Humans seem to possess an innate abhorrence of subservience to authoritative figures. Even when someone is subjugated to someone else through the laws of the nation or the customs therein, the person will uncover ways to subvert the authority of the person set above him or her. Most often, these ways are of passive resistance since they are much less confrontational to the dominant person. By studying Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji and Marguerite de Navarre’s The Heptameron as social-historical documents, one can uncover evidence of the limitations imposed upon women by laws and social expectations and the means they undertook to overcome those limitations.
The first part of this essay will examine the lives of women in the tenth-century court of Heian Japan, and the second part will discuss women of the court of sixteenth-century France. Although divided by custom, religion, and six hundred years of time, there are many similarities among these Eastern and Western women in their attempts to oppose male authority, along with many differences. In tenth-century Japan, the resistance women displayed was overwhelmingly passive, while in sixteenth-century France women exhibit more assertiveness towards male dominant figures.
Female Code of Conduct in the Court Life of Japan
Women in medieval Japan had little protection against male domination. The customs of the time expected women to be submissive to men, even to the point of rape. Men had no fear that they would be punished for rape, as evidenced in Genji’s attitude:
Quickly and lightly he lifted her down to the gallery and slid the door closed. Her surprise pleased him enormously. Trembling, she called for help. “It will do you no good, I am always allowed my way. Just be quiet, if you will, please.” (Shikibu 137-38)
Although the ‘lady of the misty moon’ is “upset” about Genji’s attack, she is more concerned with not having Genji to think her “wanting in good manners” (Shikibu 138). The implication is that women are expected to give their bodies to men who want them as a token of hospitality.
The personality characteristics that women were expected to possess can be discerned through the specific qualities Genji praises in this novel. The ‘lady of the evening faces’ is the first woman mentioned in the novel that Genji is extremely enamoured of. Genji describes her thus:
She was of an extraordinarily gentle and quiet nature. Though there was a certain vagueness about her, and indeed an almost childlike quality, it was clear that she knew something about men. She did not appear to be of very good family. What was there about her, he asked himself over and over again, that so drew him to her? (Shikibu 41)
What Genji finds so appealing about the lady of the evening faces is her pliability and her desire to please, her tendency to submit to the “most outrageous demands” (Shikibu 42). These are the characteristics that women of the Japanese court were praised for.
An extreme example of females being treated as objects can be discovered through Genji’s actions in connection with the child Murasaki. When Genji first sees Murasaki, she is about ten years old. He is struck by her resemblance to Fujitsubo, his father’s consort whom Genji has long desired. Genji decides then and there that Murasaki must “stand in the place of the one whom she so resembled” (Shikibu 72). Though the child is already betrothed to another man, Genji is determined to take her “into his house and make her his ideal” (Shikibu 74).
When Genji learns that Murasaki’s father, Prince Hyōbu, is soon to take Murasaki to his home, Genji acts quickly. Unconcerned with how others would perceive his actions, he kidnaps the child from her guardians and hides her from her father at his home in Nijō. Murasaki is understandably terribly frightened by all this. Genji tells her:
You are not to sulk, now, and make me unhappy. Would I have done all this for you if I were not a nice man? Young ladies should do as they are told. (Shikibu 103)
Genji’s ‘lesson’ to Murasaki is that her fear and unhappiness is no more than being ill-natured, that ladies are supposed to do what men tell them and to endeavor to make men happy, and that kidnapping her is not a bad thing, but shows how much Genji cares for her and is willing to do for her. Genji informs Murasaki that she must think of him as her teacher; in this manner Genji begins instructing Murasaki in the characteristics and accomplishments that his ‘ideal’ woman would possess.
Through the character of Genji, one may discern the personality traits that were undesirable for women to have. Genji resents “chilliness” in females (Shikibu 36), women who are “impossibly forceful in [their] demands” (Shikibu 48), and ones who display “jealous ways” (Shikibu 48). Boldness in matters of sexual intercourse was also considered unbecoming feminine conduct. It is significant that the only female character who openly displays her sexuality is an “old lady” of sixty with “dark and muddy” eyelids and “rough and stringy” hair (Shikibu 124). Because Naishi enjoys sex and is unashamed to hide it, she is also portrayed as “not very discriminating” in her sexual partners (Shikibu 124), and “inexhaustibly amorous” (Shikibu 126). Genji dislikes Naishi’s aggressiveness and impatience (Shikibu 127), but being Genji he still finds Naishi suitable for his ‘nocturnal wanderings.’
Female Resistance to Japanese Code of Conduct
Despite female subservience being a pervasive cultural trait, women in medieval Japan managed to find some ways to resist complete dominance by men. These ways can be characterized as passive resistance, e.g. verbal reproaches, feigning sickness and misunderstanding, standoffish behavior, and isolating oneself from men. In The Tale of Genji, most of the female resistance is due to sexual overtures or excesses by Genji.
