Character in the tale of genji

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A discussion of the character of Genji for World Literature students.

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Character in the tale of genji

  1. 1. The Tale of Genji<br />World Literature<br />
  2. 2. The Tale of Genji<br />When we meet Genji in chapter 2 (from last week’s reading), he is at the Sanjō palace of his wife’s family. There he engages in a conversation with Tō no Chūjō, as the image on this slide depicts.<br />
  3. 3. The Tale of Genji<br />This conversation, along with the events during Chapter 4.Evening Faces form the focal point of this week’s discussion, the matter of Genji’s character.<br />
  4. 4. The Tale of Genji<br />Already from the brief excerpt concerning chapter 1 and the beginning of chapter 2, the audience learns that Genji is a remarkable boy.<br />He has attracted the attention of his father, the emperor, who would have liked to have made him emperor.<br />Despite his reduction to commoner status, he is married off to the daughter of an important minister, suggesting his own lofty status.<br />He has been nicknamed, “The shining Genji”<br />“Even persons to whom Genji was nothing were drawn to him” (2208).<br />
  5. 5. The Tale of Genji<br />In short, he is a remarkable young man, a celebrity of sorts, especially since he is intelligent, well-educated, sensitive, handsome, charming. <br />Indeed, he rather appears as an ideal subject for a modern day paparazzi. <br />And by extension, the closest analogues we have of Genji are <br />modern day Rock stars and athletes, many of whom share Genji’s <br />predilection for women…<br />
  6. 6. The Tale of Genji<br />And because he is the central character of the novel (at least during our brief scan), we must begin to ask questions about his character and his construction.<br />
  7. 7. The Tale of Genji<br />Indeed, one immediate reaction to the character of Genji is that he lacks good character. After all, he’s married and yet he is constantly seeking out women for affairs, so much so that some might label him a womanizer.<br />But while he may be seen early on as a womanizer, we should begin by examining that notion in detail by asking:<br />Is he, indeed, a womanizer?<br />
  8. 8. The Tale of Genji<br />The evidence might suggest so, but a cursory look at chapter 2, during his conversation with Tō no Chūjō and other young males of Genji’s age, we see an aspect of Japanese culture at this time<br />Men and women married, but were not made exclusively monogamous as a result of marriage.<br />Thus, all sexes engaged in extra-marital affairs.<br />Each of the young men joining Genji that day has been involved with several women beside their wives (note that marriage too was not a singular bond)<br />So, a reader might ask: Is Genji more of a womanizer than his contemporaries? And, is “womanizing” in this context either immoral or unnatural. Remember: we cannot judge characters by our times and by our values if we are to actually understand them (and their constructions). <br />
  9. 9. The Tale of Genji<br />The answer may well be no (note the qualification), as is suggested by the stories told during chapter 2.<br />If not, then what exactly are we to make of his being the focus of the novel? <br />Is he being constructed as a hero, for instance?<br />
  10. 10. The Tale of Genji<br />Remember that the notion of a hero has been central to many of our readings this semester.<br />For example, our first text of the semester, The Epic of Gilgamesh, was an epic of heroic development that focused on the change in Gilgamesh (from arrogant, self-centered ruler to a devoted friend and finally to a picture of a good king and steward of his lands). <br />The Iliad, while not focusing as extensively on change, certainly spends significant effort in portraying the hero, too. One might even say that its author not only portrays the supremely gifted hero, Achilles, he also gives us a picture of the hero of family, prudence, and moderation (in the character of Hector). <br />Other works like Medea, The Ramayana, The Aeneid, The Thousand and One Nights, and Beowulf also focused much (if not all) of their attention on the construction of the protagonist. <br />
  11. 11. The Tale of Genji<br />One problem with such comparisons are the differences in these texts. While most of our other works, Medea aside, focus on war at some level, The Tale of Genji, does not. It is, simply put, concerned with court life (and not the actual politics of the court).<br />Despite this, it is easy to see that we are seeing the romanticizing of a character, along the lines of the romanticizing of Beowulf, Hector, or even Gilgamesh<br />Genji here may well be, at least early on, the idealized, amorous young hero.<br />
  12. 12. The Tale of Genji<br />The question remains:<br />Is Genji a hero?<br />
