In the “The Broom Tree,” the main characters Genji, Tō no Chūjō and two acquaintances find themselves in a friendly debate regarding the various vices and virtue of women of the court. The story has only begun, but the narrator is already introducing the concept of an ideal woman and as the story progresses, an image of the ideal man emerges as well.
The chapter opens with Genji and his friend in his room on a rainy day, and spotting some love letters lying around, Tō no Chūjō broaches the topic by declaring “I have finally realized how rarely you will find a flawless woman, one who is simply perfect” (20). Genji's rejoinders with “But do you suppose any girl could have nothing to recommend her?” (21).
With such parameters set the discussion between these young men swings in different directions. Tō no Chūjō declares that “middle-born” offer the most merits, but Genji points out that distinguishing between such levels is arbitrary (21). The Chief Equerry posits that girls proud and beautiful from disreputable households have the most appeal, since by their very contrast they pique the interest. Genji silently rejects this idea, pointing out that unusually pretty girls are difficult enough to find among the highest class, let alone the lower ones. The Chief Equerry continues with his description of the best woman (25):
In the end, I suppose, [...] one should settle on someone wholly dependable, quiet, and steady, as long as there is nothing especially wrong with her, and never mind rank or looks.
Such a woman should be trusting and steady, and she should learn to accept her husband's interactions with other women as a matter of course, thankful that their marriage rests on his first feelings for her. Tō no Chūjō agrees, but adds that whatever affairs may interpose between a couple, “patience” is best (27). His comment goes unheeded by Genji, who falls asleep.
Then the Chief Equerry shares an anecdote of “a dependable wife,” though in seeming contradiction to his earlier description (31). This woman responds to his extramarital activities with defiance, and after they quarrel retreats from his life, then dies. Meanwhile the other woman, whose elegance and wit was extraordinary, was sleeping with other men, and the Chief Equerry uses the comparison to encourage the younger men to be cautious of soft and willing women. Genji responds to these recollections with a smile and a joke.
So the debate goes on, with Tō no Chūjō relating his experiences of a girl so demure that he never realized her distress at his disloyalty, and the Aide of Ceremonial shares a funny story of a lover whose terrible garlic breath was too much of a repellent. In this way the reader is exposed to several viewpoints of the ideal woman in Heian court terms: skill in dyeing, penmanship, coyness, elegance, etc. Yet throughout the conversation, Genji is reticent regarding his own version of the perfect woman, and his friends are left clueless as to his ideal. The...