Home  »  The World’s Wit and Humor  »  A Homily on Women

The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Murasaki Shikibu (b. 978?)

A Homily on Women

From “Genji Monogatari”

THOUGH Genji had become drowsy, and finally dozed off, the conversation went on about different persons and characters, and Samo-no-Kami proceeded:

“It is unquestionable that though at the first glance many women appear to be without defects, yet when we come to the actual selection of any one of them we should seriously hesitate in our choice.

“How varied are the characters and the dispositions of women! Some who are youthful and favored by nature strive almost selfishly to keep themselves with the utmost reserve. If they write, they write harmlessly and innocently; yet, at the same time, they are choice in their expressions, which have delicate touches of bewitching sentiment. This might possibly make us entertain a suddenly conceived fancy for them; yet they would give us but slight encouragement. They may allow us just to hear their voices, but when we approach them they will speak with subdued breath, and almost inaudibly. Beware, however, lest among these you chance to encounter some astute actress, who, under a surface that is smooth, conceals a current that is deep. This sort of lady, it is true, generally appears quite modest; but often proves, when we come closer, to be of a very different temperament from what we anticipated. Here is one drawback to be guarded against.

“Among characters differing from the above, some are too full of sentimental sweetness; whenever occasion offers them romance they become spoiled. Such would be decidedly better if they had less sentiment and more sense.

“Others, again, are singularly earnest—too earnest, indeed—in the performance of their domestic duty; and such, with their hair pushed back for work, devote themselves like drudges to household affairs. Man, whose duties generally call him from home all the day, naturally hears and sees the social movements both of public and private life, and notices different things, both good and bad. Of such things he would not like to talk freely with strangers, but only with some one closely allied to him. Indeed, a man may have many things in his mind which cause him to smile or to grieve. Occasionally something of a political nature may irritate him beyond endurance. These matters he would like to talk over with his fair companion, that she may soothe him, and sympathize with him. But a woman as above described is often unable to understand him, or does not endeavor to do so; and this only makes him more miserable. At another time he may brood over his hopes and aspirations; but he has no hope of solace. She is not only incapable of sharing these with him, but might carelessly remark, ‘What ails you?’ How severely would this try the temper of a man!

“If, then, we clearly see all this, the only suggestion I can make is that the best thing to do is to choose one who is gentle and modest, and strive to guide and educate her according to the best ideal we may think of. This is the best plan; and why should we not do so? Our efforts would not be surely all in vain. But no; a girl whom we thus educate, and who proves to be competent to bear us company, often disappoints us when she is left alone. She may then show her incapability, and her occasional actions may be done in such an unbecoming manner that both good and bad are equally displeasing. Are not all these against us men? Remember, however, that there are some who may not be very agreeable at ordinary times, yet who flash occasionally upon us with a potent and almost irresistible charm.”

Thus Sama-no-Kami, though eloquent, not having come to any point whatever, remained thoughtful for some minutes, and then resumed:

“After all, as I have already observed, I can only make this suggestion: That we should not consider too much either birth or beauty, but select one who is gentle and tranquil, and consider her to be best suited for our last haven of rest. If, in addition, she is of good social position, and is blessed with sweetness of temper, we should be delighted with her, and not trouble ourselves to search or notice any trifling deficiency. And the more so as, if her conscience is clear and pure, calmness and serenity of features can naturally be looked for.

“There are women who are too diffident, and too reserved, and carry their forbearance so far as to pretend not to be aware even of such annoyances as afford them just grounds of complaint. A time arrives when their sorrows and anxieties become greater than they can endure. Even then, however, they will not resort to open speaking, and complain; but, instead thereof, they will fly away to some remote retreat among the mountain hamlets, or to some secluded spot by the seaside, leaving behind them some painful letter or despairing verses, and making themselves mere sad memories of the past. Often when a boy I heard such stories read by ladies, and the sad pathos of them even caused my tears to flow: but now I can only declare such deeds to be acts of mere folly. For what does it all amount to? Simply to this: That the woman, in spite of the pain which it causes her, and discarding a heart which may be still lingering toward her, takes to flight, regardless of the feelings of others—of the anguish, and of the anxiety, which those who are dearest to her suffer with her. Nay, this act of folly may even be committed simply to test the sincerity of her lover’s affection for her….

“But there are also women who are too self-confident and obtrusive. These, if they discover some slight inconsistency in men, fiercely betray their indignation and behave with arrogance. A man may show a little inconsistency occasionally, but yet his affection may remain; then matters will in time become right again, and they will pass their lives happily together. If, therefore, the woman cannot show a tolerable amount of patience, this will but add to her unhappiness. She should, above all things, strive not to give way to excitement; and when she experiences any unpleasantness, she should speak of it frankly, but with moderation. And if there should be anything worse than unpleasantness, she should even then complain of it in such a way as not to irritate the men. If she guides her conduct on principles such as these, even her very words, her very demeanor, may in all probability increase his sympathy and consideration for her. One’s self-denial and the restraint which one imposes upon oneself, often depend on the way in which another behaves to us. The woman who is too indifferent and too forgiving is also inconsiderate. Remember, The unmoored boat floats about. Is it not so?”

To-no-Chiujio quickly nodded assent, as he said, “Quite true! A woman who has no strength of emotion, no passion of sorrow or of joy, can never be holders of us. Nay, even jealousy, if not carried to the extent of undue suspicion, is not undesirable. If we ourselves are not in fault, and leave the matter alone, such jealousy may easily be kept within due bounds. But surely,” he added suddenly; “some women have to bear, and do bear, every grief that they may encounter with unmurmuring and suffering patience.”

So said To-no-Chiujio, who implied by this allusion that his sister was a woman so circumstanced. But Genji was still dozing, and no remark came from his lips.

Sama-no-Kami had been recently made a doctor of literature, and, like a bird, was inflating his feathers; so To-no-Chiujio, willing to draw him out as much as possible, gave him every encouragement to proceed with his discourse. Again, therefore, he took up the conversation, and said:

“Call to your mind affairs in general, and judge of them. Is it not always true that reality and sincerity are to be preferred to merely artificial excellence? Artisans, for instance, make different sorts of articles, as their talents serve them. Some of them are keen and expert, and cleverly manufacture objects of temporary fashion, which have no fixed or traditional style, and which are only intended to strike the momentary fancy. These, however, are not the true artisans. The real excellence of the true artisan is tested by those who make, without defects or sensational peculiarities, articles to decorate, we will say, some particular building, in conformity with correct taste and high esthetic principles. Look, for instance, at the eminence which has been attained by several of the artists of the Imperial College of Painting….

“Such is the nature of the case in painting, in penmanship, and in the arts generally. How much more, then, are those women undeserving of our admiration, who, though they are rich in outward and in fashionable display, attempting to dazzle our eyes, are yet lacking in the solid foundations of reality, fidelity, and truth! Do not, my friends, consider me going too far, but let me proceed to illustrate these observations by my own experience.”

So saying, Sama-no-Kami advanced his seat, and Genji awoke. To-no-Chiujio was quite interested in the conversation, and was keeping his eye upon the speaker, leaning his cheek upon his hand.

This long discourse of Sama-no-Kami reminds us of the preacher’s sermon, and amuses us. And it seems that, on occasions like these, one may easily be carried away by circumstances, until one is willing to communicate even one’s own private affairs.