The Tale of Genji: The world's first novel

The Tale of Genji

Written by the Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu in the early eleventh century, The Tale of Genji is a classic work of Japanese literature concerning the son of a Japanese emperor, his romantic life and the customs of aristocratic society at the time. Called alternatively the world's first novel, the first modern novel or the first novel to be considered a classic; precisely which is a matter of debate by those who make a living debating such things. Nobel Prize winning novelist Yasunari Kawabata named The Tale of Genji "the highest pinnacle of Japanese literature. Even down to our day there has not been a piece of fiction to compare with it."

The Tale of Genji was written for Japanese women of the yokibito, or aristocracy, and possesses many of the elements found in novels today: a central character, major and minor characters, well-developed characterisation, psychological insight, complexity, sequential events taking place upon a timeline based upon the central character's lifetime. Rather than using a plot, events just happen and characters evolve simply by growing older, much as in real life. The internal consistency of Genji is a notable feature, and evidence of Murasaki's skill; all characters age in relation to each other, and relationships between them remain consistent throughout chapters.

Unusually, none of the characters are referred by name in the novel, a complicating factor for modern readers and translators alike; they are referred to instead by their function, role, honorific or relation to other characters; for example 'Minister of the Right,' 'His Excellency' or 'Heir Apparent.' Lack of names was a feature of Heian era court protocol, which decreed their use in a public forum as unacceptably familiar.

There is debate over how much of the Genji was actually written by Murasaki Shikibu herself, with some of the novel's later chapters containing discrepancies in style and rare continuity errors, with scholars suggesting that Shikbu's daughter Daini no Sanmi may have completed the novel. A further complication is the fact that the tale ends abruptly, in mid-sentence, probably not as intended by the author herself.

Written to entertain women of the aristocracy in eleventh century Japan, the novel employs Heian period court Japanese: highly inflected language with extremely complex grammar. Poetry is often used in conversation, as was the custom in court life, with classic poems modified or rephrased according to the situation at hand. Of the classic Japanese tanka form, the poems would have been well known to the intended audience, and are often left unfinished as if thoughts unsaid, the reader expected to complete a word or sentence—a complicating factor for a modern readership unversed in Heian era poetry.

Intended for a female audience and by a female author, the novel was written entirely in Hiragana script, so-called a "women's hand" at the time. All official documents, essays and works of history were written in Chinese characters and only by men, producing the paradoxical situation where men wrote mostly in bad Chinese while their spouses produced excellent works in native Japanese. Women's prose and poetry from this period, of which The Tale of Genji is pre-eminent in same manner as Shakespeare in English, form the basis of what in time became a truly national literature, as poets switched from Chinese to the new Japanese scripts for their elegant simplicity and flexibility.