The Tale of Genji Background

The Tale of Genji Background

Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji is universally regarded as the finest literary work to come out of medieval Japan. Although published around 1000 A.D., the text would not be translated into English until the second quarter of the 20th century. The Tale of Genji is not just a single work, although the initial entry also bears that title, but a series of volumes that spread across more than a thousand pages in most published versions. The length reflects the time it took Shikibu to compose it and thus reflects a maturation that transforms from near-fairy tale romance in that first volume into a far more complex and profound prose romance, one on par with any similar example from medieval Western literature.

The quality of Shikibu’s work is almost certainly due to her own personal experience with her subject. The author was a member of the Nipponese court as a lady-in-waiting to Empress Akiko and intimately familiar with the ritualistic ceremony which brings to palpable life her epic tale comprising six parts that traces across four generations.

The complexity of narrative, intermingling of multiple themes, and, above all else, the coherency of the work (with the notable exception of the final chapter which offers a darker tone of cynicism than those preceding and have led some scholars to question authorship) have created a legacy for The Tale of Genji which transcends culture. While images related to the story appear on virtually every commercial product possible, this medieval work of prose by a Japanese woman is often pointed to by Western academics as the first truly impressive example of what was at the time a brand new literary genre: the novel.

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