Memoirs of a Geisha: Fairy Tale Imagery

Because my mom is Asian, I have always felt a particular affinity to Asian culture, people, and of course, literature. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, is one of only five books that has made me cry. After seeing all that my mother continually battles here in the US; racism, cultural slanders, people constantly trying to take advantage of her, etc., books/movies that target Asian cultures, and how Western culture has affected them, are particularly hard for me to read.

Of course, a book that I actually really enjoy, Memoirs of a Geisha, is a surprising one. Written by a man from Tennessee (Arthur Golden), who knew that someone outside of such a private society could so thoroughly grasp the beautiful, poetic imagery of Japanese writing, and to capture intimate details of life in pre-war Japan? It truly is a fairy-tale story; with the main character emerging from the hard life of a fisherman’s daughter and the tragedy of her mother’s death to becoming one of the most recognized and famous women in Japan. She has her “evil stepmother” in the character of Mother, one of the money-grubbing owners of the house that owns Chiyo (Sayuri), the Chairman is her prince charming, and Hatsumomo the evil step-sister. I was definitely rooting for Sayuri and her quest for true love, and more importantly, independence.

But perhaps I’m falling too easily. When I reread the book, the second time around I found the characters to be rather flat (aren’t they anyways, in fairy tales?) Sayuri, whom I had grown to love and respect, the second time around I felt that she was pushed to greatness through those around her, and not her own merits. Her happiness and worth is not found in herself, but found in the happiness and opinions of others (Mother, the Chairman, etc.) Hatsumomo is consumed by her own vanity and pride, and lives for nothing else than herself. Pumpkin exacts revenge on Sayuri because she is jealous of her success and popularity. When it is boiled down, everyone’s motives seem rather shallow, they are only characters representative of singular traits/motives.

But isn’t that a reflection of the book itself? While it is written in the style of Sayuri’s memories, told years and years later, the most vivid details are of the fabrics, the faces, the makeup, cherry blossoms etc. It’s an extremely visually based book; focusing on the outward appearances of things. Even though it must be decades since the events took place, Sayuri is able to remember every detail of certain fabrics, or every line of Hatsumomo’s face. This is very much a novel that is imagery-based, not only in the setting, but the people as well; paper doll characters with singular, frozen expressions.

Much in the same way that we love Cinderella for always being good and patient, we cannot help falling in love with a fairy-tale story of a girl from poor beginnings overcoming all trials and tribulations to emerge victorious. We cheer for her not because of her character, but because she is such a flat image, we can easily place ourselves in her place. Thus her story, and all fairy tales, are not beautiful and well-loved for what they teach, but because we can see ourselves within them.


About Angela

Editor, bookbinder, and writer.

One comment

  1. There’s something about the Japanese culture that is appealing through my Americanized perspective of how it is; kimonos, orchids, samurai stuff, wooden shoes?? Memoirs of a geishas invigorated a passion to know more about such a mysterious and beautiful people. Won’t read it again and spoil my nostalgic feelings I have toward the novel. Thanks!


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