Inside Lady Murasaki's “A Tale of Genji,” the First Novel In the World

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Inside Lady Murasaki's “A Tale of Genji,” the First Novel In the World


These days, it takes almost no effort at all to start writing your own short story. Everyone from all walks of life can come together and impart knowledge to each other through words and beautiful storytelling, a luxury that the Lady Murasaki, the author of the very first novel in the world, was not so lucky to have in ancient Japan.

According to Bustle, an online American women’s magazine offering articles on beauty, celebrities, and fashion trends, Murasaki’s time as a lady-in-waiting to Empress Shoshi heavily contributed to her hopes and efforts of writing her own original works when it was a challenge back then. 


Photo Credit: Picryl


Women weren’t allowed to study Chinese, which at the time, was the written language of the government. Nevertheless, Murasaki didn’t cease to write poetry. In fact, she got so good at it (unsurprising given her erudite upbringing into the Fujiwara family and the ability to gauge and understand topics faster than her brothers) that she was hailed as a court poet in 11th century Japan. 

There’s an interesting tidbit in there about some juicy court rivalry she with Sei Shonagon, but that’s only important in this case because while Shonagon had been busy with their rivalry “with her pithy observations,” Murasaki was already writing about the man who will later become known as the beautiful, byronic prince, Hikaru Genji. 

Reports Bustle, anyone who might want to read the tale now might find it a bit of an acquired taste but back then Genji’s unseemly love pursuits were pretty common in ancient Japan. If you think you can overlook the fact that Genji once cheated on his wife with his stepmom, whom he got pregnant and went on to groom that child into the perfect woman named “Murasaki,” you can most certainly see how Murasaki fleshed out Genji as a character.


Photo Credit: sfbaywalk (via Flickr)


Bustle describes him as a very “nuanced and complex character,” who is “frequently experiencing inner turmoil” and “makes choices based on his unresolved childhood issues.” By definition then, “The Tale of Genji” is the first ever character-driven book to ever exist and though it reads more like a soap opera, it’s far from a feminist novel for the modern audience. 

It is, however, an important part of history that celebrates not only self-insert novels and works, but the strength and intellect of a woman who knew her worth and would not let anyone—not even the rules of ancient Japan—get in the way of her dream to share the world the stories she wanted to tell.