Penguin Readers

Memoirs of a Geisha

© Pearson Education 2001


When Memoirs of a Geisha was published in 1997, the insights that it gave into the Japanese world of the geisha created enormous interest and the novel became a bestseller. A film of the novel, directed by Steven Spielberg1, is soon to be released.

Memoirs of a Geisha tells the fictional story of Chiyo, a young Japanese girl, whose family, unable to support her, sell her to a geisha house in the city of Kyoto during the 1930s. A geisha is a professional female companion for men in Japan, trained in music, dancing, and the art of conversation. The geisha training is a life of virtual slavery, and Chiyo finds herself working as maid to a malevolent geisha called Hatsumomo who, jealous of Chiyo' beauty, makes her life utterly miserable. One day, as Chiyo weeps by a stream in the city, a wealthy man stops and comforts her. Chiyo, deeply moved by the man' kindness, knows that she will never forget him. Two years later, a geisha called Mameha, as kind as Hatsumomo is cruel, takes Chiyo under her wing. Chiyo, now renamed Sayuri, becomes a successful geisha, renowned for her beauty. Then one day she meets the man who had comforted her by the stream. But life does not run smoothly for Sayuri and there are powerful obstacles that prevent the two from coming together ...


Arthur Golden was born and brought up in Tennessee in the United States. He graduated from Harvard College in 1978 with a degree in art history, specialising in Japanese art. In 1980 he obtained a postgraduate qualification in Japanese History and also studied Chinese. He then went to work for a magazine in Tokyo. It was there that he met a young man whose father was a famous businessman and whose mother was a geisha. Golden was fascinated by this, and on returning to the United States, began a fictional novel about a young man whose mother was a geisha. However, realising that his real interest was in the secretive geisha world, he then resolved to write a novel about a geisha. While studying for a second postgraduate degree in English at Boston University, Golden started researching the geisha world. He did an enormous amount of research and the novel took many years to write. He wrote three versions of the book before it was finally accepted by a New York publisher. The authenticity of the novel brought Golden much-deserved success. The author lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, with his wife and children.


The Japanese geisha world is traditionally a world of ceremony and masks. Behind the elaborate make-up of the geisha girl lies a world that the ordinary Japanese person knows little about, and foreigners even less. Now, at the start of the twenty-first century, the geisha traditions have become largely a thing of the past. Arthur Golden' achievement has been to prise open this world and reveal it in all its detail, so that the reader, fascinated - and sometimes shocked - is compelled to read to the end of the story.

In an interview, Golden describes how he was introduced to a Kyoto geisha just as he was about to revise his manuscript. The information she gave him about geishas 'took my understanding of a geisha's daily existence and stood it on its head. I had to throw out my entire 800 page draft and start (again).'

Golden now wrote another 750 page draft. Like his first draft, it was entirely fictional, describing the heroine, Sayuri, and her life from the point of view of an observer. However, editors, when they read the story, soon lost interest in it. Finally, Golden realised that he had not succeeded in making his heroine real. He now wrote a third draft in which the narrator is Sayuri herself. This technique brought the novel triumphantly to life - Sayuri lives and breathes in the pages of the story.

Sayuri's story is in many ways a sad one. Uprooted from her family environment, she is treated with great harshness at the okiya (geisha house) to which she has been sold. She learns very quickly that geisha girls have little hope of love and warmth, either from other geisha girls, who are fiercely competitive, or from the men in their lives. A successful geisha will usually have a danna - a permanent lover who acts as her patron and pays her expenses. But as the geisha Mameha says in the novel, 'A geisha who expects understanding from her danna is like a mouse expecting sympathy from a snake'.

But Sayuri, right from the start of the story, is driven by her need for love, and in the end she succeeds in becoming the mistress of the man who truly cares for her and has always seen beyond the geisha ceremony to the woman beneath. Sayuri's journey to happiness is long, and her life undergoes many changes the hardships of the second world war turn geisha life upside down and after the war, many of the old traditions are destroyed forever. Sayuri, however, has the resilience and intelligence to adapt - the last part of her life is spent in New York, as the successful owner of a Japanese teahouse.

Sayuri is a heroine that one is able to identify with. Though intelligent and beautiful, she is not perfect, and indeed, deeply hurts several people in her life. This is not done intentionally, but is a result of her desperate attempts to escape from the geisha world. And because of this, most readers, one suspects, can forgive her the pain she causes. Other characters in the novel are boldly drawn: the vindictive geisha Hatsumomo, the beautiful and kind Mameha who acts as Sayuri's older sister, the ultimately pathetic geisha Pumpkin, once Sayuri's friend, who turns on her and attempts to destroy her. These characters are all part of the large canvas that Golden paints, in a compelling story that will keep you gripped to the last chapters, where a clever surprise awaits the delighted reader!

1 Note from 2004: Steven Spielberg is a producer of the film, not director anymore.

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