Literary Analysis: The Red Tent
The author and her times
Anita Diamant, author of the historic fiction novel, The Red Tent, is a devout Jewish-American living in Newtonville, Massachusetts with her husband and daughter, Emilia. She has written five books about contemporary Jewish life, The Red Tent being her first novel.
Diamant may have been influenced by the recent resurgence of creating Midrashim, or stories that attempt to explain the Torah by examining its subtexts. Modern women have taken a keen interest in this practice, hoping to expand on the minute biblical mentions of women like Dinah.
Form, structure and plot
The Red Tent is organized in a seemingly complicated yet beautifully simple way. There are three main sections; Dinah’s mothers’ story, her childhood, and her life in Egypt. Each is further divided into chapters.
Although the story is divided into sections, the plot progresses intact. The exposition consists of Jacob’s arrival and subsequent marriages to Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah. Twelve of thirteen children are born, including Dinah, narrator and only daughter. Dinah grows up helping her aunt/mother Rachel, who brings her to the city of Shechem.
The initial incident occurs when Simon and Levi, two of Dinah’s oldest brothers, enter the city of Shechem and murder all of the resident men, including Dinah’s beloved husband, Shalem. Cursing her entire family, a pregnant Dinah is taken to Egypt by Shalem’s mother, Re-nefer.
In the rising action the child is born, a boy who Re-nefer names Re-mose and raises as her own. He becomes a superior Egyptian scribe, and is eventually assigned to the king’s right-hand-man.
In a climactic irony, Re-mose’s employer turns out to be Joseph, Dinah’s youngest brother. The truth about Shalem’s murder is revealed to Re-mose, who in turn vows to avenge his father’s death on Joseph’s head. He is thwarted by Dinah, who convinces him to remove to the north. Joseph and Dinah attend the death of Jacob in the falling action, both forgiving the wrongs committed against them in their father’s name. The story concludes with Dinah’s death.
Point of View
Diamant has Dinah effectively tell her story from three different narrative perspectives. The bulk of the novel is related by Dinah in first person, providing a private look at growing up and personal tragedy: “It seemed that I was the last person alive in the world” (Diamant 203). Dinah tells the story that she says was mangled in the bible.
Understandably, Dinah’s relation of her mothers’ stories is done in third person narrative, since she herself was not yet born. Dinah exhibits a deep understanding of the feelings of her mother and aunts, giving her a definite omniscient quality and demonstrating the closeness the women shared: “She began to nurse dark fears about the future” (Diamant 24). The feelings of her mothers toward Jacob are described, as well as their thoughts on motherhood, faith and various other aspects of life.
Second person narrative is used in the prologue and at the conclusion of the novel, both parts being separate from the story itself. Dinah charms the reader with sweet-spoken phrases such as “You crave words to fill the great silence that swallowed me, and my mothers, and my grandmothers before them.” (Diamant 3) and “Wherever you walk, I go with you” (Diamant 321). Spoken in the present tense, the reader nearly feels Dinah’s presence as the pages are turned.
The Red Tent is primarily Dinah’s reminiscence about her life and the stories told to her by her mothers. With the exception of the second person narratives, which are spoken in present tense, the story is told in the past tense.
For the most part, Diamant tells a story accurate to the Book of Genesis.Dinah and Shalem’s love story, however, is based completely on opinion. In an interview with New Jewish Family Living, a popular Jewish Internet magazine, she tells journalist Marlena Thompson, “I never thought it was a rape because of the way Shalem treated Dinah afterwards. He obviously loved her. He had his tribe circumcised. That is not the behavior of a rapist.” Whether or not the daughter of Jacob was raped is one of the most controversial aspects of Genesis, Diamant’s interpretation being one of many.
Dinah, being the most prominent character, experiences all the changes that a lifetime has to offer. She is the archetype of the round character; the reader sees her morals and personality traits develop and reveal themselves in every line. The influence of her mothers is implicit in her opinions: “I am not certain whether my earliest memories are truly mine, because when I bring them to mind, I feel my mothers’ breath on every word” (Diamant 75).This, however, by no means shadows her individuality. She shares her musings with the reader, expressing her beliefs and loyalties as well as disdain and even wrath.
