Memoirs of a Geisha: Fate vs Free Will

Hey everyone! I just want to start off by saying that this blog is a little different than I normally do, so bear with me. I have been instructed to do a multimedia essay for my final project for English class. So without further ado, here it is! Buckle up, folks.

First, I want to talk about the book, Memoirs of a Geisha by Author Golden, and why I chose it for my project. My mother introduced me to this movie when it first came out in 2005. I was just 16 years old so of course, everything was “lame” including this movie. It took me a solid 6 months of dismissing her rave reviews. Finally, I sat down and watched it. I was mesmerized. The story is absolutely beautiful and compelling.

Once I had realized it was actually based on a novel, that’s when I really hopped on the bandwagon. The book was even better! The movie did a great job capturing the essence of the novel, but the novel – wow. Just wow. Ever since, I have been slightly obsessed with geisha and learning more about them.

The novel speaks volumes about fate and destiny. In fact, the entire culture talks about using an almanac before making any decisions, and you find evidence of that throughout the novel. Today, my job is to convince you that Sayuri acted of her own free will and used self determination and critical decision making skills to get exactly where she wanted to be.

Everyone who reads Memoirs of a Geisha will agree that the writer wants you to believe that Sayuri had a destiny and that all the events in her life were tied to her fate and not her own decisions. Because Memoirs of a Geisha focuses the reader on fate, I will be explaining to you how self determination and free will plays a more critical role in Sayuri’s career, life, and even love. 

I will be looking at four particular moments in Chiyo/Sayuri’s life when the writer explains the event as a moment of fate. The four biggest moments that fate are present that I can prove free will include: Chiyo meeting the Chairman and deciding to become a geisha, Mameha’s plan to get Chiyo adopted by the Okiya, Sayuri betraying Nobu, and the final event where Sayuri meets with the Chairman for the last time where you can see how her own free will has made an impact. 

The first moment I feel that a reader needs to look at when thinking about fate versus free will, is when Chiyo throws herself down by the river and decides to wait for a sign. In doing so, she meets the Chairman for the first time, while he is with two men and a geisha woman, named Izuko, on their way to the theater. Chiyo, being a young girl, with a history of being abused, instantly falls for the kindness of the Chairman and vows to be a geisha like Izuko, the geisha who accompanied the Chairman that day. While some would argue that the Chairman stopping to talk to Chiyo is an act of fate, the outcome defined by the encounter is in fact based on free will. Chiyo made the active decision to do everything in her power to be a geisha. “In that brief encounter with the Chairman, I had changed from a lost girl facing a lifetime of emptiness to a girl with purpose in life.” (pg 113). At the end of their meeting, Chiyo decides to dedicate her life to becoming a geisha and meeting the chairman again. “I would suffer through any training, bear up under any hardship, for a chance to attract the notice of a man like the Chairman again.” (pg 114). 

Chiyo, a maid to the Nitta Okiya has decided to be a geisha – up until this moment she was not interested. She had tried to run away, and was left to take up maid duties instead, to pay off her debt. Running away was her decision. She fell off the roof and was injured, also her decision, as she knew the weather and could feel the roof was slippery – she chose to go anyways. In racking up a medical debt, the natural consequence was that Mother demoted her to maid and took away geisha training – which would have increased her debt even more. “I was a fool to invest so much money in you in the first place. You’re probably the most expensive maid in all of Gion! If I could sell off your bones to pay back some of your debts, why, I’d rip them right out of your body”. (pg. 99) 

A short time later, Mameha calls for Chiyo and they meet in private. The main goal from the very first meeting with Mameha, was always to have Chiyo adopted by the Okiya. Mameha points out to Chiyo that it’s curious that Mother has not adopted Hatsumomo yet, who is older than Mameha. Adoptions typically take place when a geisha is much younger. Chiyo had never thought about it before but knew that Mameha was right – there had to be a reason. “Adopting Hatsumomo would be like releasing the tiger from its cage.” (pg 123) “It certainly would. I’m sure Mrs. Nitta knows perfectly well what sort of adopted daughter Hatsumomo would turn out to be – the sort that finds a way to drive the Mother out.” (pg 123) Mameha, making Chiyo promise to keep their meeting secret, arrived at the okiya to discuss making Chiyo her little sister. Mother was not too pleased but made a bet with Mameha that would actually ensure the adoption of Chiyo, even if she didn’t know it. Mameha was completely convinced that Chiyo could repay her debts before she turned 20, and knowing the Okiya wouldn’t be able to pay double, the only option for them would be to adopt Chiyo to release their debts. Mother: “I’ll offer you double, instead, if you succeed” – Mameha: “But nothing, if I fail” (pg 135) Knowing that she owed an incredible amount to the okiya and the stakes Mameha and Mother had agreed to, Chiyo knew she had no choice but to become the absolute best geisha she could be. Chiyo was in absolute control of her own “destiny”.

