Really Old Classics

The Tale of Genji – First Impressions

Matthew is hosting a read along for The Tale of Genji. In this first week we have read chapters 1 – 4, so in this post I will try to summarise my first impressions of the book.genji2

I was right to be apprehensive about reading The Tale of Genji. It isn’t that it is long, as I often enjoy books with a longer, more complicated plot; or that the language is hard to read, because I have found it no more difficult than many modern books. The thing that makes it so difficult is that the world this book is set in is so different to the one we live in today. The structure of the society is completely alien to me, and so even simple things like who the Emperor can take as his wife need careful explaining.

Footnotes fill the bottom of every page, and I am finding them very distracting. They ruin the flow of the narrative and so I have decided to ignore them on the first reading, going back to read them all at the end of each chapter. This means I am effectively having to read the whole book twice, but I think this is necessary at the moment, as I am struggling to remember who’s who and understand the complex structure of the society.


Chapter One

Genji, the central character in the book, is the son of the Emperor. His mother was very low ranking and dies when he is just three-years-old. Genji is beautiful and very talented, and the Emperor longs to make him his Heir Apparent, over first born son, but knows the court will not stand for this. So the Emperor gives him a gives him a surname, so making him a commoner. At the age of twelve Genji marries Aoi.

Chapter Two

Chapter Two is much more conversational;, and we start to get a better feeling for the attitudes of the characters, especially their thoughts on women. Several of the men (I haven’t quite grasped who they are yet!) discuss their lovers. We also find out a bit more about the structure of their homes – I loved finding out some of the domestic details:

…the place is nice and cool – he recently diverted the stream through his property

The chapter ends with Genji  hiring a young boy as a messenger. I was a bit confused by the final paragraph of this section:

Genji had the boy lie down with him. The boy so appreciated his master’s youth and gentleness that they say Genji found him much nicer than his cruel sister.

Is this a sexual sentence? Does it imply Genji slept with the boy and his sister?

Chapter Three

I loved seeing the game of Go mentioned. When I was at school I competed in several Go tournaments, and actually won a few trophies. I love playing Go, but unfortuanetly no one will play me any more, as I always win!


Genji wants to seduce one woman, but she resists and runs off leaving Genji holding her outer robe. Genji tries to break into her room, but accidentally ends up in the room of someone else. He pretends that he did it on purpose and ends up spending the night with her instead.

Chapter Four

Genji goes to visit his dying nursemaid and spots a beautiful woman in a nearby house. They exchange a few notes until finally Genji manages to meet her. They spend the night together only for Genji to wake up in the morning and find her dead beside him.


Overall the beginning of The Tale of Genji  has been quite a challenge for me. I still have no idea who 3/4 of the characters are, or how they relate to each other. I hope everything just falls in to place soon, and perhaps some other members of the read-along will shed some light on a few things I have missed. It looks as though Genji is just seducing every woman in sight at the moment. I hope he calms down a bit soon!

How are you finding the read-along?

Do you know who everyone is?

What has been the hardest aspect of reading the book?

20 replies on “The Tale of Genji – First Impressions”

I’ll agree with Violet, the book IS beautiful. I don’t think I’m cut out for such a read, and will happily follow you, James and Matt in your takeaways! That Genji is a promiscuous little devil, isn’t he?

You make this book sound appealing…in a challenging sort of way. I’m almost tempted to join in! I’ll echo Violet and Sandy by saying your edition is gorgeous!
When I’m overwhelmed by footnotes, I sometimes skim them before I read the chapter. Sounds kind of crazy, but it gives me a vague idea or something will at least sound familiar and I don’t have to interrupt my reading.

Violet – I’m happy to have inspired you to read the book. It is the most beautiful one I’ve ever read.

Sandy – Genji is much more promiscuous than I thought he’d be!! He’s married while all this is going on too!

JoAnn – If I read the footnotes at the beginning of the chapter I’d be worried things would be given away. It is quite good to re-read things at this stage. I don’t like books with loads of foot notes for this reason though.

Good luck, Jackie! Tony tried reading this one a few months ago, and he just couldn’t do it. He had a different translation, but he found Genji really unsympathetic and creepy, and felt no motivation to read the book at all. Having read your review (and the part about him sleeping with the boy and the girl!), I’m not disinclined to disagree with him yet. Hopefully as you read more you will get into a good groove and not find it so challenging.

