The Morality of Saikaku’s ‘Life of a Sensuous Woman’
Ihara Saikaku’s Life of a Sensuous Woman describes an uneasy, driven by troubles and pleasure, life of an Asian woman of the seventeenth century. Although the text unfolds as the hermit woman tells her story rich in multiple sexual relationships, what is seen by society as amoral, the text presents a strong moral appeal. In the ancient Asian history, women held a second-place position in society. They were expected to live on the terms of their dominating male counterparts, without a voice over what was going on in their lives. The male-dominated Asian society of the seventeenth century had little room for women’s voice or choice. Therefore, presenting a character, though fictional, who transverse those patriarch limitations and lives in pursuit of her desires, is a strong moral appeal. The life of the hermit woman depicts bravery, independence, and determination, which allows her to rise above societal boundaries, and still be accepted by that same society; underscoring the importance of women’s determination to rise from the second-place position and still thrive in the society.
Firstly, the strive for independence does not mark the end of life, but a different route to it. The story unfolds as the old woman, the main heroine, tells her life adventures (Saikaku 2). The patriarch society held strict rules for women to follow and a diversion from those rules would surely result in harsh reprimand, punishment, and even death. More so, the patriarchal system advocated for virtuous women, who would only satisfy their husbands’ sexual desire and never have sexual affairs with other men. A woman, who the patriarchal system considered sensuous, met a fateful judgment and could be easily estranged, or treated with disrespect (Sheppard 4). However, these harsh punishments have never deterred the hermit woman, or even obscured her life in any way. The fact that she tells the story, at ripe old age, proves that she has survived, regardless of the strict social standards for women (Saikaku 3). The text communicates to women that the fear of societal perspectives and rules is a personal limitation, which can be overcome.
Secondly, women can have a voice regarding their lives, and live on their own terms. Saikaku portrays the power of women’s choice in the “Mistress of the Domain Lord” section. In ancient Asian society, the domain lord was a high ranking individual who could get whatever he wanted, property or women (Saikaku 152). More so, such people acquired the desired women and those women had to be subject to men’s dictates. Furthermore, most beautiful women sought by nook and crook to become the mistresses of the domain lord. Hence, they subjected to the lord’s every desire, command, and expectation. However, the hermit women managed to land this post, without subjecting herself to the lord’s dictates. In fact, she manipulated the domain lord to make him dance to her tune (Berg 1). Instead of subjecting herself to what the lord wanted, she made him want what she had to offer. The hermit woman had her choice and voice in the affair with the lord, something that seemed out of the question at the time. In an affair or relationship, the woman should have a say, as the man does. Moreover, in society, women should have control over their lives and the author of the novel supports this idea. This fact makes the text moral, as it shows how important it is for women to defend their interests, rather than blindly satisfy men’s needs and society’s beliefs.
Thirdly, social rankings should never keep individuals from pursuing their dreams. The ancient Asian society was strictly stratified. The members of different social layers were not allowed to fall in love or hold sexual affairs with each other. The society had little regard for individual desires, and the individual could always be sacrificed for the society’s sake. The hermit women crossed those stratus barriers, and loved or held love relationships with men from different social layers. At a tender age, she fell in love with a samurai, something that was deemed wrong considering her high-class family status (Saikaku 21). The love story between her and the samurai ended tragically, but that did not deter her from indulging in other cross-strata relationships. through these cross-strata relationships. After her first love affair, her family’s status has declined, and her social status has been gradually declining since then (Saikaku 63). Interestingly, the hermit woman could reclaim high social status through engaging in sexual relationships with men from higher social levels. For example, being the domain lord’s mistress the woman could have bettered her social position. Nevertheless, after the closure of the affair, her status would decline again, and the cycle continued. While the society condemned cross-strata relationships, the hermit woman did not restrain herself, and her endeavor in this area brought her rare social upgrading, which could otherwise be impossible.
