The Tale of GenjiThe Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


“The Tale of Genji,” the 11th Century classic tale of love and intrigue amoungst the high courtiers and noble ladies-in-waiting of the Japanese Heian Imperial Court holds a remarkable place in the history of World Literature as arguably the first novel in human history, the first psychological novel, the first novel by a woman–Lady Murasaki Shikibu, and one of the earliest exemplary works of the Global Vernacular Revolution.

Set in the Japanese Heian Imperial Court in Kyoto at the turn of the first millennium, this moving work centers on the life of Genji, born a lesser son of the Japanese Emperor, refined, handsome and full of romantic adventure, who for political reasons is relagated to the status of a commoner and takes up life on coming of age as a minor Imperial offical at court. While painting a vast panorama of Japanese high court society and its refined culture it follows Genji’s intricate and convoluted loves and sexual affairs, changing political fortunes from exile to the highest offices in the land, and his growing spiritual maturity leading to realization of the transience, melancholy and illusory nature of much of human experience.


Is “The Tale of Genji” the first novel in human history? As with most sweeping questions of this kind, the answer you get depends on how you ask the question, and how you define its critical term “novel.” Certainly in terms of chronology, The Tale of Genji, finished in its present form by 1021 AD, far predates Western claimants to the title of the world’s first novel, such as Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” of 1719, “The Princess of Cleves” (1678), by Mme de La Fayette, and Cervantes’ “Don Quixote de la Mancha” (1605, 1615),considered by many critics to be the most important single progenitor of the modern novel. What then is a novel? The most likely definition you will get from the standard textbooks would be: “a sustained work of prose fiction a volume or more in length.” Some would add substantive required elements such as sustained continuity of character and plot, organic wholeness and closeness to the experience and language of actual life—a work of imaginative fiction grounded in reality, others demurring. Yet implicit in this very inclusive definition focused on length is also the notion of what a novel is not, which may be controversial, such as its not being a short story, not an epic poem, not a collection of unrelated stories, not a history or pure biography and other contradistinguished genres. Accordingly, Boccaccio’s “Decameron” and Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” are often excluded as a series of unrelated stories rather than an organically whole novel. Additionally, suradded to our theoretical diffiuculties may be the problem of a differing definition of the novel in different cultures and literary traditions, as well as the shifting evolution of the concept of the genre over time.

Certainly by any definition of a novel the Tale of Genji should qualify. It is a sustained prose narrative of 54 Chapters with continuity of psychology and charater of the figures depicted over a lifetime, rooted in the lived experience of individuals in society over a generation, and has been treated as a novel in the literary traditions of Japanese Literature and in World Literature. The more perplexing dimension of the question of what is the first novel lies in the inclusion or exclusion of its earlier competitors for the title within the genre of the novel. Some would say Homer’s Odyssey should be regarded as the first novel, others excluding it by virtue of its verse and status as an epic. Others would counter that the genre of the novel contains “novels in verse” such as Byron’s “Don Juan” and Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” or recent attempts such as Vikram Seth’s “The Golden Gate,” and that “epic” and “novel” are not mutually exclusive categories, citing Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” or Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” as “epic novels.” Other quite legitimate contenders to unseat “The Tale of Genji” from the title to the world’s first novel in my opinion would include the classic narratives of Western Literature such as Petronius’s “Satyricon” (1st cent. A.D.) a vivid portrait of life in Nero’s Rome satirizing its corruption, and “The Metamorphoses” or “Golden Ass” (2d cent. A.D.) of Lucius Apuleius describing the fantastic adventures of a young man who is transformed into an ass, as well as “Daphnis and Chloë” (3d cent. A.D.), attributed to Longus,a love story about a goatherd and a shepherdess. So you may take your pick, but nonetheless the “Tale of Genji” is increasingly regarded as the conventional consensus answer to the question of what is the first novel in World Literature, alongside “Don Quixote,” regarded as the first modern Western novel.


Another important dimension of the place of “The Tale of Genji” in World Literature, worthy of note before looking into its content and story, is its place as a leading work of “The Global Vernacular Revolution.” For a millennia or more, from late antiquity until around 1200 AD, almost all the world’s literature was composed in Elite or Classical Languages, far removed from the speech of ordinary people. Literacy itself was the privilege of a small educated elite, usually of royal courts, church and temple circles, lawyers and government administrators or a few professional scholars. Their goal was most often to preserve and elaborate long-established literary traditions rather than express and reflect the life and language of the people. Thus, until the 1500’s most serious books in the West were written in Latin, or possibly Classical Greek for an international elite audience, and very few in English, French, Spanish or German. Classical Chinese (Wen Yan Wen), incomprehensible to the common contemporary Chinese speaker, was the medium of officials and scholars not only in China but also in countries such as Japan and Korea, part of the Chinese cultural sphere of influence. In India Sanskrit, incomprehensible to Indian dialect speakers, was used as the vehicle for literature from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Hindu Vedas, mantras, Buddhist sutras, and the plays of Kalidasa. In the Muslim world, classical Arabic of the Koran was often memorized without any understanding of of the words mouthed, and Hebrew was lost as a living and preserved as one of the “dead languages.”