Through Genji’s wife Aoi, one can understand the extremity of Genji’s sexual conduct. Being busy with his numerous affairs, Genji doesn’t spend much time visiting his wife at her father’s Sanjō mansion, a fact that she does not let him forget when he does come to visit her. Aoi exhibits standoffish behavior to Genji to express her displeasure with his neglect of her, as seen in the following conversation between them:
Genji: It would be nice, I sometimes think, if you could be a little more wifely. I have been very ill, and I am hurt, but not really surprised, that you have not inquired after my health.
Aoi: Like the pain, perhaps, of awaiting a visitor who does not come?
Genji: You so rarely speak to me, and when you do you say such unpleasant things. ‘A visitor who does not come’ – that is hardly an appropriate way to describe a husband, and indeed it is hardly civil. I try this approach and I try that, hoping to break through, but you seem intent on defending all the approaches. Well, one of these years, perhaps, if I live long enough. (Shikibu 83, 84)
Genji begins this conversation by trying to remonstrate with his wife for her cold behavior towards him, in not being overjoyed that he has come to see her. She, in turn, reproaches him for his neglect of her by likening him to a “visitor” rather than a husband. Aoi resists Genji in the only manner available to her, that of verbal reproaches and withholding displays of affection from Genji.
The lady at the Akashi shore employs another method of passive resistance to her father and Genji; she feigns sickness and attempts to isolate herself from Genji. When Genji first begins courting her, which her father actively promotes, the lady at first resists answering Genji’s letter and says she is “not feeling well” (Shikibu 296). After being pressured by her father to write back, she pretends not to understand Genji’s poem: “How can you sorrow for someone you have not met?” (Shikibu 297). She reads his letter literally and answers in that sense, not wishing to acknowledge the letter as an attempt at flirtation and seduction. After her father arranges for Genji to visit her, unbeknownst to herself, she flees to “an inner room” and bars the door (Shikibu 303). Although Genji doesn’t force his way through the door, in some manner that the novel does not mention, he does gain access to the inner room where the lady is hiding. There Genji imposes himself upon her (Shikibu 303). To Genji, this encounter with the Akashi lady is a “contest of wills” in which he would “look rather silly” if he lost to the lady (Shikibu 303). Female conquest is, then, a matter of honor among men of the court.
Some women go to extremes to resist male sexual advances, such as when Fujitsubo enters the convent to escape Genji. To Genji, Fujitsubo is the model of “sublime beauty” (Shikibu 26). But, alas, she belongs to his father, the Emperor. Genji pays no heed to that; with the help of one of her ladies, he manages to gain access to Fujitsubo’s room. Fujitsubo is “determined that there would not be another meeting” between Genji and herself and is “shocked” and “distress[ed]” that Genji has come to her again (Shikibu 86). She tries to make Genji leave, but these efforts “delight[ ]” him while causing shame also (Shikibu 86). However Genji still has his way with her, Fujitsubo becomes pregnant, and she passes off the boy as the Emperor’s son and Genji’s brother.
After the death of Genji’s father, Genji attempts to rekindle the affair with Fujitsubo. She had done all she could to avoid Genji and had even “commissioned religious services in hopes of freeing herself from Genji’s attentions” (Shikibu 202). Sadly, her elusiveness just excites more interest for Genji. Fujitsubo is unable to convince Genji to leave, and she begins to experience “chest pains” and “fainting spells” (Shikibu 203). She begins to feel better later, when she believes Genji has left but as soon as he appears before her again, she sinks to the floor in “sheer terror” (Shikibu 204).
Genji tries to obtain compassion from Fujitsubo by asserting that he would die from love of her (Shikibu 205). Genji feels Fujitsubo’s conduct is “cruelty” (Shikibu 207), and decides to make her “feel sorry for him” (Shikibu 206). So he retires to his house at Nijō where he refuses to write to her and sulks. But Fujitsubo is not so filled with pity that she submits to Genji; instead she resolves to give up her title as Empress and “to become a nun” (Shikibu 206). She realizes this is the only path available to her to escape Genji’s sexual advances completely.
While the women of the court in Heian Japan did not enjoy much freedom from masculine authority, they did utilize whatever means were available to them to resist complete subjugation. Women in sixteenth century France fared little better than Eastern women. In the intervening six hundred years from the writing of The Tale of Genji to the writing of The Heptameron, women had made little progress in liberating themselves. Women in France were expected to be subservient to their fathers and husbands as were Japanese women, but in The Heptameron women are depicted as being more aggressive in protesting male abuses.
Navarre, Marguerite de. The Heptameron. Trans. P.A. Chilton. London: Penguin Books, 1984.
Shikibu, Murasaki. The Tale of Genji. Trans. Edward G. Seidensticker. New York: Random House, 1990.