Genji and Women

21 Jun

Sam wrote nicely about all the guy talk in book 2, so it seems like a good time to look into the way that Genji actually interacts with women (or acts AT women, frequently.) Genji is blessed, we are told again and again, with physical beauty and fabulous penmanship. This latter quality is delightfully explicated when Utsusemi reads a letter from Genji: “His writing was so extraordinarily beautiful that her eyes misted over, and she lay down to ponder the strange destiny that had broken in upon her otherwise dreary life.” These days it’s usually the content of the writing that attracts the girl; in our aesthetically degraded age, not many of us would get too far on our handwriting.

But not many of us (blessedly) would get very far with Genji’s other seduction techniques either. I may need some help from a Book 2 expert on this, but as far as I can tell, Genji bursts into the sleeping chamber of the wife of the Iyo deputy (in a home in which he is being treated as an important guest), carries her away, and sleeps with her (?) despite her protests. This last activity remains somewhat obscure to me, but I hope I’m not being obtuse if I say that what actually takes place between them seems ambiguous. Genji spends the night, yes, but does he spend the entire time trying to talk her into having sex with him, or does the act occur?

When he first enters her chamber we are told that Genji “spoke to her so gently she could not very well cry out rudely, ‘There is a man in here!’ because not even a demon would have wished to resist him…” A similar reluctance to resist Genji afflicts Utsusemi’s waiting woman, Chujo: “If he had been anyone ordinary she would have wrested her mistress bodily from him, but even that would have been a risk, since everyone else would then have known what was going on…”

Once they are laying together Genji is not without some degree of discomfort—“It upset him to find that his forwardness really did repel her”—but reassures her, and presumably himself, that his desire is of a higher quality than a simple “whim,” which justifies his action. The narrator tells us that, even though the woman is “pliant by nature”(!) she “resembled the supple bamboo, which does not break.” The line in this section that seems to directly implicate an actual sexual act refers to another of Genji’s tinges of remorse: “It pained him to be the culprit, but he knew that he would have been sorry not to have had her.” And Utsusemi tells him he “must forget this ever happened.”

Genji’s willfulness and lack of regard for Utsusemi’s wishes is especially discomfiting from a modern perspective, but he’s not behaving well for his own era either, I suspect. Later, in the terrifying and deeply upsetting “House of the Twilight Beauty” he faces much more dire consequences for his letting his passion get the best of him, but I’ll save discussion of that one for another post. I had started this in the hope of writing more explicitly about the link between Genji and later European romantic heroes, particularly Byron’s Don Juan (Genji= Don Ju-on?), but I have a feeling this will be a theme for much of our next thousand pages as well. So maybe for now Chris or Sam or Laura or Meechal (where you at?) can help explain to me what happened in the Broom Tree.– Andrew Martin


2 Responses to “Genji and Women”

  1. Chris Kern June 21, 2010 at 5:13 pm #

    The question of whether Genji and Utsusemi had sex is a difficult one; the main problem is the sexual act itself is never described, and so we have to guess at what happens. (A notable exception is Utsusemi’s stepdaughter Nokiba no Ogi; she ranks low enough that the narrator permits herself to describe Nokiba no Ogi’s physical appearance and even says that Genji got under a robe (i.e. the sleeping covers) with her. The higher ranking a woman is, the more roundabout and allusive the description of the sex tends to be.)

    The Shogakkan edition of the Genji (which is one of the editions Tyler used in his translation) has an interesting note immediately after the “supple bamboo, which does not break” line: “Between this sentence and the next one, the scene is omitted of Genji having a sexual encounter, in a manner close to rape, with the woman who had continued to resist him. The reader is invited to guess at the large passage of time and the twists and turns of the story in the blank space between the two sentences. Not describing the sexual encounters between the men and women is normal for this author.”

    However, this is a difficult scene to understand; in all the other cases I can think of in the tale, it’s very clear what happens despite the indirectness of the narrative.

  2. samsacks9 June 21, 2010 at 8:44 pm #

    My impression was that Utsusemi, the haughty lady of the cicada shell, successfully eludes Genji (while continuing to flirt with him), and one night, in his pursuit of her, he sleeps with Nokiba no Ogi, thinking mistakenly that she is Utsusemi (“When he drew the covers aside to join her, it seemed to him that there was rather more of her than he had expected, but even so the truth never dawned on him”–I love that oh-so polite little jab at poor Nokiba no Ogi’s comparative lack of daintiness.)

    I also love the Austen-esque manners surrounding the game of Go in this chapter. Just as handwriting can define a character, as you point out, so does game-playing. You can suss out cleverness and keenness, as well as restraint and grace. Just as games of chess and poker have been used in novels to symbolize characters and their complex relationships to one another, so we have something of that in the game of Go.

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