the tale of Genji


This extraordinary work of literature consists of 54 more or less independent chapters knitted into a loosely structured whole. Prince Genji, the shining one (Hikaru Genji in Japanese), is the dominant character through four-fifths of the book. He is the handsome and charismatic prince born to a minor consort of the emperor in an era set in the vague historical past from the point of view of the turn of the eleventh century when Murasaki Shikibu lived and wrote. Japanese readers regard the first 41 chapters as the main part of the tale, dividing that into Part One (Chapters 1-33) which deals with the romantic adventures and events of Genji's early life, and Part Two (Chapters 34-41) after Genji has attained worldly success but a darker side of his character begins to color the story. This part culminates in the death of his wife Murasaki, the woman who meant the most to him.
   A transitional section of three chapters (thought by some to be spurious) bridges to the final section, known as the ten Uji chapters, in which Genji's descendents take over the narrative. The chapters in The Tale of Genji derive their titles from the poems contained therein. In the following outline, the English chapter titles are from Royall Tyler's translation, with the Japanese titles in italics. I also note where Genji scenes occur in my novel, The Tale of Murasaki.


1 The Paulownia Pavilion     Kiritsubo
   This chapter gives us Genji's childhood background. [Dalby 50-51] During his first twelve years, Genji loses his mother, the Kiritsubo Consort; develops a crush on his father's new wife, the Fujitsubo Consort (who everyone says looks like Genji's dead mother); and enters into an arranged marriage with Aoi, the daughter of the influential Minister of the Left. Aoi is older than Genji, and though the marriage is politically advantageous, she does not interest him.

2 The Broom Tree     Hahakigi
   This chapter is mostly taken up with the teenaged Genji having a discussion about women with several companions, including his best friend and sometimes rival Tô no Chûjô (who is his wife Aoi's brother). [Dalby 215-219] The author introduces the theme of "the hidden flower"—the sweet and accomplished maiden tucked away in an unexpected place. At least half of the women Genji subsequently becomes involved with (including the heroine Murasaki) are hidden flowers.

3 The Cicada Shell     Utsusemi
   This is one of Genji's teenage "hidden flower" adventures. The woman is Utsusemi, the wife of a provincial lord. [Dalby 17].

4 The Twilight Beauty     Yûgao

   Genji begins an affair with the Rokujô lady (who is seven years older than Genji, and widow of the deceased crown prince) while at the same time nursing a hidden passion for his stepmother Fujitsubo. Genji has another hidden flower affair with Yûgao, who is killed by the vindictive wandering spirit of the jealous Rokujô lady. [Dalby 228-231]

5 Young Murasaki     Waka Murasaki
   Genji manages to have a forbidden tryst with his stepmother Fujitsubo. While traveling in the mountains for his health, Genji discovers 10-year-old Murasaki, a hidden flower niece of Fujitsubo. Struck by their resemblance, he takes the child away to rear her as the perfect woman.

6 The Safflower     Suetsumuhana
   Here is another hidden flower, but this time a ludicrous one. This is the unattractive Safflower Princess with the long red nose [Dalby 59-60].

7 Beneath the Autumn Leaves     Momiji no Ga
   Genji and Tô no Chûjô dance "Waves of the Blue Ocean" for an imperial excursion. (See:
music). Guilty with her transgression and aware that she is pregnant, Fujitsubo can hardly bear to watch. The young Murasaki, playing with her dolls, is happily ensconced in Genji's private house. Fujitsubo bears a son who is thought by the world to be the emperor's child, but in fact is Genji's. [Dalby 65] Fujitsubo is elevated to the rank of empress. Genji visits his wife Aoi who is very cold to him. An elderly coquette named Naishi tries to seduce Genji at the palace.

8 Under the Cherry Blossoms     Hana no En
   Genji seduces the Lady of the Night of the Hazy Moon (Oborozukiyo)[Dalby 27-31]. This woman is a sister of the emperor's Kokiden consort, a woman belonging to a rival political faction. Kokiden was jealous of Kiritsubo when she was alive, jealous of Fujitsubo, and of course vindictive toward Genji.