Fourthly, the women’s beauty and physical attractiveness, should not be a limitation, but an advantage in life. In most cases women are condemned for their beauty, as men consider them as sexual objects, even when the ladies want a different consideration. Saikaku’s character shows that the beauty and being seen as a sexual object does not have to be a limitation, it can be a means for survival (Saikaku 213). Having lost her high-ranking in society, the hermit woman uses her beauty and attractiveness as a means to survive. In the ancient Asian history, women could hardly get a job if they were low-ranking in society. Nevertheless, the main heroine used the beauty as an asset through which she could earn a living. Instead of seeing herself as a victim of sexual violence or as a men’s sex object, she was determined to be the perpetrator in the sex game. Therefore, she became a sex worker, a participant of sex instead of a victim and earned a living through prostitution. Thus, the novel proves that women are not helpless, nor should they view themselves as sex objects or victims of the sex game, but they have the control over it, and they can become perpetrators.
Lastly, Life of a Sensuous Woman is a moral text because it represented women in the patriarch society. Most authors of the time were men, and they focused on issues concerning men or that mattered to men. Issues concerning women took the backstage or second place as women did. Therefore, it was a bold step to write a novel exploring the issues concerning women in ancient Asian society (Sheppard 4). Regardless of how the book presents women, whether in the light of society or feminism, it addresses women’s inner concerns which makes it a moral text (Berg 1). The text fulfills the moral obligation to represent all groups of society through literature. Although the book has strong societal perception inclinations, by seeing women as perpetrators of sensuality against men, by addressing the psychological struggle, social desire, and reasoning of women, it qualifies as a moral text. It acknowledges the position of women as human beings deserving social consideration and acknowledgment.
However, people with contrary opinions may argue that Life of a Sensuous Woman is an immoral text. To start with, the presentation of women using sex to their advantage is amoral. The society values virtuous women and women should assert restrain to their sexual desires. Therefore, it is considered amoral for women to exploit their attractiveness and sensuality. Besides, social stratification was called to reinforce social order, thus it was immoral to go against the set order (Sheppard 4). It takes years and generations for the society to forge a certain culture, which reinforces order and ensures the survival and success of the community. Hence, the social stratifications were essential aspects of the ancient Asian society, thus, it was amoral to try to destroy the order that was beneficial to society for personal gain (Berg 1). Societies run as coherent units because of the members’ adherence to the social norm. A divergence from these norms, brings discord and problems to the society, therefore, the novel describing an oppositionist may seems to be amoral. Nevertheless, these arguments are faulty, as the society exists to serve all the members, but not at the expense of these members. Therefore, glorifying the society above the individual, or upholding social norms at the expense of individual survival, is inappropriate. Therefore, the text is moral, by appreciating the individual, as well as the society.
Life of a Sensuous Woman appreciates women in a society that had little regard for women, applauding their ability to live as members of that society and not as subjects, which makes a novel a moral text. The texts’ main character is a brave woman, who chases her life dreams regardless of the limitations in the patriarch society. The hermit woman exploits what women have and is considered their misgiving to her advantage. She does not fall victim of the society and its norms and expectations, but thrives through those expectations, by setting her rules in different life situations. Further, a literature exploring the issues affecting women in a patriarch society is moral in every aspect. Women had little social value in the ancient Asian societies. Thus their psychological, physical and life desires had no value too. Addressing these concerns in this book, Saikaku makes the book a living oral text. In a community where masculinity was at the core of society, femininity took the backstage, and only a moral text could try to bring femininity to the limelight.
Berg, Catharina. “Life of A Sensuous Woman – Ihara Saikaku. Great works of literature II.” 2015, https://blogs.baruch.cuny.edu/eng2850kmwb/?p=70 .Accessed 25 September 2017.
Saikaku, I. The Life of an Amorous Woman. 5th Ed., New Directions, 1963.
Sheppard, Robert. ”Libertines and sexual excess in world literature–saikaku’s “life of a sensuous woman,” “the love poems of the sixth dalai lama,” “don juan,” the earl of rochester and the marquis de sade.” Robert sheppard literary blog & world literature forum. https://robertalexandersheppard.wordpress.com/2013/07/29/libertines-and-sexual-excess-in-world-literature-saikakus-life-of-a-sensuous-woman-the-love-poems-of-the-sixth-dalai-lama-don-juan-the-earl-of-rochester-and-the-marquis-de-sade-f/ .Accessed 25 September 2017.