The commander, who had awaited [Kogimi] eagerly, was confounded by this inconclusive outcome.
The conclusion of The Tale of Genji is, like poor Kaoru’s tryst with Ukifune, left inconclusive, and that opens the door to the sort of whimsical (or, perhaps in some academic quarters, quite contentious) guesswork that attaches to so many great works of literature that have been passed down through the Telephone Game of time. Arthur Waley believed that the novel was finished and left ambiguous intentionally. Others have maintained that the novel is finished except for a few missing pages, which would account for the fact that it seems to stop almost mid-sentence. Edward Seidensticker speculates that Murasaki Shikibu simply kept writing until the day she died, and indeed, that she would have gone on adding to her tale for as long as she could have. But Seidensticker also thinks that the title of the final chapter, “The Floating Bridge of Dreams,” is so curiously out of keeping from the other chapter titles, and so much more overtly mystical, that it suggests a kind of premonition on Lady Murasaki’s part. (Royall Tyler, in the introduction to our volume, diplomatically presents both arguments, and also writes that the origin of the final chapter title is a matter of debate, because it does not appear in the chapter itself.)
Because the question is unlikely to be definitively answered, readers have the freedom to choose the interpretation they like best–the one that seems most sympathetic to their understanding of the novel. Surely many will join Waley in deciding that Lady Murasaki intended her life’s work to conclude abruptly and ambiguously–perhaps the way a dream might.
For my part, I find Seidensticker’s version the most genial. It seems to me entirely plausible that Murasaki Shikibu has no concrete plans to end her tale, that she meant to follow along with Niou and, especially, Kaoru for the lengths of their lives; and if eternal life had been granted to her (and not the evil kind, like what the Sybil at Cumae got), she would still be unraveling the story of a shiningly beautiful yet maddeningly refractory descendant of Genji seducing Japanese pop singers and Honda heiresses.
Such an interpretation provides an almost miraculous solution to the ageless novelistic dilemma of how to end novels. Never is the artifice of storytelling more apparent than when the story gets wrapped up, for the obvious reason that real finality doesn’t happen in our lives until we’re unable to appreciate it. The Iliad solves the problem by ending at an emotionally cathartic moment not far past the middle of the epic; The Odyssey provides another template: a homecoming. Many books since have tried to suggest a sense of open-endedness, of life continuing beyond the last page; of circularity, of the story you’ve read repeating itself; or by having all the plot elements converge with such startling perfection that you don’t care if it doesn’t reflect reality.
I like to think that The Tale of Genji eliminates the problem entirely by never intending to end. I agree with Steve that Kaoru is something of a pale shadow of Genji; but give Murasaki Shikibu another 20 chapters with him, and I’m fairly certain we’d be as loyally attached to this character as we were to Genji.
Which other books can say this? Which other books end in midair, the characters in ageless freeze-frame, and leave us believing that if its author could come back and snap her fingers, her tale would continue as though it had never paused?