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Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden’s. Novel Review

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“Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden, is a beautifully written epic tale which envelopes the reader instantly; revealing Golden’s ability to include a realism inside an engrossing, yet fictional narrative, resulting in the novel becoming a bestseller enjoyed the world over. Through his use of delicately descriptive and poetic language, Arthur Golden superbly portrays the effects of the harshness of Japanese society on the individual, Sayuri Nitta.

Golden hands the narrative point of view to that of Chiyo Sakamoto – later, Sayuri Nitta – explaining her tragic life in a hostile world through her nine-year-old eyes; a child sold by her family to a geisha okiya, where, forced by society at that time, she has no other choice but to begin the ongoing struggle to become a geisha in order to attain at least some enjoyment and respect in her life.

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By telling the narrative through Chiyo, Golden also allows the reader some insight into the effects that the world and events around Chiyo is having on her subconsciously, through her thoughts and actions which she both does and does not pick up on herself, hence showing the reader the alteration in Chiyo’s development and perspective in life.

When Sayuri is taken from her childhood home in Yoroido, she begins to lose her childhood innocence and view life from a different outlook, so developing earlier and thus in a different way than if she’d stayed there:

“During those first few days in that strange place, I don’t think I could have felt any worse than if I’d lost my arms and legs than my family and my home: I had no doubt my life would ever be the same again”.

Deliberately, Golden’s simile here compares Chiyo’s loss of family and home to the thought of losing her arms and legs; the only parts of the body that enable a person to move around and care for themselves. If Chiyo had lost her limbs she would have lost something that was part of her, that was irreplaceable and therefore lost every chance in life: unable to marry due to social exclusion and consequently unable to keep herself. Condemned to a life of misery and loneliness, Chiyo feels her life will never be the same again.

This incident in Chiyo’s life also introduces the initial thoughtfulness of her as a character: “Was life nothing more than a storm that constantly washed away what had been there a moment before, and left something barren and unrecognizable?” By placing the key words “storm”, “constantly”, “barren” and unrecognizable” in this effective metaphor, this helps convey to the reader what Chiyo is feeling at this point in her life: The word “storm” is used to present the reader with something to relate to. Everyone has experienced a storm, thus helps the reader comprehend Chiyo’s emotions. A storm is a powerful force, which we as humans have no control over, sweeping everything away and leaving a path of destruction in its wake. “Constantly” tells us that she feels that the pain she is undergoing after this “storm” will never cease, everything has been destroyed in her life, her family and home, is irreplaceable. “Barren and Unrecognizable” clarifies how Chiyo feels bewildered and lost in a place she doesn’t know or like. Golden’s use of metaphor in Chiyo’s thoughts is effective because, as Chiyo tries to make sense of what has happened to her, it conveys to the reader through the character directly the effects that society has on her.

Chiyo doesn’t come to terms with what has happened until later when, she is crying on a public bench, despairing over her life since she ruined her chance to become a geisha through disobedience. This is when the Chairman first speaks to her. She realizes not everything in the world is cruel – he gives her hope through his kindness. This is the beginning of her love for him. Seeing that the divide between her old life and her new one cannot be broken, she looks towards the future:

“Everything looked just as it always did I’m sure; but my feelings were strangely different – I felt as though I was looking at a world that was somehow changed from the one I’d seen the night before – peering out, almost, through the very window that had opened in my dream.”

Chiyo is finally coming out of her “mourning” for her past and now understands that she can’t go back. Golden uses metaphor here to show how Chiyo sees the future in a new light – hope. By saying that Chiyo’s feelings were “strangely different”, Golden tells me that Chiyo feels new and unlike herself, suggesting a change, a development in her character that she has only just come to notice herself. The writer also uses symbolism through a dream Chiyo has when ” he (the man in her dream) slid open the paper screen with a loud clack”. The “loud clack” can be interpreted to represent Chiyo awakening from her fantasy of returning to Yoroido one day. She realizes Yoroido is not her home now, the Nitta okiya is. Now ” the stale air had washed away. The past was gone.” Golden’s use of metaphor and symbolism are extremely effective here in the sense the reader is given help to experience Chiyo’s emotions themselves and visualize what she is going through. It gives the reader a sense of the significance of how important this turning point in Chiyo’s life is – when she finds the hope to look forward.

Later in the novel, one of the most prominent geisha in Gion, Mameha, notices Chiyo. She decides to “adopt” Chiyo as her ” younger sister” and train her to become a geisha – a custom of the Japanese geisha. The “mother” of the okiya agrees to “adopt” Chiyo as daughter of the okiya and not Chiyo’s only friend – Pumpkin.