Dinah’s story begins before she is even born; it begins with the story of her mothers. As she says in the prologue, “If you want to understand any woman you must first ask about her mother and then listen carefully” (Diamant 2). Her entire life, as well as how she came into being, is covered in the novel. She is born the only daughter in a family of eleven sons (the twelfth son, Benjamin, is born after Dinah is gone). She has four female role models in childhood; her biological mother, Leah, and her aunt/mothers Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah.
Dinah can be described as resilient for coping with the tragedies she faces, naive for her approach to all kinds of love, and compassionate for her devotion to midwifery. The only physical description of Dinah is quite vague: “‘…the dark eyed girl with the curly hair and the fine hands…'” (Diamant 189). She was a mid-eastern girl, but little else is said of her appearance.
Dinah’s character is essential to the novel, as it is a chronicle of her life. She is the heart and soul of the story. Through her the reader experiences one of the oldest stories of all time, Genesis, through the eyes of someone who was painfully obscure for thousands of years.
A simple description of her own name best describes Dinah’s character: “Maybe you heard it in the music of my name: the first vowel high and clear, as when a mother calls to her child at dusk; the second sound soft, for whispering secrets on pillows” (Diamant 1). Even so early in the novel, before the actual story begins, Diamant establishes a maternal element in Dinah. “Whispering secrets” proves to be an important element in Dinah’s life, as the secrets of women are passed from mother to daughter in a never-ending cycle of life and love.
In concordance with the importance placed on mothers in The Red Tent, Dinah’s most prominent mother figures, Leah and Rachel, are instrumental to the plot. When the story begins (i.e. when Jacob arrives), the sisters are fourteen and twelve. They are followed to their deaths, which, although unsaid, would be thought to be in their forties or fifties.
Leah is the fertile mother, bearing seven of the sons of Jacob and his only daughter, Dinah. She is described as a “giantess”, being “;#8230;half a head taller than most of the men she had ever seen, and she dismissed them all because of it” (Diamant 12). This, and the fact that her eyes were different colors made her an unlikely choice for a bride. She was, however, a productive, intelligent and strong woman who had promising hips and strong legs. Jacob is drawn to her, immediately recognizing her merit as a matriarch even after being entranced by Rachel’s beauty.
Leah’s main concern is with her work. Her respect for the traditions of her mothers is unquestionable and gains favor in the eyes of the reader. Leah is a flat character; the only aspects of her personality that are revealed to the reader are the dedicated wife and the pious worshipper, and neither wavers for an instant. Both come together in the following quotation, where Leah speaks of offering sacrifice in hopes of being loved by Jacob: “;#8230;I broke off a piece of dough, kissed it, and offered it to the fire as an offering of hope that the man would claim me” (Diamant 17). This dependence on men is not unusual for any of the women of the text, all in care of a husband, brother or father.
Rachel is the beautiful second wife who is first in Jacob’s heart. Her famed first meeting with Jacob by a well occurs when she is only twelve years old, a pre-pubescent child too young for marriage. Her story ends when, after giving birth to Jacob’s last son, Benjamin, she dies on the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Rachel immediately characterizes herself as an impetuous and lazy, yet highly spirited woman. She acts on her every impulse, excusing herself from the household duties of a conventional wife. Her primary concern is conceiving children, thereby cementing herself in Jacob’s heart as his favored companion. Her womb, however, remains barren except for her two sons, Joseph and Benjamin. The latter costs Rachel her life.
Rachel’s beauty is renowned by all characters in the novel. Dinah describes this beauty most effectively: “;#8230;brown hair shaded to bronze, and her skin was golden, honeyed, perfect. In that amber setting, her eyes were surprisingly dark, not merely dark brown but black as polished obsidian or the depth of a well” (Diamant 8-9). Rachel’s flat character revolves around her beauty and the confidence that stems from it. She, being the favored child, expects everything to go her way, and when it does not she reverts to childish behavior: “Rachel wept and carried on like a baby” (Diamant 23). Rachel maintains her spoiled countenance her whole life.