This situation began to change between 1000 AD and 1300 AD as a “Vernacular Revolution” took place across much of the world following the urge to draw literature closer to the life and language of living people, largely reflectingg the global rise of cities and the middle-classes. “The Tale of Genji” was one of the forerunners in this global revolution. In Heian Japan the educated elite, mostly men of the aristocracy or professions, wrote poetry, read literature, and conducted affairs of state not in the Japanese vernacular but in Classical Chinese, just as their contemporaries in Europe in the church, universities and public adinistration were using Latin instead of their local tongues. In this regard it is no accident that Murasaki Shikibu the author of Genji was a woman. The Genji was written by a woman and read mostly by courtly noble women who for the most part were excluded from the Classical Chinese education of the Japanese men, just as very few women in the West could study Latin or Greek, being excluded from grammar schools and universities. For this reason they turned to the spoken vernacular of the people rather than the elite classical languages.

In fact, at the time in Japan and in China the vernacular novels were not regarded as “literature” at all, but rather as “pulp or junk fiction” which no educated person should dirty his hands on, either in the writing or the reading. The prominence of women writers even in the West in the rise of the novel, such as Jane Austen, Aphra Behn, de Lafayette and others reflected also the fact that serious scholars, men, would be utilizing the elite Latin and Greek and would consider it demeaning to focus on the vernacular local language. Students would hide novels from their schoolmasters just as they might hide pornography, it being seductive and entertaining but unworthy of a respectable gentleman. The rise of vernacular writing across the world also reflected the rise of the educated middle classes, who were literate in their vernacular spoken languages but uneducated in the elite classical languages, and the translations of the Bible into the vernacular languages, the English of the King James Version or the German of Luther’s Bible, reflected an oncoming middle-cass social revolution in the making that would ultimately lead to the Puritan, American, French and Russian Revolutions that would topple the aristocratic ancien regime and clear the way for universal education, literacy and democracy, within widely disparate timeframes across the world’s civilizations. This also later reflected the “Gutenberg Revolution” of the printed word noted by Marshall McLuhan.

In Europe the Renaissance and Reformation followed this tidal wave of popular consciousness. Dante was one of the first leaders of the revolution, defending his composition of “The Divine Comedy” not in Latin as might have been expected, but rather in the local Italian dialect, claiming he wished to reach the people of all classes, men and women, rich and poor. The shift was also associated with the rise of Nationalism,and sometimes had the negative effect of making literature less international. The Provencal poets, Troubadours, Minnisingers, bards and balladeers followed suit. In India, prose writing shared by the merchant classes saw Classical Sanskrit give way to prose works in Tamil and Telugu. Persian Ghazals rose amoungst the Arabic nations.

English literature really begins with the rise of the vernacular with the Renaissance and Reformation. Sir Thomas More wrote his famous Utopia in Latin, and it had to be translated by another into his native English, but by the time of Milton, though he was a court Latin scholar and diplomatic Latin correspondent, he composed his great works of poetry such as “Paradise Lost” in his spoken tongue. From Shakespeare on, with his “Little Latin” the primary medium of English Literature would be written English, and after the play, the vernacular novel would soon rise to the throne of prominence within English Literature.

In China, seat of the Classical Chinese tradition which even in Japan marginalized the Genji, the transformation to a “Literature of the People” would only come on the fall of the Emperor in the 1911 Revolution of Sun Yat Sen followed by the “May 4th Movement” of 1919 in which Lu Xun and Hu Shi first began to write in spoken Chinese, abandoning the scholarly and classical “Wen Yan Wen” of the literary elite for the language of the people. In all cases the Global Vernacular Revoltion and its attendant revolution in public consciousness would prove to be social nitro-glycerin, ultimately bringing in it wake not only a literary revoution but a policical revolution spreading from the middle-classes to the working classes and reshaping, for better or for worse, the face of the Modern world.


