy throughout his life absolutely unlimited material means. As a very young man he naturally has little weight or responsibility in the world at large, but increasing age and rank, as well as his extraordinary natural gifts, soon begin to make him a political force, hence to stiffen political opposition against him. Being Genji, always out for adventure, he cannot resist making love to one of the daughters (known to readers as Oborozukiyo) of his chief political enemy, and disaster strikes when the gentleman finds him in bed with her. Unfortunately, the girl's older sister (the Heir Apparent's mother) is not only powerful but evil tempered. In her outrage she sets out immediately to destroy Genji, and he has to retreat into self-exile.

He goes to Suma, a stretch of shore on the Inland Sea that is now within the city limits of Kobe, and since he is in disgrace he must leave Murasaki behind. The narrative dwells at length on the poignancy of his suffering as he languishes in the wilds. Then a great storm threatens his very life. He has strange dreams of his late father and of other supernatural beings. As soon as the storm begins to subside, an eccentric and wealthy gentleman (the Akashi Novice) arrives by boat to invite him to be his guest a little farther along the shore, at a place called Akashi. Genji accepts.

At Akashi, Genji comes to know the gentleman's daughter (the lady from Akashi), who is pregnant when at last he is called back to the City. He already has a son (Yugiri) by his first wife, who died some years ago, and of course there is also his secret son by Fujitsubo, the future Emperor Reizei. This new child, his last, is a girl, and in time, after Reizei's long reign, she will be the Empress. It is she who will lift Genji toward the supreme good fortune of a ranking nonimperial noble: that of being the grandfather of an Emperor.

After his triumphant return from exile (chapter 13, "Akashi"), Genji is above all a man of power. Although still susceptible to the charms of certain women, he does not actually consummate any new affairs. He seems concerned mainly with beauty and prestige.

Genji's only serious courtship between chapters 14 and 33 is addressed to a Princess (Asagao), with whom he clearly had some sort of relationship as a very young man (chapter 2). It comes early (chapter 20), it does not last long, and it is a complete failure. Wondering why he tries at all, readers have suggested he is nostalgic for Fujitsubo. Perhaps his rapidly rising stature has reminded him that although he loves Murasaki deeply, she is not really worthy before the world (as the Princess would be) of the figure he has become.

By chapter 33 ("New Wisteria Leaves") Genji has risen to extraordinary heights. He has built a magnificent complex of four interconnected mansions, each linked with one of the four seasons and housing a lady important to him, on land that seems to have passed to him from an extremely distinguished lover, the Rokujo Haven (Rokujo no Miyasudokoro, now deceased). This is his incomparable Rokujo ("Sixth Avenue") estate. More remarkably, the Emperor, his secret son, has appointed him Honorary Retired Emperor. There was no historical precedent for this step at the time of the tale. Genji now towers over his world.

Then, in chapter 34 ("Spring Shoots I") Genji responds to an appeal from his half brother, Retired Emperor Suzaku. As an ineffectual young Emperor, Suzaku was forced by his mother to persecute Genji and his allies. Now he is planning to renounce the world, and his favorite daughter is still very young and immature. He therefore wants Genji to look after her: in other words, to marry her. Genji agrees. Perhaps he hopes for a new, younger Murasaki, since this girl, too, is Fujitsubo's niece. However, she is also the great prize sought by the most ambitious young men of the court, and she has the one thing that Murasaki lacks: the rank that would allow her to be a wife even for an Honorary Retired Emperor.

Alas, that is all she has to offer, since otherwise she is a complete nonentity. Too late, Genji realizes that he has made a bad mistake. Even he cannot afford to slight Retired Emperor Suzaku's daughter, but when Murasaki becomes ill, he abandons her nonetheless for weeks on end to look after Murasaki. In time this causes a new disaster. A young man steals in to Suzaku's daughter while almost all her staff are away and makes love to her (chapter 35, "Spring Shoots II").

Genji soon finds out, and he is furious. To make matters worse, she is now pregnant, and in due course she bears Kaoru—a boy wrongly assumed by the world to be Genji's son. The lover dies of guilt and shame soon after the birth. Suzaku's daughter becomes a nun over Genji's strenuous objections. Meanwhile Murasaki is still ill. Genji's new marriage has been a catastrophe.

Murasaki dies two or three years later, in her early forties. Genji, then in his early fifties, survives her as a mere shell of his former self. It appears that after the reader sees him for the last time, he leaves the world, retires to a temple, and dies within a year or two.

