Memoirs of a Geisha was written in 1997 and has come to be a heralded work for its exploration of a number of themes and cultural concerns. The novel is relayed in the first-person perspective of a geisha working in the history of Japan surrounding World War II. In these regards, the text follows the life of a woman born Sakomoto Chiyo as she is sold into a geisha boarding house. Chiyo’s life and development are followed within the historical backdrop of the turbulent 1940s, as she struggles in this cultural climate, before ultimately moving to New York City. This essay examines how the characters and ideas expressed in the novel are a product of the time and place of the story.
One of the most pervasive understandings is that the characters in Memoirs of a Geisha are highly influenced by the greatly patriarchal structure of this historical Japanese period. While one considers that the nature of the geisha profession is itself a metaphor on the patriarchal Japanese society, there are further incarnations of this cultural paradigm. One of the symbolic aspects of this cultural paradigm emerges when Hatsumomo takes Chiyo to register as a geisha. When she arrives at the registration office the register, an ex-sumo wrestler, looks her over and states, “You should have told me sooner what a pretty girl you brought with you. Her eyes…they’re the color of a mirror!” (Golden, p. 60). While this is ostensibly a compliment, it demonstrates the cultural climate that the story takes place in. In these regards, this demonstrates that rather than being considered for their individual intelligence or self-worth, women in this climate are appreciated for their beauty and like a piece of property.
Another major consideration throughout the novel is the nature of social or employment mobility. While the geisha profession is emblematically a Japanese entity, one considers the social and cultural elements that conspired to create such a position in society. In these regards, the geisha position during the period surrounding World War II became one of the only means that women in this cultural climate can find success and subsistence. Consider the perspective of Chiyo when she self-reflexively examines her position in society; Chiyo states, “If Mother and Mameha couldn’t come to an agreement, I would remain a maid all my life just as surely as a turtle remains a turtle” (Golden, p. 135). While relayed in a simple and direct context, this statement is a profound illustration of how the characters and ideas expressed in the story are a direct representation of the socio-cultural environment in which they occur.
In conclusion, this essay has examined Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha as the characters and ideas expressed in the novel are a product of the time and place of the story. In this context of understanding, it is demonstrated that the novel articulates a largely patriarchal social structure where women are judged not on their intelligence, but beauty. Similarly, women in this time and place are greatly restricted in terms of social mobility.
Golden, Arthur. Memoirs of a Geisha. New York: Vintage, 1999.