Genji, the principal hero of the novel, was the second son of Emperor Kiritsubo and a low-ranking but beloved concubine, Lady Kiritsubo. Genji’s mother dies when he is three years old, but the Emperor, deeply in love, cannot forget her. Emperor Kiritsubo then hears of a woman, Lady Fujitsubo, formerly a princess of the preceding emperor, who is the living image of his deceased beloved, and arranges for her to become one of his wives. Genji loves her first as a stepmother, but later as he grows to be a man, falls in love with her sexually as a woman. Hopelessly in love with each other, they continue their clandestine forbidden affair. Genji thus finds himself frustrated in his forbidden love for Lady Fujitsubo and on bad terms with his wife Aoi no Ue. He then engages in a series of unfulfilling love affairs, escapades and adventures with other women. In most cases, his advances are rebuffed, his lover dies suddenly during the affair, or he finds his lover to become dull and tiresome as his feelings change. In one case, he sees a beautiful young woman through an open window, enters her room without permission, and proceeds to seduce her. Recognizing him as a man of unchallengeable power, she makes no resistance.

In his restlessness Genji visits Kitayama, the northern rural hilly suburban area of the capital Kyoto, where he finds a beautiful ten-year-old girl. He is uncannily fascinated by this youthful girl, Murasaki, and discovers that she is a niece of his clandestine lover Lady Fujitsubo. Yielding to an irresistable impulse he kidnaps her, brings her to his own palace and undertakes a passion-driven project to raise and educate her to be his ideal lady; that is, to be an idealized rejuvenated image of the Lady Fujitsubo and his deceased mother. During this time Genji also meets Lady Fujitsubo secretly, and continues to make love to her until she bears his son, Reizei. Everyone except the two lovers believes the father of the child is the Emperor Kiritsubo. Later, the boy becomes the Crown Prince and Lady Fujitsubo becomes the Empress, but Genji and Lady Fujitsubo swear to keep their secret.

Genji and his wife, Lady Aoi, reconcile and she gives birth to a son but dies soon after. Genji is sorrowful, but finds consolation in Murasaki, whom he then marries, consummating his Pygmalion-like project of creating his sexually ideal woman and mate. Genji’s father, the Emperor Kiritsubo, dies. He is succeeded by his son Suzaku, whose mother Kokiden, together with Kiritsubo and Genji’s political enemies including the Minister of the Right takes power in the court. Then another of Genji’s secret love affairs is exposed: Genji and a favorite concubine of the new Emperor Suzaku, Genji’s brother, are discovered in flagrante delicto when they meet in secret. The Emperor Suzaku confides his personal amusement at Genji’s exploits with the woman, but to maintain face and discipline at court he is duty-bound to punish his half-brother. Genji is thus exiled, Ovid-like to the faraway town of Suma in rural Harima province. There, a prosperous man known as the Akashi Novice entertains Genji, and Genji has a love affair with Akashi’s daughter. She gives birth to Genji’s only daughter, who will later become the Empress.

In the Capital, the Emperor Suzaku is troubled by dreams of his late father, Kiritsubo, and something begins to affect his eyes. Meanwhile, his mother, Kokiden, grows ill, which weakens her powerful sway over the throne. Thus in a fit of remorse the Emperor orders Genji pardoned, and he returns to Kyoto. His son by Lady Fujitsubo, Reizei, becomes the emperor, and Genji finishes his imperial career. The new Emperor Reizei knows Genji is his real father, and raises Genji’s rank to the highest possible.

However, when Genji turns 40 years old, his life begins to decline and he falls into melancholy and drift. His political status does not change, but his love and emotional life slowly deteriorate. He marries another wife, the Third Princess. Genji’s nephew, Kashiwagi, later forces himself on the Third Princess and she bears Kaoru who, in a similar situation to that of Reizei, is legally known as the son of Genji. Genji’s new marriage changes his relationship with Murasaki, who becomes a Buddhist nun, or bikuni.

Genji’s beloved Murasaki finally dies. In the following chapter, entitled Maboroshi or Illusion, Genji contemplates how fleeting life is, transient, empty and illusory. Immediately after Maboroshi, there is a chapter entitled Kumogakure or “Vanished into the Clouds”) which is left blank, but implies the death of Genji. The narrative then continues a short time further after Genji’s death, detailing the rivalry of Kaoru, Genji’s legal son and his best friend Niou, the royal prince who is the son of Genji’s daughter the Emperess, as they compete to attract beautiful court women. The book ends, like the Satyricon in the middle of an unfinished sentence, with Kouru pondering if Niou has tricked him to steal a lover from him. Kouru is often seen as the first Anti-hero in World Literature.