Hatsumomo was not worthy of adoption because of her personality and poor choices – however as she takes Pumpkin under her wing as her little sister, it puts her and Chiyo as rivals. Knowing Hatsumomo’s flair for drama and competition, while also knowing how much Pumpkin struggled, Chiyo was helped in many ways. “In any case, Hatsumomo has no more patience than a child […] That, young Chiyo, is the reason Hatsumomo hates you so very much. The Pumpkin girl, I don’t imagine Hatsumomo feels too worried about Mrs. Nitta adopting her” (pg 123). Some would say that Hatsumomo’s behaviour and Pumpkin’s inability to do well is fate, however, that would only make sense, if Chiyo was automatically granted the adoption based on being the last candidate standing, which is not the case. She still has to earn being adopted.

After Sayuri becomes a geisha, Nobu – a client – becomes very interested in becoming her Danna, and tying himself to her. Basically, a geisha becomes the mistress of the danna. Sayuri, not interested in having Nobu as her danna, talks to Mameha about finding someone else. Mameha goes to bat for Sayuri, who ends up with the General. Sayuri tries to explain to Mameha about not wanting Nobu as her danna, but doesn’t explain why truthfully. Mameha and Mother discuss the General, and how he can help the okiya – Mother eventually agrees to him becoming Sayuri’s danna. During the Fall when Sayuri was 18, the General became her danna and Nobu stopped inviting her to parties. (pg 308). This is quite obviously free will, as she is the one who sets the plan in motion.

After meeting with the Chairman at a party, Sayuri learns of Nobu’s whereabouts and finds him to talk to him. Once she finds him, they make amends, allowing Sayuri the ability to get closer to the Chairman once again. “What was more, without Nobu’s patronage, I was no longer invited to Iwamura Electric’s parties, which meant I hardly stood any chance at all of seeing the Chairman.” (pg 308). Again, Sayuri had made the active decision to seek out Nobu to make things right, in hopes of meeting the Chairman again.

As Nobu is business partners with the Chairman, they will not wager against each other in business or pleasure. Knowing that, Sayuri must do something drastic to shake Nobu away, to get closer to the chairman. She attempts to betray him, by sleeping with the Minister, and asking Pumpkin to bring him by to “catch” her in the act. “I want you to find some way of bringing Nobu there and opening the back door we saw earlier, so that… he’ll see us.” (pg 400) In rejecting Nobu, it left Sayuri open to being involved with the Chairman.

After what happened, the Chairman found Sayuri some time later and explained that Sayuri was not destined to become a geisha, so much as he orchestrated the entire thing. The Chairman remembered young Chiyo, and asked Mameha to find her, and make her geisha. He even covered all the costs. He went on to explain that he could not act because Nobu, who he owed his life to, had taken interest. Sayuri explained that she did what she did, for the Chairman and that she hadn’t stopped thinking about him after all these years. The Chairman explains what he had done with Mameha (pg 412-414) in regards to, to ensure young Chiyo would become Geisha; “What I did […], I did because of my feelings for you, Chairman. Every step I have taken in my life since I was a child in Gion, I have taken in hope of bringing myself closer to you.” (pg 416). After this conversation, the Chairman took Sayuri as his mistress until the very day he died. He became her danna and took care of her. 

Sayuri already lived in an Okiya so the chance of her becoming a geisha was significantly higher, despite the fact she tried to run away and had racked up a considerable amount of debt. Having ruined Mameha’s kimono, she already had made herself known by the famous geisha. In Sayuri’s life, love, and career, she made active decisions that lead her from a scared young maid to the Chairman’s mistress until the day he died, as she always wanted – fate had played no part in her life. Leading up to this moment, all the previous events in Sayuri’s life are proven to be self determination.

So, I hope that I was able to convince you that Sayuri’s free will needs all the credit for the events in her life. Now I leave you with this: Do a thorough inventory of your own life and see if you ultimately tied any of your outcomes to fate, when really, you made conscious decisions and worked hard to get you to where you are.

Published by S.M. Phoenix

I am a Canadian, single mom of two girls, who writes.

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