The author of The Pillow Book is Sei Shonagon, a Japanese writer who served as a court lady to the Japanese empress in the 1000s. Interestingly, Sei Shonagon never intended to publish her writings. She wrote down different stories from her everyday life and thoughts and opinions about everything that surrounded her. Thus, this book resembles a set of small observations that do not have a single uniting plot. Moreover, most of the book’s parts are not connected to each other. Sei Shonagon was educated and literate not only because she was a part of the high society, but also because she was a daughter of a famous poet.
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While The Pillow Book does not have a plot or a particular structure, some repeating ideas can be found in different short stories. For instance, Sei Shonagon wrote about various topics and divided them according to her beliefs. Therefore, the book has such chapters as “Hateful Things” and “Elegant Things.” The author wrote from her perspective, and it is clear that she was not afraid to speak her mind about most situations. For instance, her disapproval of the lower class can be seen in some chapters. Furthermore, her somewhat sarcastic or humorous depictions of the court life also show her as an intelligent writer.
The book’s primary interest is life itself, as the author often focuses on small details of everyday activities. Her descriptions of writing a letter and sending it to another person indicate that she often found beauty in small and mundane elements of one’s existence. Therefore, the author’s main ideas were centered on her personal feelings and perceptions. One of the main ideas explored in the book is beauty.
Sei Shonagon’s occupation and the palace’s environment filled her life with beautiful objects, people, and surroundings, which affected her outlook on visible and intangible qualities. In her stories, Sei Shonagon often judged persons by their appearance and manners, referring to the acceptable standards of beauty and etiquette. Thus, her depiction of a man, for example, placed more value on his process of waking up and leaving his lover than on his personality or skills. Similarly, her lamentation about men sometimes choosing “ugly” women also supports the idea of physical beauty being more important to her.
The concept of physical beauty interested the author more, which is reflected in her descriptions of nature as well. She described water drops falling and leaves rustling in detail and revealed her fascination with nature, which is reflected in many chapters of the paper. However, the ideas of natural beauty are contrasted with her negative views of people’s manners and the lack of them. For example, she did not mind gossiping but found talking about other people while they were nearby extremely embarrassing. She also had an opinion on people’s intelligence, conversational skills, and elegance, often belittling people with limited knowledge of literature and manners. Her fascination with the rituals and traditions of the royal court also reveal her love for beauty and luxury. It is clear that these ideas were coming from her upper-class upbringing.
The author’s background directly affected her writing style and the contents of the book. Sei Shonagon was a part of the upper class, which is visible in her descriptions of commoners and peasants. Her family ties and status also contributed to her literacy and poetry skills. Thus, she was able to write poetry similarly to her parents and relatives. Moreover, her service to the empress also impacted her writing, as she was able to record various situations from the life of the court. Her daily activities and upbringing resulted in her having defined views on etiquette, fashion, and customs.
The Pillow Book is a combination of thoughts and descriptions of everyday situations which the author recorded for herself rather than for someone else. Sei Shonagon expressed her opinions about people and nature and focused on discovering the joy of living and advocating for certain manners and behaviors being superior to others. Her straightforward statements may seem rude, but they reveal her human nature with all its contradictions.