The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari) and The Pillow Book - Literary Essay Example

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George Washington University
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During the Heian period, the cultural elite of nobility and aristocracy became the focus of Japanese literature. Aristocracy refers to a fortunate and an elite ruling class. Aristocrats enjoy the privileges associated with the social, economic, and political power. Many of the authors during the era were aristocrats, whose culture influenced their works of literature profoundly. For example, the Japanese literature, The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari), by Murasaki Shikibu talks about the life of Hikaru Genji, a good-looking man who was born to an emperor during the Heian period. The first part of the story has the main character as Genji, and the rest of the story continues without him. The author of the book was an aristocrat who was the daughter of a provincial governor. In the start of the story, the emergence of an ideal aristocratic man and woman in the society is evident. On the other hand, The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon explores the life of the noble during the Heian Period and describes the presence of a lady at court in Japan. The book gives a clear image of an ideal aristocratic man and woman in the society. The book delves into the outlook of the upper Heian culture and reflects on the royal and religious ceremonies. As well, the book provides the ideals of an aristocratic man and woman. The paper below describes the concerns of aristocrats and the manner in which they view non-aristocrats from the two Japanese works of literature.

The text the Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari), by Murasaki Shikibu revolves around the life of aristocracy. In the tale, the criteria for an ideal man or woman were the significance of beauty background, personality, education of a woman, and traits that Genji had. The main character Genji was only 17 at the time when the society talked much about his beauty. In regards to Genjis beauty, the men of Genji Monogatari were infatuated with his beauty to an extent they wished he was a woman. Shikibu (308) affirms, He was Handsomer than the crown prince. People began calling Genji the shining one. On a broader perspective, the portrayal of Genji is a clear indication that aristocrats primary concern is the perfect beauty. However, the concern of perfect beauty is not only placed on men but women as well. In the tale, when the emperor talks about his lost love, he remembers about the Fourth Princess, a former emperors daughter who was famous for her beauty (307). Nevertheless, in as much as the story emphasizes on the beauty of an ideal man or woman, there are no actual descriptions of the physical characteristics, which define the perfect beauty. In the story, as it appears, the physical attributes, which fit the ideal woman are pretty, innocent, and young. Apparently, based on the tale, beauty is subjective. As well, it is one of the opinions one must hold before they can be considered ideal. Furthermore, the story talks about the physical appearance of a woman and the way they should look to appear desirable. For instance, Fujitsubo, the daughter of an earlier emperor, is described as attractive and attracted to Genji (307). Evidently, based on the way Genji is admired by a majority of characters in the story, it means that he is considered as an ideal man and Fujitsubo an ideal woman.

In the literature The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon, beauty is one of the primary concerns of aristocrats. The author appears to be attuned to beautiful things. She feels that everything, which surrounds should be beautiful. For example, because the author is the lady-in-waiting to the Empress, she feels that she has to surround herself with beautiful things. On a broader perspective, she appreciates beauty in everything and judges everything based on their usefulness and asset. She states that the thought of leather boots and half-boots shambling on the palace reminds her of the imperial palace. More so, she likes everything to be done for her by monks. She asserts, When my room is ready, someone brings me shoes and helps me out of the carriage (179). Furthermore, she speaks highly of the glitters in her lights and votive lights (180). On the real sense, based on the authors thoughts, an ideal woman is one who gets things done as she pleases. She is more concerned about what her servants will do for her. The author affirms, When a bell announces the start of a sutra recitation, I am confronted by the thought that it may be ringing for me (180). Similarly, regarding an ideal man, the author avers that she finds it entertaining when a boy of seven summons an attendant to the winesome, imperious voice and chatters away to him (181). Ostensibly, it appears that in the world of aristocrats, an ideal man or woman is one who surrounds him or herself with beautiful things, and has servants to do all the work for them. Moreover, the author avows that she finds it pleasing when she sees servants taking a bow to a respectable young-looking man who is modishly dresses together with his son (181). Obviously, the upper rank individuals find pleasure when they dress modestly and have servants in the palace giving them respect.

In the two Japanese literatures, non-aristocrats are viewed differently. For example, in The Tales of Genji (Genji Monogatari), non-aristocrats are viewed as worthless. In the section called the broom tree, To no Chujo affirms that unlike the upper class, middle ranks have minute preferences and it is easy to separate them from one another (311-212). Additionally, he adds that regarding the lower class, no one pays keen attention to them (312). More so, To no Chujo avows that people who rose to a high position do not receive the same attention as those born to it, thus, they should be categorized in the middle level (312). Evidently, on the subject of ranks, aristocrats feel that people without power are invaluable in the society because it is hard to notice them. Indeed, they feel that non-aristocrats have no reputation and merit. On the other hand, in The Pillow Book, aristocrats view non-aristocrats as ugly and uncouth. For instance, during the dance rehearsal, Shonagon (p.171) affirms that when she got up to investigate the speaker, she noticed that she had filthy mens trousers on and a disreputable garment, which was not worthy to be called a robe. Similarly, just as The Tales of Genji, aristocrats in The Pillow Book view non-aristocrats as those who do not have reputation. Furthermore, in the book, the author appears to be fascinated by the sight of beggars. She affirms,

Later, another beggar nun appeared, this one was well bred. We summoned and questioned her as we had done with Hitachi-no-suke. Her air of embarrassment aroused our compassion, and Her Majesty gave her a robe. Beggar or not, she went away with a genteel bow, shedding tears of joy. Hitachi-no-suke happened to see her go. She dropped out of sight for a long time afterward, but nobody missed her (172).

Apparently, the author, an aristocrat does not feel any empathy towards beggars to an extent that her embarrassment arouses her and she does not miss her when she goes away.

In summary, it is apparent that the Japanese aristocratic society widely developed during the Heian period. The refined culture during that time was remarkable due to the values, practices, and customs, which aristocrats had. As it appears, the Heian aristocratic society was obsessed with beauty, formal status, and rank. Besides that, it is evident that aristocrats during the Heian era cared about their reputation and depended on their workers. As seen in The Pillow Book, the Empress in the palace loved to be surrounded by beautiful things. They judged the ugly and beggars who were clumsy. As well, in The Tales of Genji, beauty was the primary concern of the high society. The noble felt that even if someone rose to the top to be considered an aristocrat, they were incomparable to those who were born in the upper class. The two texts teach us that noble people do not care about those in the middle and lower ranks. Even so, during marriages, they prefer to marry within their levels. Overall, a vast majority of the Japanese aristocratic society value beauty and reputation.

Works Cited

Shikibu, Murasaki. The Tale of Genji. Pp. 292-389

Shonagon, Sei. The Pillow Book. Pp. 157-199.

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