Steph – I haven’t found Genji creepy yet, but perhaps that is because I am still too confused to have a proper idea of his character.

I stopped studying English over 15 years ago, and never really liked analysising books. I much prefer a good plot and a book which is easy to follow. This is a massive challenge for me, but I am very stubborn and will follow it through to the end!

I’m a huge fan of Japanese literature. I haven’t read this book though and do no own it yet.

I’ve read the short story Rashomon and the novel Thousand Cranes w/c are awesome. I wanted to read this book. Hopefully I can get my hands on it soon.

*I skipped reading the chapter parts ;P* So I won’t get any ideas. ;P

I enjoyed this post and look forward to the next in the series. I don’t think I’ll read Genji anytime soon but I’m so interested to know what it is about. So this way is perfect! 🙂

webster12 – I love Japanese literature too. The Japanese really know how to write good stories, and they are so different to ones written in the west – you never know what is going to happen next!

mee – OK. I’ll try to keep up with the brief chapter summaries. I was worried that as the book went on it might spoil it for people, but I think that there are probably a lot of people who will never read the book, but might like to get an idea of what it is about.

I find the anonymous women galore in this book very challenging. Lady Murasaki seems to have made deliberate decision to omit the names of some of these women. It reveals a valid picture of women’s position in Japan and palace life. While Ch. 1 introduces Genji, it’s Ch. 2 that sets the overall tone and prediction for the book, that is, Genji’s musing of women from all ranks and classes. As he navigates from one affair to another, one thing that is common is the secretive and ephemeral nature of all these undertakings.

Matthew – The anonymous women only add to my problems reading this book. It gives a great insight into their culture, but I am still having trouble working it out. Hopefully I’ll be an expert by the time I get to the end!

I am exactly where you are right now in the very same edition. I’m skipping the footnotes for the most part, altogether with a few exceptions. They tend to be a bit technical, not all that important to understanding the story. The cast lists at the start of each chapter are very helpful.

Genji is interesting in romancing the boy’s sister but he does not have romantic feelings for the boy. Keep in mind he is only 17 at this point, and his marriage was an arranged one, performed at age 12. I doubt he has even seen his wife much. Maybe Matt can shed some light on that.

I think you also have to consider that this book was written over many years by a young woman. She began writing at age 27 and finished it 8 years later at age 35. I think there is a lot of wish fulfillment going on in Genji, it’s almost eleventh century chic-lit. Who knows how long Murasaki thought it would be when she began writing it. I’ve heard that once it became popular people in the emperor’s court were stealing the new chapters from her as fast as she could write them.

I’m keeping track of characters – by checking back to my edition’s list of principals quite regularly. My edition doesn’t seem to have as many footnotes as yours and I’m not finding them a problem. Not sure I’ve got a handle on the culture yet though, but I’m hoping that if I keep reading it will come.

As Steph said above, I did try and read this book and totally gave up. I read about 150 pages and threw in the towel, which is unusual for me considering I generally love all things concerning Japanese culture and history I almost never give up on a book. I think perhaps the biggest challenge was the meandering (bordering on nonexistent in some areas) plot, that and my lack of any empathy for Genji and his incessant philandering and misogyny added up to something I couldn’t stomach, certainly not stretching out over 1200 pages. All this book did was make me want to read Clavell’s Shogun again. Though certainly less historically important and accurate, it is far more interesting. Probably my western sensibilities showing there, but I am who I am, and no amount of assumed historical importance can make me enjoy something I find so off-putting.

But, good luck with your read! I hope it gives more to you than it did to me!

Jane – I do keep looking at the character lists, but I am finding it really hard to remember them – it is just too confusing at the moment. Matt’s spiderweb diagram just made me realise that is is as complicated as i imagined!

Tony – I think I am going to feel exactly the same as you did, and I don’t really know why I am continuing – probably because I’m really stubborn and want to be able to say I did it! I have Shogun here, but have been put off by the length. I’ll try to make sure I read it at somepoint though. I do keep hearing great things about it.

It’s funny because someone casually mentioned this book to me several weeks ago. I had never heard of it, but then I stumbled upon a used copy. I didn’t get it because it was too heavily marked with highlighter/pencil. But now everyone’s reading it together!

I can understand the challenge you feel reading this as I’ve felt that with similar books, but I’m sure it will all come together in the end. Good luck! Wish I had picked up that copy, marked or not, so I could join with you guys!

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