CPLT 324 SEI SHONAGON QUESTIONS
Assigned: The Pillow Book (2270-2300).
The Pillow Book
1. On 2275-79, Shonagon concentrates on the court of the Emperor and the Empress she serves. What is so appealing to Sei about the "Sliding Screen" occasion she describes? How do the Emperor and Empress seem to regard women such as Sei, and what advantages does Sei herself ascribe to those who have served their sovereigns in the Palace? On the whole, what sense do you get of the relation between the Imperial Palace and the goings-on of ordinary people outside?
2. On 2280-86, what categories (i.e. connected events, people, things) does Shonagon find "depressing" and "hateful," respectively? How would you describe her understanding of that important aspect of court life, "decorum" (adherence to the correct or socially acceptable ways of looking, behaving, feeling, etc.)? Some readers find Sei rather snobbish or punctilious in her tastes. How might one defend her from such a charge?
3. On 2286-88 ("A Preacher..."), Shonagon muses about religion. Why should a Buddhist priest be "good-looking"? And what tone does she adopt towards the courtly temple-goers she describes -- is she offering us moral observations, or does something else seem to animate her? Explain.
4. On 2288-90, examine the way Sei Shonagon describes and responds to her natural surroundings. What does she notice most about nature -- does she offer us "still-life" descriptions or is she more interested in nature's processes, its activities? Does she treat natural things as if they were works of art (i.e. "aesthetic objects" like paintings, sculptures, and vases) or does she maintain a strong distinction between art and nature? (2273's "In Spring..." is another good passage to examine in responding to this question. The same goes for 2293's "During the Long Rains...")
5. On 2291-94, Shonagon addresses various things, but among them is relations between men and women. What observations does she make about men and the way they treat women within her courtly environment? And what does she say about love more generally?
6. On 2295-2300, Shonagon discusses the appropriateness or inappropriateness of various things, and lists some of the things that most please her. Analyze what you consider the method (if that's the right word) behind her observations -- how does she explain why a particular thing, person, or event pleases her? Is there something more than random observation at work in The Pillow Book? And what does she say about her reasons for writing down the thoughts that make up this work?
7. General question: make your own list of pleasant or unpleasant things, or make a list of any other sort similar to the categories you find in Sei Shonagon's text. Then set down your reflections on what this list reveals to you about yourself.
Edition: Lawall, Sarah, ed. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. 2nd edition. Volumes 1ABC. New York: Norton, 2002. ISBN A = 0-393-97755-2, B = 0-393-97756-0, C = 0-393-97757-9.