It’s been perceptively commented that Genji doesn’t have much of an inner life, and this would make him a fairly boring character on which to hang an 1,100 page novel. So it makes sense that as this novel progresses, Genji himself tends to drift further and further in the background of the narrative.
The chapters instead devote themselves to the many different women that Genji pursues with varying degrees of distraction and cynicism. He’s still the catalyst of nearly all the action, but he’s so capricious and unreflective that he’s like a lightning bolt or some other act of God — he happens to these women, and the rest of the chapters are about how they cope with the consequences.
The myriad ways they react to the calamity of one of his visitations is, for me, one of the richest aspects of the book. Each of the cast of Genji’s conquests stand out by virtue of subtle character studies, a feat that’s even more impressive when we remember that these women really do very little, except wait around for Genji to visit again. (When they are active, like when the Rokujo lady goes to a purification festival to get a peek at Genji, things end catastrophically.)
The Safflower Lady, first seen in chapter 6 and revisited in the short ‘Waste of Weeds’ chapter is a case in point. This is Lady Murasaki at her most didactic and Emily Post-like:
The pleasure of old poems has to do with enjoying picking ones with appealing topics and authors, ones simple to understand. Trite ones everyone already knows, written on solemn utility paper or puffy Michinokuni, are a perfect bore, but these are what [Suetsumuhana] spread before her on the rare occasions when she looked at any at all. She shrank in embarrassment from chanting scriptures or performing devotions, as so many people do these days, and she never touched a rosary, even though no one would have seen her anyway. Such was her prim mode of life.
It’s clear that our author can’t abide this poor woman — she’s dilated at great length on how unbearable it is to look at her. And yet she’s forced to relate that Suetsumuhana’s very primness impresses Genji as an admirable quality and sign of depth and seriousness, and wins her a place in Nijo. If she hadn’t been so foolishly obstinate in staying on in her ramshackle home, she would never have been rewarded with Genji’s inexplicable favors.
The mutual shallowness proves a little too frustrating for Lady Murasaki, who feigns a headache to reprieve herself from discussing this mediocrity any longer. There will be more interesting women to occupy us.