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Finding One’s True Self:
An Analysis of Chiyo’s Journey Finding her Identity In “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden
Most people wear makeup to enhance, modify, or obscure their natural look; that is the purpose of makeup. The Geisha population in “Memoirs of a Geisha” have more than a surface level relationship with makeup. Makeup to them is crucial and not only externally changes them but internally as well. A geisha putting on makeup is comparable to Peter Parker transforming into his alter superhero ego except it takes hours. When they do it, they assume a whole new identity. Their makeup is almost impenetrable, like a shield. The girl under the makeup conceals her true identity and creates a deception as people will perceive them from what they see but what they are seeing is a facade made up of white makeup and red lipstick. “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden is a story about a young girl named Chiyo who grows up in a poor village only to find herself becoming one of the most popular geisha’s. She serves as a servant in an okiya (a geisha home) only to soon be taken under the wing of Mameha who trains her to be a successful geisha like Mameha is herself. Chiyo faces many hardships and obstacles, one of them being her own identity crisis. Through her long journey, she finds herself questioning her place in the world and who she really is. In “Memoirs of a Geisha”, Arthur Golden demonstrates the significance of identity through Chiyo’s journey as she embarks becoming a Geisha. Throughout the novel, Golden uses the imagery and symbolism of water and makeup, which allows readers to identify Chiyo’s personal struggles as she endures through the hardships of transforming from Chiyo, the poor girl into Sayuri, the geisha.
Golden frequently uses the imagery of water to exemplify the complexity of Chiyo’s identity. Chiyo is noticed for her unusual blue-grey eyes which many believe signifies she has a lot of water in her personality as she is constantly told she “has a great deal of water” (32) in her personality. This represents her honest and truthful nature which contrasts with the artificial and deceptive world of the Geisha. In the Japanese Buddhist tradition, it is said water is one of the five elements that make up the fabric of the universe and personalities of every person. Like water shifting to fit the shape of a container, people with a lot of water in their personality have a tendency towards adaptability and flexibility. Therefore, when the characters in the book comment on the amount of water Sayuri has in her personality, they link her to these traits. Chiyo recognizes these attributes she attains: “Those of us with water in our personalities don’t pick where we’ll flow to. All we can do is flow where the landscape of our lives carries us,” (89). She notes that she cannot keep her life under control, who she is and where she goes will change under the given circumstances and all she can do is let it flow. Through the hardships Chiyo endures like being targeted by Hatsumomo, she does not take action but stays quiet as it is her nature to believe things will work out, “I knew I was trapped in the web Hatsumomo had spun for me. I could do nothing but wait,” (91). Golden using the imagery of water to present Chiyo’s personality enables the readers to understand Chiyo better as it will be easier to comprehend her adaptability and reaction towards given situations. As a little girl, Chiyo is known to have a lot of water but as she matures and becomes a geisha, her name changing to Sayuri does not just signify the birth of another Geisha but a rebirth of a young girl. As Chiyo becomes Sayuri, she learns to control the water and balance her personality: “My new name came from ‘sa’ meaning ‘together’, ‘yu’ from the zodiac sign for the hen-in order to balance other elements in my personality- and ‘ri’ meaning understanding,” (160).
Through the symbolism of makeup, Golden portrays Chiyo’s transformation into Sayuri as the makeup creates a facade for the young girl. Makeup is a crucial part of a Geisha’s life. It enables them to present themselves perfectly as a piece of art as they entertain the rich men. The white face mimics porcelain skin and the red lips symbolize everything a man wants. That is why Chiyo becomes a different person when she is transforming into her Geisha self. She is not Chiyo anymore but Sayuri, “Only when she sits before her mirror to apply her makeup with care does she become a geisha. And I don’t mean that this is when she begins to look like one. This is one she begins to think like one too,” (115). This passage enables readers to identify the change between Chiyo and Sayuri as Sayuri comes to life once the makeup is all set. Along with the appearance, the thoughts change as well. This young girl is not just a normal girl anymore but an elegant and poise entertainer, she should be thinking like one too. While these beautiful artifices conceal the geishas’ actual appearances, geisha must also conceal their desires, true feelings, and inner self so that they can shift their personalities in order to please or amuse their male clients: “Makeup alone won’t be enough to change Chiyo into something beautiful,” (62). From this quote, it can be seen that the speaker is referring to an internal change. Makeup is the first stop to the deception of beauty but along with the makeup, the willingness to change and to conceal their true feelings is essential in a successful geisha’s life. Through the use of makeup, Golden encourages readers to understand how the geisha’s really feel under their white masks and to understand the duality they attain as they have two different personalities: one with makeup and one without. The facade makeup can create for one’s self can be seen in Hatsumomo’s character. Hatsumomo’s beauty paved the way for her success however she was hiding her cruelness under all the makeup until her inner ugliness slowly becomes obvious even to her clients: “A tree may look as beautiful as ever; but when you notice the insects infesting it, and the tips of the branches that are brown from disease, even the trunk seems to lose some of its magnificence,” (324).
In “Memoirs of a Geisha”, Arthur Golden portrays Chiyo’s journey to finding her true self through the imagery of water and the symbolism of makeup. Through the imagery of water, Golden displays Chiyo’s personality as she is often compared to water. Water is adaptable, always flows and will take the shape of any area it is put in, alike Chiyo who is a young girl that will excel and fight through any situation she is put through. Golden also uses the symbolism of makeup to present the facade all geisha’s – not only Chiyo – must be able to put on in order to be a successful geisha. They have to conceal their desires and hide their true feelings under a painted face and how they handle this can expose their true nature as Hatsumomo’s beauty did not overpower her cruel nature as it is later on recognized by everyone including her clients. Through these devices the readers should be able to identify that Chiyo experiences many hardships that test her will and strength, altering the person she may be. Through the struggles and through the painted faces, she holds onto her true self and only matures who she always has been: the poor girl from the poor village. Her humble roots enable her to grow into a successful geisha and a person who is liked by many. In a world like today’s, people can be excused for their inner ugliness if they are beautiful enough or if they generally meet the standards in all aspects including personality. One can never be too much of something: too kind, too nice, too shy – there always has to be a perfect balance. This is not true. What brings people together and initiates diversity amongst communities is the ability to be themselves even if it means they are not a perfect balance. Pretending to be someone you are not is not going to last long as one can not pretend forever without causing a little damage.
- Golden, Arthur. Memoirs of a Geisha: a Novel / M. Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
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