It is thought that “The Tale of Genji” was composed in a serialized fashion, with each chapter being hand-copied, circulated and re-copied after its completion within a small aristocratic court circle as a form of upper-class entertainment. The disparate chapters would then be collected into a whole at a later time. Thus it would have been similar to many of the Western novels such as those of Dickens and Dumas which were published in installments in newspapers and circulars such as Dickens’ “Household Words” before being collected into a finished book for for final publication, although Genji would have been circulated bit in hand-copies chapter by chapter in elite circles. Thereafter it became one of the central and beloved classics of Japanese Literature over the centuries. Its archaid Kyoto court language was unreadable to the larger public even a hundred years after its composition and was only translated into modern Japanese in the 19th century, being read with extensive annotations.

The Tale of Genji influenced the composition of my own recent novel Spiritus Mundi, in the emphasis on the voices of women in the text. Murasaki Shikibu, the Genji author also wrote an extensive Diary which has been preserved. In Spiritus Mundi, two of the principal characters, Eva Strong and Japanese artist-clairevoyante Yoriko Oe write in their own voices in their diary-like Blog Journals which appear in alternate chapters of the novel, giving vivid life to the inner world of women. Their Blogs reflect also their melancholy, sometimes illusory and disappointing sexual affairs, just as in the Tale of Genji. Like the Tale of Genji, its protagonists are followed through a wide range of experiences, social and sexual, sometimes in triumph, sometimes in defeat and despair, sometimes in a shared spiritual melancholy at the transience and illusory character of much of human experience. Spiritus Mundi also contains a comprehensive series of dialogues by the characters in the novel on the nature and canon of World Literature, including the place of The Tale of Genji in that canon. Spiritus Mundi shares common themes with The Tale of Genji in the linkage of sexuality and spirituality and the possibility of spiritual transcendence,and Book I of Spiritus Mundi, like the Satyricon ends in an unfinished mid-sentence.

For a fuller discussion of the concept of World Literature you are invited to look into the extended discussion in the new book Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard, one of the principal themes of which is the emergence and evolution of World Literature:

For Discussions on World Literature and Literary Criticism in Spiritus Mundi: http://worldliteratureandliterarycrit…

Robert Sheppard

World Literature Forum
Author, Spiritus Mundi Novel
Author’s Blog: http://robertalexandersheppard.wordpr…
Spiritus Mundi on Goodreads:…
Spiritus Mundi on Amazon, Book I:
Spiritus Mundi, Book II: The Romance

Copyright Robert Sheppard 2013 All Rights Reserved

View all my reviews

About robertalexandersheppard

Robert Sheppard , Author, Poet & Novelist Pushcart Prize fof Literature 2014 Nominee Professor of World and Comparative Literature Professor of International Law Senior Associate, Committee for a Democratic United Nations (KDUN) E-mail: Robert Sheppard is the author of the acclaimed dual novel Spiritus Mundi, nominated for the prestigious 2014 Pushcart Prize for Literature in two parts, Spiritus Mundi the Novel, Book I and Spiritus Mundi the Romance, Book II. The acclaimed “global novel” features espionage-terror-political-religious-thriller action criss-crossing the contemporary world involving MI6, the CIA and Chinese MSS Intelligence as well as a "People Power" campaign to establish a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly on the model of the European Parliament, with action moving from Beijing to London to Washington, Mexico City and Jerusalem while presenting a vast panorama of the contemporary international world, including compelling action and surreal adventures. It also contains the unfolding sexual, romantic and family relationships of many of its principal and secondary characters, and a significant dimension of spiritual searching through "The Varieties of Religious Experience." It contains also significant discussions of World Literature, including Chinese, Indian, Western and American literature, and like Joyce's Ulysses, it incorposates a vast array of stylistic approaches as the story unfolds. Dr. Sheppard presently serves as a Professor of International Law and World Literature at Peking University, Northeastern University and the State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) of China, and has previously served as a Professor of International Law and MBA professor at Tsinghua University, Renmin People’s University, the China University of Politics and Law and at the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing, China. Having studied Law, Comparative Literature and politics at the University of California, Berkeley (Ph. D.Program in Comparative Literature), Northridge, Tübingen, Heidelberg, the People’s College and San Francisco, (BA, MA, JD), he additionally has been active as professor of International Trade, Private International Law, and Public International Law from 1993 to 1998 at Xiamen University, Beijing Foreign Studies University, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Graduate School (CASS), and the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. In the US he serves as a Professor at Kean University, as well as having taught at Bergen Community College and Pillar College in NJ. Since 2000 he has served as a Senior Consultant to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Beijing and has authored numerous papers on the democratic reform of the United Nations system.
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  1. RW Nye says:

    Your article provides some fascinating perspectives on world literature. I have recently obtained a copy of The Tale of Genji, and have read the first few pages. Thank you for this enlightening exposition of its place in world literature.

  2. marydekokblowers says:

    Fascinating. I just last week saw this book on my cousin’s bookshelf and resolved to read it.

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