Although not as important to Dinah herself as her mothers, Jacob is extremely important to the unfolding of the story. He is the antagonist, however unintentional it may be. It is the desire for his blessing that prompts Simon and Levi to commit their bloody deed in Shechem, and his oblivion to the feminine customs practiced by his wives that provides the backdrop of the story.
Jacob is presented in The Red Tent as an ordinary person, a radical concept never considered in most biblical writings because of his spiritual encounters with God. He arrives in Padam Aram, home of Laban, as a man of marriageable age, approximately 30 years old. His death occurs near the end of the novel, and is recorded in the bible at the age of 147 (Genesis 47:28). He is repeatedly described as being pretty and smooth-faced, further detail being left to the imagination of the reader.
Jacob’s character borders flat, but is round nonetheless. He is a picture of spirituality and husbandry, but exhibits emotions beyond that of a holy shepherd. His great love for Rachel, an unfailing pride in his sons and his passion for fairness are described by Dinah, who experienced a single personal encounter with her father: ” ‘Dinah,’ he said. It was the first time I remember hearing my name in his mouth” (Diamant 92). She knows nothing of her father, and he knows nothing about her.
Dinah’s story is set in the middle east, beginning in the Mesopotamian city of Padam Aram, moving to Canaan and Shechem, and ending in The Valley of the Kings. Being based around the characters of chapters 12-50 in the Book of Genesis, the time is extremely early in civilization.
All of the places Dinah lives in, with the exception of the dry and dead Valley of the Kings, are fertile agricultural regions. Her family provides for themselves with hard labor, from herding goats to weaving fabric. The worlds of men and women are separated by secret traditions, such as the red menstrual tent.
The Red Tent expands on the biblical story of Dinah’s rape by the prince of Shechem. It attempts to remove the cloud of obscurity from her life by giving her a voice and a more meaningful presence in the Book of Genesis between the celebrated spiritual accounts of Jacob and Joseph. Dinah herself symbolizes the women who remain unknown in the holy texts of Judaism and Christianity: “The chain connecting mother to daughter was broken and the word passed to the keeping of men, who had no way of knowing” (Diamant 1). With this novel, Diamant attempts to make her readers see that even biblical characters had lives and personalities beyond the impersonal relation of their stories in texts such as the Torah and the Bible.
A separated atmosphere is created, as the lives of men and women revolve around gender traditions. Most notable are the menstrual rituals practiced by Jacob’s wives, particularly the red tent. Men had no idea what women did during that time: ” ‘I don’t think even the subtlest among them realizes what we know and do among ourselves;#8230;'” (Diamant 64). When Dinah enters the world of womanhood, Jacob is enraged by the ceremony enacted by his women: “Men knew nothing of the red tent or its ceremonies and sacrifices. Jacob was not pleased to learn of them” (Diamant 174). Division of this kind is even present among the women, as the foreign wives of Simon and Levi are disgusted by this celebration of fertility.
One major theme is that of the maternal bond in biblical women’s society. A discussion of this relationship is revealed not only in Dinah’s relationship with her four mothers, but in the connection between all women, and in Dinah’s devotion to midwifery. The truth Diamant expresses here is the fact that people are not descended from one sex, as in the patriarchal society of ancient times, but from a long line of men and women. This choice is supported by a critical review included in the novel: “This fictive flight based on the Genesis mention of Dinah, offspring of Jacob and Leah … celebrated the ancient continuity and unity of women” (Kirkus Reviews).
Another major theme is revealed in Dinah’s travails. Her ability to overcome the tragedies personifies the theme of personal triumph. She is not the only one who adds to this theme, however. Joseph, too, rises above the terrible treatment he receives from Simon and Levi, who sold him into slavery. He manages to defeat the odds and become one of the most powerful men in Egypt. This theme holds the truth that no sorrow is to great to be overcome, even in the modern world. Ilene Cooper of Booklist comments on this in her critical review: “…Diamant makes readers see there’s not much difference between people across the eons, at least when it comes to trial and tragedy, happiness and love”. This review is also found in the novel.
