Why is Murasaki Shikibu’s book ‘The Tale of Genji’ considered to be a masterpiece?

Murasaki Shikibu is one of Japan’s best known writers. In fact, many consider her to be the world’s first modern novelist. Her book, ‘The Tale of Genji’, is the world’s first psychological novel, and one of the longest, and most distinguished masterpieces of Japanese literature.

When she was in her early twenties, Murasaki was married to a distant relative. Her only daughter was born in 999. After the death of her husband in 1001 AD, knowing of her writing talent and her brilliant mind, the imperial family brought Lady Murasaki to court. While at the court, she kept a dairy that gives us vivid insights into life in the imperial court.

‘The Tale of Genji’ is loosely based on her years as lady-in-waiting to the Empress Akiko. It is a very long novel about complications in the life of a fictitious prince called Genji. Like many of the court ladies, Shikibu was a master at observing the daily activities and attitudes of upper class society. Among the novel’s chief delights are the portraits of the women in Prince Genji’s life. These women are individually described, with their aristocratic refinements, talents in the arts of music and poetry, and love for the beauties of nature. As the work nears its conclusion, the tone becomes more mature and somber, shaded by Buddhist judgments on the fleeting joys of earthly existence. The novel has been translated into many languages and been studied through the ages.