When a child becomes an apprentice geisha, it is customary for them to change their names, to signify the change in themselves – mostly from a child to woman. In Chiyo’s case, when she changes her name to Sayuri Nitta, it is not only representative of the transformation of child to woman, but brings an aspect of her character to light that had before been hidden. Because Sayuri is striving to “win” and “beat” her only friend, Pumpkin, her whole character needs to alter, to be rapidly hardened and wizened. She can’t afford to take anybody else’s feelings or futures into consideration and she “was certainly as determined as anyone to work single-mindedly until I reached my goal…I had longed for nothing so much as the chance to become a geisha and find a place for myself in the world”. Although Golden does not allow the character herself to realize it, he shows through words such as ‘determined” and “longed’ how much the society she lives in is affecting her character. Where it is the survival of the fittest, forcing Sayuri to view the world in an almost self-obsessed, a self-seeking light.

When Sayuri finally turns from an apprentice into a real geisha, “mother” actually signing for Sayuri to be daughter of the okiya meant that Hatsumomo and Pumpkin – also living in the okiya – chance’s of a successful career from then on disappeared and so, eventually, both leave the okiya. Sayuri doesn’t notice and certainly doesn’t spend much time in thinking about how much she has destroyed Pumpkin’s life while so busy building up her own. This indicates a reform in Sayuri. It stands out that a certain aspect of Sayuri’s character has developed gradually over the years and become more distinct. Certainly not arrogant, but more self-engrossed and thus hardened, has arisen in her struggle to achieve respect and happiness.

Throughout these sections of the novel, Sayuri is unaware of any change within herself. Its not until the surrender of Japan in World War Two, when Sayuri has been living like a peasant to survive that she sees this change, realizing she is no better than others. As a geisha she’d always thought upon herself on a higher degree than peasants – which, to me, is ironic to the fact that she should, after a tragic life as a geisha, think upon herself to be better off than peasants, than herself as a happy child in the fishing village of Yoroido. Therefore, Golden shows again, a major change in character, that society has pushed her to become someone different to Chiyo:

“I looked no different to the women around me, and as I thought of it, who could say I was any different? If you no longer have leaves, or bark, or roots, can you go on calling yourself a tree?”

The use of imagery here again helps convey to the reader exactly how Sayuri is feeling. Golden brings forward the idea of the Gion society as a tree. Towering above the ground, the peasants, and blossoming with beauty the earth does not have are the geisha. He shows how disillusioned Sayuri was, telling herself she has risen to a degree of respect and achieved what she’s always wanted – when in fact she hadn’t, when she hadn’t achieved true contentment.

Golden uses Sayuri when she loses her identity, to symbolize Japan as a whole, losing much of its culture and tradition to the Westerners. Relating Sayuri’s disillusioned life to Japan’s disillusioned culture and tradition, when in fact, very few Japanese were happy.

The concluding section of the novel is when Sayuri’s true character breaks through the restrictions society holds, revealing the real strength she shows in her desperation. As Chiyo she had had the determination and purpose to become a geisha, now, as Sayuri, combined with the self-obsession she acquired over the years, defies tradition. Sayuri is to have Nobu, her good friend, as her danna – she is to be his paid mistress – but she loves the Chairman, the man who has given her the hope to carry on. Should she have Nobu as her danna, Japanese society would restrict her from ever having any chance with the Chairman, as in Japan, a man will never show interest in a woman his friend likes. If Sayuri was to take Nobu as her danna, all her hope would die, and she would feel unable to live in a world without hope:

“I thought perhaps I understood how Hatsumomo has come by her bitter cruelty, and Granny her meanness. Even Pumpkin, who was scarcely thirty, had worn a look of disappointment for many years. The only thing that had kept me from it was hope; and now to sustain my hopes, would I commit an abhorrent act? I’m not talking about seducing the minister, I’m talking about betraying Nobu’s trust”.

I think that here, when Sayuri betrays Nobu, she is seeking self-fulfillment; although admirable qualities in Sayuri’s character show through her, such as individuality and strength, I find it ironic the same self-engrossment that society developed in her, is now helping her to break free from its own restrictions:

“I kept asking myself whether I was truly sane to be considering this plan; but whatever misgivings I may have felt, they weren’t enough to stop me from going through with it”.

By breaking off from society, Sayuri finally gains the contentment she needs, stating her individuality:

“I could almost sense my life expanding just like a river whose waters have begun to swell; for I had never before taken such a drastic step to change the course of my own future”.

Golden shows here, through the comparison of Sayuri’s life to a swelling river how much frustration there was inside her, like a river she would burst if something was not done quickly to stop her, break down with all the pent up emotions inside her that she had always been taught never to express.

When Sayuri does this, she finally gains the independence that her character has always yearned and worked for, the independence that she certainly deserves.

“Memoirs of a Geisha”, then, is an distinctive novel which succeeds, through beautifully designating language techniques, in drawing the reader to feel both the emotions captured inside the character of Sayuri Nitta and the realism included in the effects that society may have on the individual. Throughout the novel, the reader is gripped by Golden’s use of metaphors, similes and almost lyrical prose. I found myself almost enabled to step inside the secretive, vanishing world of geisha Japan, and live the tragic alongside the spirit of the character, Sayuri Nitta.

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