Tied to personal triumph, achieving immortality is another major theme in The Red Tent: “There is no magic to immortality” (Diamant 321). The type of deathlessness Dinah speaks of is the undying glory that is remembered by descendants. Dinah was forgotten this way, but the glorified tales of Joseph and Jacob were not, being passed down from son to son and finally written down in the Book of Genesis. The following review, once again from the novel cover, expresses the importance of knowing how to achieve this type of immortality: “Here is a book of celebration ;#8230; keep it close and handy on a nightstand, for any time you need to remind yourself of the simple truths” (Rebecca Walker, San Antonio Express-News) The truth here is, in fact, Dinah’s above quotation; immortality does not mean eternal physical life, but rather undying remembrance in the hearts of our family and friends.
Diamant takes Dinah’s obscure biblical character and gives her a powerful voice with which to tell her story. Her personal approach gives the impression that it is Dinah’s spirit communicating with the reader through the novel. Having Dinah oblivious to her father’s divine encounters allows Diamant to concentrate on the woman’s perspective instead of simply rewriting the Book of Genesis.
The language in the text is extremely lyrical. Diamant uses artful metaphors and similes to capture Dinah’s thoughts and emotions. A particularly vivid image is that of the first river Dinah ever sees:
“I stood by the water’s edge until the last trace of daylight had drained from the sky, and later, after the evening meal, I returned to savor the smell of the river, which was as heady to me as incense, heavy and dark and utterly different from the sweet, thin aroma of well water” (Diamant 110).
The preceding quotation embodies the repeated image of water in the text, containing exquisite examples of Diamant’s well-crafted visual and olfactory imagery. Other things are described in this elegant manner, especially Dinah’s description of cucumbers: “…the most delicious food I could imagine, green and sweet. Even in the heat of the sun, a cucumber kissed the tongue with the cool of the moon” (Diamant 222).
As Dinah travels from place to place the native languages have an impact on her. Her name becomes “Den-ner” in Egypt, as the natives are unable to pronounce the foreign vowel sounds of her birth name. A very formal tone emerges when people of the opposite sexes are speaking to one another, such is the case when Leah speaks to Jacob:
” ‘Husband, father of my children, beloved friend,’ she said. ‘I come to plead a case without merit, for pure pity’s sake. Husband’ she said, ‘Jacob,’ she whispered, ‘you know I place my life in your keeping only and that my father’s name is an abomination to me'” (Diamant 85).
Leah offers such obeisance to her husband, cowering at his feet, that the reader gets the sense that men were treated like kings in their households, reinforcing the patriarchal structure in ancient families.
Brimming with such artistic personifications, metaphors, similes, and various other literary devices, The Red Tent is a powerful adaptation of Dinah’s story. Diamant’s word choice and tone development combine to give her characters the voices that are lost in the biblical texts.
One of the most endearing passages, also rich in diction, occurs in the first lines of the prologue:
“We have been lost to each other for so long.
My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust.
This is not your fault, or mine. The chain connecting mother to daughter was broken and the word passed to the keeping of men, who had no way of knowing. That is why I became a footnote, my story a brief detour between the well-known history of my father, Jacob, and the celebrated chronicle of Joseph, my brother. On those rare occasions when I was remembered, it was as a victim. Near the beginning of your holy book, there is a passage that seems to say I was raped and continues with the bloody tale of how my honor was avenged.
It’s a wonder that any mother ever called a daughter Dinah again. But some did. Maybe you guessed that there was more to me than the voiceless cipher in the text. Maybe you heard it in the music of my name: the first vowel high and clear, as when a mother calls to her child at dusk; the second sound soft, for whispering secrets on pillows. Dee-nah.” (Diamant 1)
This excerpt begins with a second person perspective, establishing an emotional attachment with the reader and grabbing attention in the first line of the novel. Diamant goes on to provoke interest by having Dinah metaphorically compare her legacy to dust, implicating the untold details yet to come.