  13. 13. The Tale of Genji<br />Sometimes, the correct approach is to answer the opposite? <br />Is Genji an anti-hero?<br />For this, you’ll want to begin with a definition of an antihero: According to Kennedy and Gioia (Literature): an antihero is a protagonist who lacks one or more of the conventional qualities attributed to a hero. Instead of being dignified, brave, idealistic, or purposeful, the antihero may be cowardly, self-interested, alienated, or weak.<br />
  14. 14. The Tale of Genji<br />So, what do you all think?<br />Is Genji lacking in dignity, lacking in bravery, lacking in idealism, or lacking in purpose?<br />Is Genji cowardly, self-interested, alienated or weak?<br />As you consider your answers, make sure that you try to put yourself in Genji’s time and place. <br />
  15. 15. The Tale of Genji<br />Indeed, you might consider the following quotation as you form your response:<br />We earthlings of the middle class, however emancipated we may imagine ourselves, are a long way from knowing the kind of freedom that the favorite son of an emperor and the daughter of a ranking aristocrat knew… we lack the experience and vocabulary to judge these people with discrimination… Those who remember F. Scott Fitzgerald’s introduction to “The Rich Boy” grasp the point immediately—that the gulf of class can be a more forbidding barrier to understanding that those of time and culture. –T.J. Harper, “From the Original, from the Start.”<br />
  16. 16. The Tale of Genji<br />I’m not actually going to answer the question (I’ll let you formulate your own answer—you can use it if you wish as you complete the discussion board assignment for this week).<br />But supposing he’s not an antihero for just a brief moment, let’s then go back to the original question: is he a hero?<br />
  17. 17. The Tale of Genji<br />Before we answer, let’s continue the storyline.<br />In chapter 4, we move on to Genji’s visit of his former nurse, a visit which suggests his own constancy.<br />We note that while there he displays kindness and reverence to his old nurse.<br />
  18. 18. The Tale of Genji<br />During this visit, he begins another romance.<br />One might even say that the beginning of the romance precedes his visit.<br />This romance, too, is worthy of attention, for it begins with one of Genji’s qualities—he observes all around him carefully.<br />He is also remarkably discreet.<br />And he is careful not to allow his celebrity to affect the relationship.<br />
  19. 19. The Tale of Genji<br />But though he is careful and respectful throughout the relationship, it ends unfortunately with the death of his love, the fisherman’s daughter, echoing the death of his own mother.<br />In her death, another facet of his character is revealed—his ability to mourn, which suggests his sensitivity.<br />
  20. 20. The Tale of Genji<br />Moreover, we are left with the following problem. From almost the beginning of his affair with the Fisherman’s daughter, Genji has suspected that she might be the woman in Tō no Chūjō’s story. At the moment he wondered whether he ought to tell Tō no Chūjō . And now that she’s dead, he’s left to wonder what the proper course of action would be. Thus when her identity is confirmed, he speaks aloud:<br />“I should tell my friend Tō no Chūjō, I suppose…” (2220).<br />Later, Murasaki tells us:<br />“[Genji’s] heart raced each time he saw Tō no Chūjō. He longed to tell his friend that “the wild carnation” was alive and well…” (2222).<br />
  21. 21. The Tale of Genji<br />By the end of Chapter 4, Genji has not resolved his question of what to do regarding his knowledge. <br />And as the story goes forward, Genji will continue delving into affairs (though not at the same pace), though two will be the more significant: the first with a young woman Murasaki (not the author) whom he meets when she is 10 and whom he grooms as his wife and the second with the consort of his father—a woman very similar to his own mother in appearance. This affair will earn him exile from the court.<br />
  22. 22. The Tale of Genji<br />So, we’ve now discussed Genji in some detail. <br />He’s certainly the focus of the novel (even though he dies before the novel ends).<br />Throughout the novel, we do see change in his character, revealing him as both a dynamic character and also a round character.<br />But, whether he is a hero or not depends on a number of other issues.<br />
  23. 23. The Tale of Genji<br />Among these issues:<br />While he lives his life in the public eye, are his moral choices give weight because his community depends upon him?<br />Do his choices and experiences, virtues and vices raise him to a meaningful level?<br />Are his misfortunes brought about not by vice or depravity, but by errors or frailty?<br />Can we assess his character in positive terms?<br />As always, the answers are subjective, so I cannot answer them for you. Any answers uttered, however, can only be accepted with adequate evidence from the text. So, don’t answer with pure emotion—use logic to construct your views.<br />

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