The narrative in the last third of the book—the last thirteen chapters—resumes after a gap of about eight years. Several major characters have disappeared from the scene. Chapters 42 to 44 ("The Perfumed Prince" through "Bamboo River") are disjointed, but from chapter 45 ("The Maiden of the Bridge") on, the tale is all of a piece.

Chapter 42 reintroduces as young men Kaoru and Genji's grandson Niou, a son of the daughter (now Empress) born long ago at Akashi. Niou and Kaoru are fast friends, and from chapter 45 on they are rivals in love.

After a bitter experience of court life, a certain Prince, a widower, has retired with his two daughters to Uji, a few hours' ride south of the City. There, beside the Uji River, he has sought refuge in religion, and the rumor of his noble piety reaches Kaoru, who also feels vaguely out of place in the world. In chapter 45 Kaoru begins visiting him and hears at last, from an old woman there, the secret of his own birth. He also catches a glimpse of the Prince's daughters and longs for the elder (Oigimi). In fact, he rather wants them both, but he nonetheless tells his friend Niou about them, and Niou begins to court the younger sister (Naka no Kimi). Soon he manages to make love to her.

This should commit Niou to Naka no Kimi, but he can seldom actually make the trip to Uji, and his prolonged absences now convince both sisters that he has only been toying with her. Oigimi becomes certain that she will suffer the same fate if she ever accepts Kaoru, and she decides that she no longer wishes to live. At the end of chapter 47 ("Trefoil Knots") she starves herself to death, and Kaoru is heartbroken.

In chapter 48 ("Bracken Shoots") Niou moves Naka no Kimi to his residence in the City, but in chapter 49 ("The Ivy") he is obliged by intense political and parental pressure to accept as his main wife a daughter of Genji's son Yugiri, now the most powerful official at court. Kaoru remains in touch with Naka no Kimi, and he now notices that she is much more like her sister than he had realized. He begins to long for her after all, and his attentions arouse Niou's jealousy. To deflect them, Naka no Kimi tells him about a half sister of hers: a third, unrecognized daughter of the Prince. Readers know this young woman as Ukifune. Ukifune, she says, looks extraordinarily like Oigimi, and the resemblance indeed stuns Kaoru when he sees her. Henceforth, he resolves to pursue Ukifune.

Unfortunately, when Ukifune comes to spend a few days with Naka no Kimi, Niou discovers her, too. Immediately after that, Kaoru consummates his union with Ukifune and moves her secretly to the now empty house at Uji, but Niou still manages to track her down and to make love to her himself (chapter 51, "A Drifting Boat").

Ukifune is now caught between the two. Kaoru is a far greater lord than she could normally expect to marry even as a junior wife, and her mother is all in favor of him, but Niou excites her much more. Kaoru, who has been building a house for her in the City, announces the date when he will come and fetch her, and the tension mounts as Niou plans to spirit her away first. Unable to choose between them, Ukifune decides to drown herself in the Uji River.

As chapter 52 ("The Mayfly") begins, she has disappeared. No body is found, and to keep up appearances the household arranges a quick, false funeral. Kaoru and Niou mourn her. However, she has not drowned after all. Near the beginning of chapter 53 ("Writing Practice") two monks find her, speechless and weeping, under a tree. They report their discovery to their master, a senior cleric, and the cleric's sister, a nun, looks after her tenderly. She finds that Ukifune is not in a normal state of consciousness and that she is also suffering from total amnesia. Since the whole party has only been passing through Uji on a pilgrimage, the sister takes her home to a place called Ono, where Ukifune's condition remains unchanged for two months until at last the cleric exorcises her. She then recovers some of her memory, but she keeps whatever she remembers to herself. Next she convinces the cleric to ordain her as a nun.

By the end of chapter 53, a year after Ukifune's supposed death, Kaoru has caught wind of her existence, and in chapter 54 ("The Floating Bridge of Dreams") he verifies who and where she is. Determined to see her again, he sends her a letter by her young half brother, but she refuses either to acknowledge that the letter is for her or to recognize the boy. In the book's closing lines, the disappointed Kaoru wonders whether someone else (presumably Niou) has been keeping her hidden there for himself.

This inconclusive ending troubles some readers, and it has been suggested that the author died or was otherwise obliged to leave the tale unfinished. However, the ambiguity may also be intentional.


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