Maternal imagery is revealed as Dinah refers to the “chain” that connects mothers and daughters. More of this type of imagery is present in a description of Dinah’s name; the image of a mother calling to her child. The idea of secrets whispered on pillows embodies the struggle of women to have their traditions remembered through their daughters.
Dinah compares her part in the bible as a detour, illuminating the unclear nature of her story. The irony in the bloody slaughter of Shalem and the other men of Shechem is foreshadowed, as Dinah implies that she was not raped, but willing and in love.
When Dinah returns from Shechem the first time, Diamant’s diction helps to emphasize her discovery of secrecy:
“When we returned to camp, my mother hugged me without sensing the new heat in my body and sent me to the olive grove, where the harvest was busy. Zilpah was there overseeing the press and barely answered my greeting. Even Bilhah of the discerning heart was preoccupied with a batch of oil jars that had cracked, and she saw nothing.
Their inattention was a revelation to me. Before my trip to Shechem, I had supposed that my mothers could see my thoughts and look directly into my heart. But now I discovered that I was separate, opaque, and drawn into an orbit of which they had no knowledge. (Diamant 185)
Dinah’s naivete is illuminated here. She has, for the first time, realized that she is a person separate from her mothers. She calls herself “opaque”, at the time referring to her new-found ability to hide her secret thoughts, but this can be seen as a foreshadowing of the obscurity that surrounds her in the Bible.
Dinah uses metaphors to relate her awakened desire to the reader, pointing out a “heat” in her body, meaning the desire she feels for Shalem. Her private “orbit” is meant to express her impression that her mothers did not know the type of love she is experiencing.
Near the end of the novel, Diamant uses diction to her advantage once more. She paints a sensitive and graceful picture of death:
“In the darkness surrounding the shining lights of my life. I began to discern the faces of my mothers, each one burning with her own fire. Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah. Inna, Re-nefer, and Meryt. Even poor Ruti and arrogant Rebecca were arrayed to meet me. Although I had never seen them, I recognized Adah and Sarai as well. Strong, brave, wonderstruck, kind gifted, broken, loyal, foolish, talented, weak; each one welcoming me in her way.
‘Oh,’ I cried, in wonder. Benia held me even tighter and sobbed. He thought that I suffered, but I felt nothing but excitement at the lessons that death held out to me. In the moment before I crossed over, I knew that the priests and magicians of Egypt were fools and charlatans for promising to prolong the beauties of life beyond the world we are given. Death is no enemy, but the foundation of gratitude, sympathy, and art. Of all life’s pleasures, only love owes no debt to death” (Diamant 320)
Dinah’s death, being presented as a reminiscence, creates an awe-inspiring effect on the reader. It is rare for a novel to include the death of its narrator, and having Dinah describe her own end is a clever way of summing up such a personal story. It concludes the story on a note of comfort, allowing the reader to experience the release of Dinah’s pain.
A contrast between dark and light emphasizes Dinah’s passing. The “darkness” that surrounds her is oncoming death, while the “shining lights” are her loved ones that have gathered around to provide comfort to their dying friend. Tied to this extended metaphor is the image of Dinah’s mothers, “;#8230;each one burning with her own fire” (Diamant 320). Their fires represent their distinct personalities and their connection to Dinah.
Diamant uses a variety of sentence structures, but there is a predominance of loose, complex sentences, such as, “The messenger walked out of the tent, and seeing us arrayed around her, she bowed deeply, with her fingers stretched wide, in an unfamiliar gesture of obeisance” (Diamant 144). These are by no means the only types of sentences used in the text, however. The author also makes use of extremely simple sentences, such as “All of the men grew weary” (Diamant 120), and of periodic sentences: “With Adah gone and no other elder to take the part, Leah, nursing her son, became the welcoming mother” (Diamant 45).
Dinah is usually quick to come to a point, but when she falls in love with Shalem, she begins to ramble and string together her thoughts about his perfection: “Would he come for me? Were these callused hands too rough to delight a prince?” (Diamant 186). This stream of consciousness method of conveying Dinah’s thoughts effectively relates her anxiety and naivete to the reader.