9 Heart to Heart     Aoi
   Genji tries to seduce his cousin Asagao to no effect. The Rokujô lady is humiliated in her carriage by the carriage of Genji's wife Aoi when she goes to watch the Kamo Festival [Dalby 238-239]. Pregnant, Aoi is possessed by the wandering spirit of the Rokujô lady. Aoi gives birth to Genji's son Yûgiri, and soon thereafter dies. Genji turns his attention to the young Murasaki by abruptly changing the nature of their relationship to a sexual one.

10 The Green Branch     Sakaki
   The Rokujô lady, horrified at her soul's wandering, decides to leave Miyako, accompanying her daughter who has been appointed Ise Virgin. The old emperor (Genji's father) dies, and Kokiden's son becomes the Suzaku Emperor. Genji renews his affair with Oborozukiyo. Genji tries mightily to see Fujitsubo again, but she rebuffs him and takes religious vows. Genji is caught in flagrante delicto with Oborozukiyo and Kokiden plots to have him banished.

11 Falling Flowers Hana Chiru Sato
   Very short chapter in which Genji has an affair with "the lady from the village of falling blossoms," one of his father's minor consorts.

12 Suma     Suma
   Feeling himself out of favor at court, Genji prepares to leave for self-imposed exile to Suma where he stays for two years. [Dalby 137] Although he writes to all his ladies, Murasaki is the one he misses most [Dalby 148]. Tô no Chûjô visits. Genji does a purification [Dalby 151] and a fierce storm arises from nowhere.

13 Akashi     Akashi
   Genji dreams of his father who instructs him to leave Suma. The weather clears and a boat appears, sent by a retired provincial governor who has taken holy orders. Genji visits and has a liaison with his daughter, the Akashi lady. [Dalby 150-152] The emperor summons Genji back to Miyako where he is reunited with Murasaki.

14 The Pilgrimage to Sumiyoshi     Miotsukushi
   Back in the capital Genji's half-brother, the Suzaku emperor, abdicates in favor of the young prince who is Fujitsubo's (and Genji's) son. Genji's fortunes rise and he succeeds to higher and higher official posts. Meanwhile, in Akashi, the Akashi lady has borne Genji a daughter, and Genji would like to bring them both to Miyako. Murasaki feels the first shadows of the uncertainty that will eventually destroy her. On her deathbed, the Rokujô lady entrusts her daughter (Akikonomu) to Genji's care.

15 A Waste of Weeds     Yomogiu
   The red-nosed Safflower Princess falls on hard times, and Genji responds by taking care of her—much to everyone's amazement since she is such a fusty old thing [Dalby 284].

16 At the Pass     Sekiya
   A very short chapter in which Genji accidentally meets the "lady of the locust shell," Utsusemi, whom he had once loved long ago.

17 The Picture Contest     E-awase
   Genji's ward, Lady Akikonomu, is presented at court. His friend Tô no Chûjô also has a daughter there and the rivalry between these two young women is illustrated by "the picture contest." (Commentators see a reflection of the real life rivalry between Empresses Teishi and Shôshi reflected here.)

18 Wind in the Pines     Matsukaze
   Genji brings the Akashi lady and their baby daughter to a mansion he has refurbished for them in the western suburbs of Miyako. Finding the child beautiful, he thinks of letting Murasaki (who is childless) bring the girl up, giving her the refinement and connections to be an imperial consort.

19 Wisps of Cloud     Usugumo
   In a wrenching scene, the Akashi lady must give up her three-year-old daughter to Genji and Murasaki. (Recognizing her sacrifice, Murasaki's feelings of jealousy soften and she and the Akashi lady eventually become friends.) Fujitsubo dies at the "dangerous age" of 37. The emperor discovers the secret of his own birth and promotes Genji to higher rank.

20 The Bluebell       Asagao
   Genji once again presses his suit on his cousin Asagao who does not yield. Aware of this state of Genji's wandering affections, Murasaki suffers [Dalby 368].

