Despite the obvious cultural differences between Sayuri and Lucy Honeychurch, there are more similarities in their circumstances than one might initially think. Both stories begin with them finding themselves out of their depth in a place that is unfamiliar to them, not only physically but also culturally. Lucy is in Florence, a young girl who has not yet been moulded into the ideal young lady, and susceptible to the exotic values that Italy has to offer. Similarly Sayuri is in Kyoto, almost a different world from her home in a fishing village, and she is also a young impressionable child.
However where as Sayuri’s immaturity is physical- she is only nine years old- Lucy’s immaturity is mental. Having lived in a small community all her life, she has never tasted culture different to that prescribed to her by society, the culture that states what is acceptable and what is unacceptable for a woman to do, who should marry whom, and what occupations and past times are suitable for a person of a certain class to partake in, to name but a few of the restrictions that are the norm among the people of Summer street and the like.
It is hard for Lucy to break free from these values as not only has she been brought up with them, but also she is going to be living with them for all her life. Sayuri is thrown into a situation, which is out of her control yet she displays more common sense and adaptability than one can imagine Lucy showing, should she have been in the same boat. Her determinedness and resourcefulness get her into trouble more than once but she is steadfast in getting back home and will not give up, a remarkable trait in some one so young and far away from home.
On the other hand Lucy displays a transferring of values that would not have been expected of her or indeed any one else who has not only had that up bringing but also the watchful eye of Charlotte Bartlett. She manages to throw off her restraints, momentarily at least, with admirable abandon. For example in the church with the Emersons, Lucy calls the Misses Alan “gossips” a phrase she would never have used to describe them had she still been under the influence of English propriety.
The blurring of boundaries is a theme that is evident throughout the two books. Lucy’s native England seems to have a stifling presence through out the pension and beyond, due to the Signora and the other guests. Sayuri’s native Yoroido follows her through her life, she is constantly making references to it, and remembers it on one of the most important events in her life as a novice geisha; her first party. She compares the story told by the geisha to one that “children back in the pond in Yoroido might have told”.
Other people, Hatsomomo, Auntie and Mother, also remind her of her peasant background and even Mameha says she bows like a “farmer visiting Kyoto”. Later in life people often misunderstand Sayuri; American women think she is a prostitute and the general public think she is almost the image of perfection, as she thought of the geisha she saw as a child. People expect Sayuri to fit in with their stereotypes; a customer laughs when she mentions she is from Yoroido, and people romanticize her assuming that she was born into a family of geisha, and is carrying on a long line of family tradition.
In the same way Lucy is expected to behave in a manner befitting a young lady of her social class, hence the surprise when she decides to marry George rather than Cecil. The two women also are in a similar situation concerning their personal lives, they are promised to one man yet desire another. Lucy is affianced to Cecil Vyse, the perfect example of Victorian propriety. He is in direct contrast to George Emerson, an enigmatic young man who she meets in Italy and seems to be a reminder of the Mediterranean passions that is stereotypical of Florence.
Both Cecil and George are in many ways direct reflections of England and Italy respectively. Cecil is cool and collected, a decedent young man who doesn’t need to work due to inherited wealth and so whiles away his time. He seems to think he is doing Lucy a favour by marrying her and looks down on her family, which is lower than his in the social hierarchy. George is hot blooded and impulsive (as is evident from his kissing Lucy in Florence) and in many ways plays the Italian influence that shapes Lucy’s choices.
She finds it difficult to forget him even while she thinks she is in love with Cecil. It is the same with Sayuri and the Chairman, but to a far greater extent. Every action she does, every talent she learns and every step she takes to be a better Geisha is with him in mind, she says “Every step I have taken in my life since I was a child in Gion, I have taken in the hope of bringing myself closer to you”. The Chairman introduces a kind gesture to her that she has not experienced since leaving Yoroido and this makes an impression on her that never fades.
It is the one constant in her life as she progresses from a child with no worries to an orphan, a maid, an apprentice and then a fully-fledged geisha. Her obsession with the Chairman is the only part of her which does not change, unlike her level of tolerance of the cruelty she faces at the Nitta okiya (where she once tried to run away, she then stays determined to become a success), her fear of having sex (first with Dr Crab, then the General) rapidly fades and she begins to not only be able to understand that it is an unpleasant necessity but she also realizes that, as with Yasuda Akira, sex is not always bad.
Even her name changes and her only reminders that she was not born Nitta Sayuri are the funeral tablets for her parents. Sayuri manages to change and adapt to whichever situation she finds herself in, if not forgetting entirely about her troubles, then being able to dull them. Where Lucy’s strength comes from being determined enough to stick to her own mind, Sayuri gets her strength from being able to lose some of her resoluteness and know when she has won, and when she has to wait for victory, over Hatsumomo for example.
The main influence in the maturing process of Lucy Honeychurch is Georges’ father Mr Emerson. He encourages her to “let go” of her propriety and to get on with her life, as she wants it not as society dictates. It is he at the end that causes her to change her mind and marry George. Similarly it is Mameha who coaches Sayuri through surviving life with Hatsumomo, and helps her through her formative teenage years and beyond into becoming a world famous geisha. However in a way Sayuri has to go back to her roots to win the Chairman, although it is almost by fluke.
She resorts to using her wit and cunning to form a plan that will prevent Nobu from becoming her danna in flagrant disregard for Mameha’s advice. Sayuri evidently has become mature enough to decide when to follow advice and when not to, as has Lucy. By going their own way as opposed to the direction they are being forced or encouraged to choose, both Lucy and Sayuri find what they are looking for and have developed from weak willed repressed girls into mature young women.