The passages previously used to identify diction can also trace the use of syntax in the text. The short sentences that begin the first excerpt, “We have been lost to each other for so long. My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust” (Diamant 1), convey a feeling of familiarity and regret on Dinah’s part. A particularly long sentence describing the vowel sounds of Dinah’s name is strung together by a colon and a semi colon, maintaining the flow of thought but separating the simile and personification: “;#8230;the music of my name: the first vowel high and clear, as when a mother calls to her child at dusk; the second sound soft, for whispering secrets on pillows” (Diamant 1).
The second passage focuses mainly on character development, the author using a combination of long and short sentences to display Dinah’s revelation and confusion. Sentences such as “Their inattention was a revelation to me” (Diamant 185) bring Dinah’s astonishment across to the reader.
Diamant accentuates Dinah’s awe with her syntactical structure in the third quotation. This feeling of wonder is assisted by stream of consciousness sentences: “Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah. Inna, Re-nefer, and Meryt” (Diamant 320). The use of a semicolon after another string of rambling words brings Dinah back to the world of the living for a moment: “Strong, brave, wonderstruck, kind gifted, broken, loyal, foolish, talented, weak; each one welcoming me in her way” (Diamant 320). After rambling for so long, the coherent words which end the paragraph demonstrate the way Dinah is careening between life and death.
In Diamant’s graceful, poetic writing there are several different kinds of images used to assist Dinah’s story. Sensual imagery, mostly visual and olfactory, are used to maintain the intimate connection Dinah has already established with the reader, as in this passage: “;#8230;watching the water lap against the shore, my mind as calm and wordless on the surface as the river. I inhaled the loamy smell of the river and listened to the sound of water on the hull;#8230;” (Diamant 306). Dinah’s imaginative reaction to simple things endears her to the reader throughout her life story.
A very important motif in The Red Tent is maternal imagery. First evident in Dinah’s reference to a “;#8230;chain connecting mother to daughter;#8230;” (Diamant 1), images related to birth, motherhood, womanhood and fertility reinforce this type of imagery in the text. The practice of midwifery provides examples of birth images: “She was half dead, and there was no strength even to scream when the baby finally came, tearing her flesh front and back” (Diamant 59). This picture of painful sacrifice is the essence of ancient motherhood, as most times “;#8230;the ordinary passage of life into life became a struggle between life and death” (Diamant 225).
The connection between mother and daughter is central to the text, thus appearing in images throughout the text. A good image of this connection
Along with images of birth, there are a number of death images in the text as well. Referring to a child born of her mother, Dinah describes a heartbreaking scene: “The women looked away from the tiny doomed girl, but I saw only her perfect beauty. Her eyelids were veined like a butterfly’s wing, her toes curled like the petals of a flower” (Diamant 140). The child’s death, as most of the death images in the text, is spoken of with such tenderness and likened to such beautiful things in the similes that the image is more peaceful than sad.
The most significant symbol in The Red Tent is, in fact, the red tent. It symbolizes the celebration of womanhood, of unity and of fertility. Its presence in the dwellings of men symbolizes the importance of women in ancient times, and illuminates their absence in the bible. The red tent brought women together, telling stories and cherishing their femininity: “In the ruddy shade of the red tent, the menstrual tent, they ran their fingers through my curls, repeating the escapades of their youths, the sagas of their childbirths” (Diamant 3). Dinah’s connection with her mothers is solidified in her days spent inside the red tent, where she learns what it is to be a woman, a wife and a mother.
As a recurrent image, water is also a symbol in the text. Tied to the maternal imagery, it connotes the continuation of life. Dinah falls in love with the river, which flows on despite any obstacles. The same is true of Dinah herself; after her heartbreaking tragedies she reroutes her life and triumphs. Water also symbolizes the depths of knowledge that are unwritten in the Bible: “If you sit on the bank of a river, you see only a small part of its surface. And yet, the water before your eyes is proof of unknowable depths” (Diamant 321). With this statement Diamant is trying to make the reader understand that the very existence of the Bible is proof that its subjects lived, even though many of their stories are untold. Dinah is a symbol in the vein, symbolizing the forgotten women of scripture.