21 The Maidens     Otome
   Genji's son Yûgiri falls in love with Tô no Chûjô's daughter Kumoinokari, but her father refuses the match. Genji builds the Rokujô Mansion where he may bring all his ladies to live, each in their own pavilion [Dalby 176 and 284]. Murasaki has the spring pavilion, Genji's adopted daughter Akikonomu the autumn, the orange blossom lady is installed in the summer quarter, and the Akashi lady in the winter.

22 The Tendril Wreath     Tamakazura
   Genji's servant Ukon runs into the old colleague from former days who took care of Yûgao's daughter after the mother's tragic death. This girl is a love child of Tô no Chûjô, although he is unaware of her existence [Dalby 284]. Genji takes the girl in, pretending she is his daughter. He takes pleasure in grooming the beautiful girl as a fine lady, and dangling her before the noses of all the eligible bachelors.

23 The Warbler’s First Song     Hatsune
   It is the New Year and Genji, at the height of his power and glory, visits all his ladies in their apartments.

24 Butterflies     Kochô
   In spring, with her garden at its best, Murasaki has a party for Empress Akikonomu. Genji entertains suitors for Tamakazura's hand, although he is starting to fall in love with her himself [Dalby 285].

25 The Fireflies     Hotaru
   Genji shows off Tamakazura to his brother Prince Hotaru, by releasing fireflies in her room at night. [Dalby 285]. Genji discusses histories and illustrated romances with Tamakazura in a famous scene thought to reveal Murasaki Shikibu's views on the art of fiction.

26 The Pink     Tokonatsu
   Tô no Chûjô also finds a long-lost daughter (the Omi lady) who turns out to be something of a joke.

27 The Cressets     Kagaribi
   Very short chapter in which Genji stays late with Tamakazura, giving her a music lesson.

28 The Typhoon     Nowaki
   A violent storm blows the bamboo blinds aside, allowing Yûgiri a glimpse of his stepmother Murasaki. Genji (perhaps remembering his own transgression with his stepmother) has never allowed his son contact with Murasaki, and the young man is transfixed by her beauty. Later, Yûgiri is disturbed when he accidentally sees his father in an intimate scene with Tamakazura.

29 The Imperial Progress     Miyuki
   Genji plans to send Tamakazura to court and reveals her existence to Tô no Chûjô.

30 Thoroughwort Flowers     Fujibakama
   Tamakazura feels pursued by many men, and not knowing who to trust skillfully manages to keep them all at bay.

31 The Handsome Pillar     Makibashira
   Tamakazura marries Higekuro ("blackbeard"), effectively removing herself from the world of intrigue in which Genji has kept her. Higekuro's first wife dumps a censer of ashes on his head and goes home to her mother's house. [Dalby 166]

32 The Plum Tree Branch     Umegae
   Genji prepares to send the Akashi daughter to court. A number of people prepare
incense blends for the occasion. [Dalby 276-278] Tô no Chûjô has missed the opportunity to send his own daughter Kumoinokari into imperial service, and now regrets not giving her to Genji's son Yûgiri.

33 New Wisteria Leaves    Fuji no Uraba
   The Akashi lady has a brilliant court debut. The emperor pays a visit to Genji's Rokujô Mansion. (This scene is reminiscent of Emperor Ichijô's visit to the Tsuchimikado Mansion described in Murasaki's Diary [Dalby 331-336]). Genji and Tô no Chûjô renew their friendship, which had been somewhat spoiled by rivalry over the past few years. Genji's son Yûgiri marries Tô no Chûjô's daughter Kumoinokari.


34 Spring Shoots, Part One     Wakana jô
   The Retired Suzaku emperor, in ill health and worried about the future of his daughter the Third Princess, prevails upon Genji to take her as his wife. Genji is not eager to take the naïve 13-year-old girl, but agrees. Murasaki is crushed, but tries to hide her feelings. Genji visits Oborozukiyo. Genji has his fortieth year celebration. Genji's daughter, the Akashi Princess, married to the crown prince, gives birth to a son-Prince Niou. Murasaki fall ill and retires to the Nijô Mansion, accompanied by Genji. While Genji is away from the Rokujô Mansion, Tô no Chûjô's son Kashiwagi catches a glimpse of the Third Princess when her
cat runs out on the verandah, and he falls in love with her.

