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The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shicubu Research Paper

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Updated: Oct 16th, 2021

In this paper I discuss Murasaki Shicubus “The Tale of Genji”, analyzing close relationships between Buddhism and Japanese literature, and showing how the main principles of this religion are reflected in the novel. In particular, I explore the behavior of the main character Genji, analyzing how the religion influences his relationships with other people. Then, I discuss, how Buddhism affects his relations with women, in general and Lady Murasaki in particular.

I will also analyze the morality or immorality of the main character within the context of Buddhist values, asking how the religion might validate his behavior. The main thesis is that the main character evolves with time passing, this genesis is mostly connected with the realization of his sins and mistakes. It is necessary to show in what way Genji changes and how the author illustrates this change in the novel. In addition to that, I should describe the way in which the main character realizes his mistake, whether it is regret, repentance, or humility. It is of the crucial importance to answer the question, why the main character never does become a monk, and what ties him to the mundane world. The conflict between his intention to leave the world and his desire to retain the memories of Murasaki is the key issue of the analysis. In this paper, I explore the underlying reasons of this conflict, and show it manifests itself.

As we have already mentioned in the thesis, we should discuss the behavior of the main character in terms of Buddhist principles and show the genesis of his character. First, we should analyze the relationships between him and his father, the Emperor. Actually, the Emperor did not have a name, the fact that Genji was given a name, means that he was removed from imperial succession. It is also one of the factors, that shapes the behavior of the main character.

Genji does not feel piety to his father, which entire contradicts the norms of the then Japanese society and Buddhist values. In point of fact, the emperor was always viewed as the subject of worship, that it why Genjis behavior seems to be outrageous. However, there are some reasons for it. First, it is connected with his envy and unfulfilled ambitions of becoming the Emperor. Moreover, Genji wants to be with his stepmother, lady Fujitsubo in part because she reminds him of her mother. Thus, we may see that his behavior entirely contradicts the tenets of Buddhism, because in its core it is based on envy and passion. Every person who wishes to be enlightened has to get rid of such feelings, because they will have disastrous effects on people, who surround him.

The envy that he constantly feels towards his father makes him forget about his duties and obligations. The author constantly stresses the idea that envy became his strongest feeling, for example “Genji asked himself in intense envy, Why not make this life my own?” It does not even occur to him that this he does not deserve this life. His egoism makes him forget everything else. Genji cannot even imagine that his behavior can imperil lives of other people.

His dark passion for lady Fujitsubo and the knowledge that the father of her son was Genji, but not the Emperor made her live in constant fear. The author describes her emotional state in the following war “Lacking anyone else to trust, she looked only to Genji in all things, and his failure to give up his unfortunate obsession often reduced her to despair”. Even the thought that “any breath of it might reach His Majesty.” practically drives her insane. It seems to him that every person has to indulge his whims. Thus, we can see that his desires caused pain to other people. It takes him a very long time to understand it; Genji is capable to admit his mistakes only when he becomes an old man.

Such notions as envy and passion are incompatible with this religion. In addition to that, his passion puts even his life in danger. It becomes the strongest stimuli in his life; he is not able to overcome it. The author describes it in the following way” Passion or not, how could he have allowed a forbidden desire to overwhelm him at the cost of his own life? What a terrible thing for her!”.

The author stresses the idea that since their first meeting, Genji had always wanted to be with this woman. She says, “One wonders why there lived on in him nothing of the reckless passion that had possessed him when he first began courting her.”

It should be taken into account that the main character attempts to discover the reason of his passion for this woman, probably he tries to find some reasonable excuse, however he fails to do it. The author descries theses feeble attempts in the following way “Despite himself he wondered what bond from the past could have aroused a passion so consuming and so unfamiliar”. Perhaps, the only reason of such behavior is egoism. However, it may also be connected with his quest for his mother, whom Genji never knew. This woman reminds him of her. As it has been mentioned before, true enlightenment, according to Buddhism means ability set aside one own ego. It seems that the main character is not able to do it.

It will not be an exaggeration to say that their relationships were doomed to failure. This idea is constantly stressed throughout the novel.” Perhaps he had been fated to love her, but for him to have ignored the reproofs and the anger of so many”.

The main character understands that his ambition and desires cause pain to other people and what is more important to himself, but he cannot abandon it. The author is constantly paying extra attention to this fact. She says “whenever he thought over the wrong he had suffered; he found that he could not renounce his desire”.

Analyzing the relationships between Murasaki and Genji, we can say that they contradict the main principles of Buddhism, because they originate from sexual desire or perhaps longing.

It should be mentioned that Genji attempts to find an excuse for his behavior, saying, “Every man is subject to passion, for he is neither stock nor stone”. Only when he becomes old he understands it was hypocrisy. He fails to see the difference between passion and love, which are entirely different notions.

