Memoirs of a Geisha
By Arthur Golden
Memoirs of a Geisha is a beautifully written book, with intricate detail that shows that Arthur Golden has done his research. However, the story is shadowed with sexism and ultimately becomes a “fairy-tale” written by a man.
When Chiyo’s father sells her into a life of slavery at the age of nine, Chiyo is thrust into a world of cruelty, where every woman does what she can to survive. To become a successful Geisha, Chiyo must forsake her friendships and delve into a world of mind games to defeat her rival, the beautiful and cruel Hatsumomo. As the intrigue deepens, Chiyo, now the popular Geisha Sayuri, comes closer to achieving success, but it may come at the cost of the man she loves.
I was surprised by two things when I began reading this book. 1. How engaging it was from the very beginning. 2. That it wasn’t nearly as depressing as I’d thought it would be.
The first shows why this book was so revered when it hit the shelves in the late ’90s. It’s engaging, romantic, exciting. Chiyo is a like-able character with spunk, a heroine to root for. Yet, as the book winds on, this initial excitement became disappointment. Golden goes out of his way to tell his audience how selfless Chiyo is, insisting that while she is employing the same intrigue as Hatsumomo, Chiyo’s reasons are noble. Yet, by the end of the book, Chiyo’s actions not only ruin lives, but her reasons are selfish. Despite all the kindness Nobu has shown her over the span of fifteen years, she throws him over because of her obsession with the Chairman . . . and it somehow works out for her.
The second–that the book wasn’t nearly as depressing as I’d thought it would be–is rooted in Golden’s inability to understand the suffering of a woman alone in this time period. Many of his scenes were so clearly written by a man, to me. Golden glamorizes and sexualizes teenage Geisha. He romanticizes young girls fawning over old men. He downplays the sexual exploitation of women that is rampant throughout the book. What bothered me the most, however, is that Chiyo has no identity outside of her relationship with men, and especially the Chairman. Her entire focus in life is to be close to the Chairman. Without him, her life is meaningless, and she is willing to risk her reputation and give up everything she has worked for to be with him.
Chiyo has no moment of self-actualization. She has no moment of becoming a woman who is not defined by her relationship with men. To me, the ending was the saddest part of all. Though Golden tries to paint Chiyo’s story as a fairy-tale triumph, that a girl from the seaside can rise up to become rich and loved by a man, Chiyo ultimately ends up as alone as she was as a nine-year-old girl sold into slavery.
Golden’s story, while engaging, could not fully immerse me. His deep misunderstanding of women destabilizes the foundation on which this book rests, as well as his perpetuation of the lie that a woman’s identity can only be found in a man. So, while I understand the praise this book has received over the years, I also think it is far from the perfect work of fiction it has been ascribed to be.
I think the reality of Chiyo’s place in the world is driven home by a line spoken by her mentor, Mameha, mid-way through the book, and exposes the bitter powerlessness of what it is to be a Geisha:
“We don’t become geisha because we want our lives to be happy; we become geisha because we have no choice.”