35 Spring Shoots, Part Two     Wakana ge
   Kashiwagi manages to borrow the Third Princess's cat, and keeps it as reminder of his obsession. Murasaki, though admired and loved by everyone, feels a longing to give up the world and become a nun. Genji will not hear of it [Dalby 368]. Genji gives a concert for the emperor with all his ladies playing the different instruments. Murasaki becomes ill again and pleads to now take vows. She seems to actually die, but is revived when the possessing spirit (the deceased Rokujô lady again) is exorcised. Kashiwagi pursues the Third Princess in earnest, succeeding in getting into her apartments and violating her. Murasaki recovers. The Third Princess is pregnant and Genji discovers the relationship with Kashiwagi, who falls ill with remorse.

36 The Oak Tree     Kashiwagi
   The Third Princess bears a son, Kaoru, assumed by the world to be Genji's. She becomes a nun. Kashiwagi dies.

37 The Flute     Yokobue
   Yûgiri is given Kashiwagi's flute which causes him to dream of his dead friend. His wife, Kumoinokari is jealous of the time he spends with Kashiwagi's widow, the Second Princess. She scolds him for coming home late as she nurses a fretful baby. Genji plays with his grandchildren and Yûgiri notices how the young Kaoru stands out among them.

38 The Bell Cricket     Suzumushi
   The Third Princess dedicates a chapel and Genji redesigns her garden like a moor, releasing bell crickets for their chirping. Empress Akikonomu is haunted by thoughts of her dead mother, the Rokujô lady, and the burden of her mother's sin that she herself is only vaguely aware of.

39 Evening Mist     Yûgiri
   Yûgiri uses the excuse of paying respects to his friend's widow and her sick mother to pursue his interest in the Second Princess. She is mortified at his attempt at seduction and does not respond. Kumoinokari frets. The lady wishes to stay in her retreat at Ono but Yûgiri forces her to return to the city where he prepares a residence for her as his mistress. She hides in the closet every time he visits. Kumoinokari goes home to her father's house. Yûgiri has completely bungled his relationship with both women.

40 The Law     Minori
   Murasaki, though recovered from her deathly illness, begins to fade. Genji still refuses to let her take vows. She commissions the reading of sutras and the grandchildren all gather. The Akashi Empress visits, and it is clear Murasaki is dying. Her corpse is beautiful. Genji allows Yugiri to see her in death—something he had not permitted while she was alive. Genji loses his spirit and goes into mourning.

41 The Seer     Maboroshi
   Everything reminds Genji of Murasaki. Visiting the Third Princess he is bitter that she should be more advanced in her religious progress than he. Though he has lost his taste for life, neither can he abandon it. In the autumn, watching the wild geese he composes the poem: "Wizard who crosses the great skies, seek out the one whom I cannot see, even in my dreams." (This poem gives the chapter its title and occurs in The Tale of Murasaki as a poem Murasaki receives from Ming-gwok in China [Dalby 233].)



42 Sweet Perfumes     Niou no Miya
   This chapter opens with the statement "The shining Genji was dead, and there was no one quite like him." [Dalby 384]. "His perfumed Highness" refers to Genji's grandson, Prince Niou. He and Genji's "son" Kaoru are best friends/rivals and clearly the most eligible bachelors in high society. Niou is very precocious when it comes to relationships with women, whereas Kaoru is quite reserved. (This and the following two chapters give a sense of having been written almost as an afterthought to respond to readers' questions and desire for more details about the characters.)

43 Red Plum Blossoms     Kôbai
   Kôbai is the eldest son of the by now deceased Tô no Chûjô. This short chapter discusses his attempts to interest Prince Niou in his daughter.