The main character says that after seeing Murasaki, he became obsessed with her: “the pleasure of having her with him day and night, to make up for the absence of the lady he loved”. Genji falls in love with this woman because she strikingly resembles his mother, whom he never knew. It should be mentioned that his “search” for his mother is one of the crucial motifs in the novel. Almost every woman that falls in love with is associated with his mother.

Thus, we can arrive at the conclusion that Buddhism cannot validate Genjis passion for Murassaki or probably it would be better to say his sexual desire, but it can validate his love for this woman. Love and passion are quite different notions, because love implies responsibility and not hurting the object of ones love, whereas passion or desire is always egoistic or self-centered.

Regarding the attitude of the main character to his behavior, it is worth mentioning that he does not even want to acknowledge that his actions contradict the main principle of the religion he professes. Genji says “Myriads of gods must feel pity in their hearts when they look on me: there is nothing I have done that anyone could call a crime” (223). This is probably the most peculiar feature of his character at the beginning of the novel.

The main peculiarity of the main character is that he does not only violate the main principles of Buddhism, he can also represent them. Growing older, Genji becomes aware of all his mistakes and imperfections, and consequently he decides to become a monk and go to the mountains but he cannot do that, because he is still deep in love with Murassaki.

Genji, himself describes it in the following war “I felt such passion for her that that alone seems to have thwarted my hope of leading a holy life”. Only when this woman dies, he is able to set aside all his attachments in the world and dedicate himself to religion.

However, Genji never becomes a monk, he only intends to do it. There are several explanations for it. Probably the main character does not become a monk because he knows that he does not deserve this title. Genji says “As a monk I am hopeless enough already, and I am sure that I violate this precept or that all the time, but I have never suffered reproach over a woman” In fact, Genji never becomes a monk.

However, we can say that one does not necessarily have to be a monk in order to enlighten. It is also worth mentioning that his redemption or realization of his mistakes has some very curious features. It is some form of humility; he understands that he is far from being ideal; however it does not seem Genji also to feel contrition for his actions. Genji explains his reasons for not becoming a monk in the following way “despite my wish to renounce the world and I know that I can do nothing to change” (873). We may observe the inner struggle between his attachment to the world and his intention to leave the world. He says ‘on the whole I have done, what I could to avoid attachment to anything in this world’ Moreover, Genji mentions “nothing really prevented me from giving my life to wander the farthest mountains and plains. In the end, though, even now, when my own time is coming, I am still caught up in the ties that I should properly shun, It is maddening to be so fainthearted”. He blames his failure to become a monk on his own lack of will. Moreover, he burns the letters of Murasaki (and all his letters). Genji says that he can “hardly bear the sorrow of remembering it all and of endlessly recalling” This act symbolizes his rejection of the world. Genji destroys all the traces of his encounters with other women. In his view, such act means denouncing the world and leaving it. However, he destroys only material evidence of his attachment to the world. Although memories of Lady Murasaki cause him pain, he cannot forget her, because they also give him joy. He says “Everything about her that moved me, or impressed me, or gave me pleasure, comes back in an overwhelming flood of memories” (772). Genji ascribes his inability to forget this woman to his faintheartedness, but we can see that, in fact he does not want to forget lady Murassaki. Reducing all her letters to ashes is just an act of self-deception. It is not Buddhist renunciation of the world. According to Buddhism, a person should only perceive the world but not assess it. This is what Genji fails to do.

Therefore, we may arrive at the conclusion that the main character does not become a monk, because he understands that passion and desire are still deep-rooted in him. Genji says that it is quite a normal state for a human being. He says that every person is “a subject of desire”.

Thus, having analyzed the novel “The Tale of Genji” we may come to the following conclusions. The main message that the author wants to convey is that a person who is driven only by his desires and ambitions is doomed to failure and only the person who can set aside his egoism can truly achieve the enlightenment.

Another main idea is of this philosophical novel is the very concept of love. Murasaki Shikibu stresses the fact that it differs from the dark passion or sexual desires. Probably, in her idea, it means devotion and responsibility for your actions.

As far as the main character, Genji is concerned we should mentioned the following. First, he is able to admit all his faults only when he becomes an elderly person, however, his realization of his mistakes takes a very curious form. Genji acknowledges that he is far from ideal, but he does not want to dedicate the rest of his life to religion, because he believes that he cannot eradicate such feelings as passion or desire from his consciousness. Probably the modal verb “can” is not the most appropriate in this case. Genji does not want to do it


  1. Bargen, Doris G (1988). “Spirit Possession in the Context of Dramatic Expressions of Gender Conflict: The Aoi Episode of the Genji monogatari“. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 48(1): 95-130.
  2. Haruo Shirane. “The Bridge of Dreams: A Poetics of ‘The Tale of Genji’” Stanford University Press, 1987.
  3. Murasaki Shikibu, Royall Tyler. “The Tale of Genji”: Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, 2003.
  4. Richard John Bowring. “The Religious Traditions of Japan, 500-1600” Cambridge University Press, 2005.
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