Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden is the life story of Chiyo, a nine-year-old girl who gets sold into a geisha house. After the disappearance of her sister and the death of her parents, Chiyo embarks on a new life as a geisha. She undergoes rigorous training in the art of being a geisha in hopes of seeing her one-sided love, all the while battling against the odds of a jealous rival and financial debt. She is reborn as Sayuri Nitta, the famous blue-eyed geisha of Gion.
Sayuri reveals the curtains behind the painted face of geishas into a manipulative world of beauty, art, and relationships. It is a cruel world where girls sell their virginity, learn to deceive men, and settle with the knowledge that they will never become a wife or find real love.
Wonderful story. So wonderful that I ended up doing some research on the novel but after doing so, I have mixed feelings.
We don’t become geisha because we want our lives to be happy; we become geisha because we have no choice.
How sneaky, Golden, to include a “translator’s note” at the beginning of the novel, making it seem like these are memoirs of a real person. Sayuri is not a real person and all of the characters are fictional. The author certainly did his homework in regards to Japanese culture and WWII, but the important thing to keep under your eye of scrutiny is that this novel is written by an American author for an American audience. This means that this story is still an American perspective and by no means historically or culturally as accurate as it presents itself to be.
To build on this point, you can tell from Golden’s writing that he tries his best to make the voice of Sayuri authentic. There are many references to rivers, oceans, flowers, and other forms of nature in everyday speech. For example, Sayuri’s descriptions will sound something like: “I felt as a dam must feel when it’s holding back an entire river.” It definitely paints a nice picture in my mind, but I wonder if this is the work of bad translations or if it’s just another example of Orientalism.
So yes, I fell for it. I thought it was real, or at least, mostly real. The sad fact is that everything was made up and even if the historical facts are correct, the portrayal of a geisha’s life is ultimately ill-represented.
Contentedly Ever After
I don’t know when we’ll see each other again or what the world will be like when we do. We may both have seen many horrible things. But I will think of you every time I need to be reminded that there is beauty and goodness in the world.
What I did like about Sayuri’s story is that she is almost like Cinderella, but a more grimy version. Geishas are perceived as prostitutes and for the most part, it is kind of a fair assumption. Being a geisha is nowhere as virtuous as a princess. Geishas are produced from unfortunate circumstances, one where the girl can only survive because of her looks and body, social networking, and skills in music and dance.
Sayuri can be considered lucky compared to the other geishas in the novel. She is born with a special attribute – blue eyes – and is praised to be clever since she was a child. She was sold to one of the more famous geisha houses, lands herself the best mentor in Gion, and ends up with her beloved Chairman. Most significant is that she has feelings for the Chairman. Therefore, the Chairman becoming her danna (half-husband who pays for her life, basically), is something other geishas can never even dream of. In this sense, Sayuri gains the luxury of actually being with someone she loves.
This luxury came with a price and this price was spread out through Sayuri’s youth. From her teens and twenties, she had to struggle through harsh geisha training and brutally discard friendships on her climb to fame. She had to suppress desires and thoughts and give up her body. Again, she finally finds herself belonging to the Chairman, but at the same time she understands that he can never fully belong to her. This kind of a tragic yet content ending is fitting for this time and setting.
This is why I made up my mind, the moment I became aware of his affection for you, that I would keep my interest in you hidden so that Nobu could have you. Life has been cruel to him, Sayuri. He’s had too little kindness.
Sayuri describes the Chairman to be kind, intelligent, and handsome but he seems too flawless for me. My favorite character in the novel is actually Nobu.
Nobu is described to have a hideous appearance due to the after-effects of war. He is missing an arm and has burn scars on his face and body. Under her mentor’s guidance, Sayuri accompanies Nobu and the Chairman for many years with the intentions to secure Nobu as her danna. However, Sayuri’s real intention is to see the Chairman. This creates a conflict of interest because of Nobu and Chairman’s close work relationship; if Nobu is to be Sayuri’s danna, then she cannot be the Chairman’s.
I believe Nobu falls for Sayuri in the purest way a man can fall in love with a Geisha during this time. He is characterized as a man who does not like geishas and only sees one for business dinners. For over ten years, Nobu treats Sayuri with a kindness he does not show others and even finds a safe place for her to relocate when WWII hits. In the end, Sayuri betrays Nobu before he becomes her danna, allowing the Chairman to take his place. I feel sorry for Nobu that he couldn’t get what he wanted, even though I didn’t particularly think he was entitled to “have” Sayuri.
Then again, I like sad endings for sad characters.