44 Bamboo River     Takekawa
   This is a tale about Tamakazura, now a widow and her three sons and two daughters by Higekuro. Kaoru pays court but things do not work out. The machinations of jockeying for advantageous matches are almost like a soap opera. [Dalby 391]


45 The Maiden of the Bridge     Hashihime
   This chapter opens the Uji section with the story of a widower called The Eighth Prince who has dragged his two beautiful daughters, Oigimi and Nakanokimi, away from society to live with him in Uji. Interested in religion, Kaoru meets the old man and they strike up a friendship. The wild and gloomy atmosphere of Uji appeals to Kaoru's Hamlet-like nature [Dalby 385] and he is drawn to the daughters—especially Oigimi. He begins to pay court to this hidden flower. Kaoru mentions the girls to his friend Prince Niou who immediately becomes interested. Kaoru discovers the secret of his birth from an old serving woman at Uji.

46 Beneath the Oak     Shii ga Moto
   Niou gets a chance to visit Uji and chafes to see the hidden princesses Kaoru has talked about. The old prince dies, and Kaoru plans to take charge of the daughters, although they do not respond to his tentative advances.

47 Trefoil Knots     Agemaki
   Oigimi's serving women press her to accept a match with Kaoru. They help Kaoru sneak into her room at night, but Oigimi slips out, leaving her sister in her place. Kaoru tries to arrange for his friend Niou to get Nakanokimi while leaving Oigimi to him, and he leads Niou to the Uji house. Niou succeed in spending the night with Nakanokimi but Kaoru is still frustrated by the older sister. Niou takes Nakanokimi as a concubine but must leave her in Uji for the time being. The two sisters regret their situation, and Oigimi becomes sick and dies. Kaoru attends her faithfully till the end, although she has never once yielded to him.

48 Bracken Shoots     Sawarabi
   Niou brings Nakanokimi to live in the capital at his private Nijô Mansion. Kaoru regrets setting her up with Niou.

49 The Ivy     Yadorigi
   Yûgiri presses Niou to marry his daughter Rokunokimi as his official wife. The emperor pushes Kaoru to marry a favorite daughter by another consort (this is another "Second Princess"). Kaoru hears of the existence of a half-sister to the two Uji girls he has been so enthralled with, and becomes very curious. Nakanokimi bears Niou a son. Kaoru marries the Second Princess, although he continues to be obsessed with Uji. He catches a glimpse of the half-sister, Ukifune, and is smitten by her resemblance to the dead Oigimi.

50 The Eastern Cottage     Azumaya
   Nakanokimi takes Ukifune into her household where she is glimpsed by Niou and taken advantage of. The mortified Ukifune is moved around to various houses, and Kaoru seeks her out. He carries her off to Uji.

51 A Drifting Boat     Ukifune
   Niou cannot get Ukifune out of his mind. Finding that Kaoru is keeping her in Uji he contrives to vist her himself. Ukifune is torn between these two lovers—the stiff and serious Kaoru and impetuous Niou. In one of the most famous scenes in The Tale of Genji, Niou steals Ukifune away on a moonlit winter night and takes her in a little boat across the Uji River to a secluded love nest.

52 The Mayfly     Kagerô
   This chapter opens with Ukifune's disappearance from the Uji house, and the effect of her supposed death on Kaoru, Niou, and everyone left behind.

53 Practice with the Brush     Tenarai
   Here we learn what happened to Ukifune after she wandered out of the Uji house in a daze, intending to throw herself in the river. Ukifune is discovered by an old nun and brought to the nunnery in Ono. The nuns do not know who she is and Ukifune is allowed to take the tonsure. Kaoru gets wind of the possibility that she is still alive. So does Niou. [Dalby 403-417].

54 The Floating Bridge of Dreams     Yume no Ukihashi
   Kaoru sends Ukifune's brother as his spy to the nunnery to see if Ukifune is in fact there. Ukifune is terrified that she might be dragged back into precisely the same dilemma she sought to escape [Dalby 407]. The Tale of Genji ends with a scene of Kaoru, having discovered Ukifune's whereabouts, suddenly becoming suspicious that someone else is hiding her there.