Study Guide

Memoirs of a Geisha Identity

By Arthur Golden


My name back then was Chiyo. I wouldn't be known by my geisha name, Sayuri, until years later. (1.25)

This is a bit of foreshadowing that becoming a geisha isn't as simple as troweling on a lot of makeup and putting on a pretty kimono. It changes a young woman's identity so much, she even gets a new name.

I'm sure I looked no more elegant than a guest at an inn looks wearing a robe on the way to the bath. But I'd never before worn anything nearly so glamorous on my body. (4.58)

We think Chiyo loves her robe so much not because of how it looks, but because of what it means. Her robe is a small upgrade in her status. It's a mile marker on her journey to a different life.

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 when she begins to think like one too. (5.20)

Thinking like a geisha almost makes it seem like a brainwashing process. And, in a way, it kind of is. Does anyone want to be a geisha? They must be convinced that it's a lifestyle they can enjoy.

Couldn't the wrong sort of living turn anyone mean? (8.8)

This quote raises a bit of a geisha-or-the-egg situation. Is a person turned mean because of a bad situation, or does a mean person cause bad situations? Sayuri thinks it is the former.

The point wasn't to become a geisha, but to be one. To become a geisha…well, that was hardly a purpose in life. But to be a geisha…I could see it now as a stepping-stone to something else. (9.57)

What's the difference between being a geisha and becoming a geisha? Perhaps becoming one is to fake-it-til-you-make-it, but finally making it means being a geisha.

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." (14.20)

A geisha's name can be chosen to define her identity, or to change it—or, in Sayuri's case, a little of both. She is understanding, but the "yu" balances out her personality. And what about "together"? What could that mean? Sayuri has to learn to be comfortable by herself most of the time.

Back in my tipsy house on the sea cliffs, I'd been Sakamoto Chiyo. Now my name was Nitta Sayuri. (24.11)

The name change has completely eradicated her past identity and replaced it with something else. Do you think Sayuri is different than Chiyo? Or are they the same girl in different makeup?

I sometimes lift the brocade cover on the mirror of my makeup stand, and have the briefest flicker of a thought that I may find her there in the glass, smirking at me. (27.101)

Sayuri fears that she has become like Hatsumomo. Considering she and Mameha teamed up to drive Hatsumomo crazy and get her kicked out of Gion—which is exactly what Hatsumomo tried to do to Sayuri—we think she is right to feel this way.

"Do you mean to say you could consider giving yourself to a man like the Minister? Don't you feel there's right and wrong in this world, and good and bad? Or have you spent too much of your life in Gion?" (32.86)

This quote recalls a few prior quotes: the brainwashing quote, the one about being vs. becoming a geisha, and the quote about certain situations turning a person mean. But here we see that living in Gion for so long has made Sayuri a geisha through and through, using her sexuality as currency.

Because I'd set my sights on becoming a geisha only to win the affections of the Chairman, probably I ought to have felt no sense of loss in withdrawing from Gion. (35.6)

At the end of the book, Sayuri needs a new identity, so she makes one in New York as the owner of a teahouse. Sure, she needs help from the Chairman, but it is the first time in her life she has been able to establish her own identity, instead of having someone else do it for her.