"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..."
So begins the prologue to Anita Diamant's bestselling novel The Red Tent, which was published in 1997. Some have compared the novel to midrash--the Jewish tradition of retelling/elaborating on a biblical text in order to tease out some of the hidden wisdom. In this case, it's a retelling of the story of Dinah (pronounced Dee-nah), the only daughter of Jacob (and Leah) mentioned by name in scripture. The novel was chosen to be the first book club adventure for the new school year.
I cannot speak for all the group, but what I say next will probably reflect some of what I heard at the meeting as much as what I myself thought of the book.
I loved the idea behind the novel--who wouldn't? Here you have this one line mystery story embedded in biblical text. Dinah, the daughter of Leah and Jacob, "went out to visit the local girls; and Sh'khem the son of Hamor the Hivi, the local ruler, saw her, grabbed her, raped her and humiliated her. But actually he was strongly attracted to Dinah the daughter of Ya'akov; he fell in love with the girl and tried to win her affection. Sh'khem spoke with his father Hamor and said, 'Get this girl for me; I want her to be my wife.'" (Genesis 34:1b-4)
But that's not where Diamant wants to start her book. As the character/narrator (Dinah) says, "If you want to understand any woman you must first ask about her mother and then listen carefully" (2). And Dinah had four mothers--Leah (biological mother), Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah, the four daughters of Laban, and the four nieces of Rebekah, who was the mother of Jacob. Male and female readers alike are invited to ponder the hostile, unfriendly, competetive, abusive, highly sexualized (in Diamant's thinking), world of the matriarchs. The symbol of this world, of course, is The Red Tent--the sanctuary of the women of the tribe during their monthly period of menstruation.
Only after Diamant has taken you into the world of the matriarchs and given you a firm grasp of the atmosphere of their lives, does she then let Dinah come before you. This makes good creative sense, given the fact that she is merely a emphemeral being in the biblical text, here in one chapter and gone in the next. We can't understand her, nor could Diamant, without understanding her mothers.
But here's the rub--and this is what the group could not quite understand--Diamant did so much to create a world, a context for Dinah, a web of female connections in the first two hundred pages of the book, only to have her main character totally overthrow this world, and reject these connections, or at least act as if she did not understand what they meant--all because she "was a girl who was ready for a man" (184) in the presence of a young man she describes as "golden and beautiful as a sunset"(183).
It is worth noting at this point that two other of the book clubers (along with myself) mentioned Jane Austen's literature as a body of work we might compare to Diamant's to illustrate what we found lacking in Diamant's vision--that is, why we were so upset with Dinah's behavior. Austen, after all, would never have allowed one of her heroines to sleep with the first goodlooking boy who came along. That would be like having Lizzy end up with Mr. Wickham, Marianne with Mr. Willoughby, Catherine with John Thorpe, Anne with Mr. Eliot, and Fanny with Henry Crawford. And not just "end up with" as in married, but merely "ruined" in the eyes of society. Austen respected her characters too much for that. That said, had such a disaster happened, Austen would have painted the situation so perfectly that we would have found it believable, if not satisfatory. Diamant, however, does not do that. She moves too quickly, and the credibility of Dinah, in the eyes of her readers, suffers accordingly.
On the other hand...Diamant may be to on to something here, even if I take issue with her writing skill (and, let's be honest, not many writers can stand up to the genius of Jane Austen). What if that biblical introduction to Dinah in Genesis 34:1b is precisely meant to indicate that Dinah's going to visit the women of this foreign city was an act of rebellion, a spurning of the rules of her mothers and the life they wanted her to live? If read in that light, then it may make sense that Dinah would do what she did (if she was rebelling/resisting the world of The Red Tent)...but that only makes some sense in the mystery of the biblical text, which leaves most of the story to one's imagination. Diamant has not created a contumacious character in Dinah,...but perhaps Dinah isn't being rebellious, perhaps she was merely eager to express her sexuality, having been exposed to a world defined by sex? Either way, the readers of the group were not satisfied with her actions--we just did not find it believable.
I respect the fact that Diamant knew she could not really write a "biblical" novel. Perhaps she did not know enough about the world of the matriarchs to recreate it in detail, nor the writing style of the biblical author to mimic it, or maybe she just did not want to do these two things. But she was not just trying to tell Dinah's story, either. Instead, she wrote a feminist midrash on the matriarchs and their world and interaction with the patriarchs. It's a novel about the role of women which highlights their freedom, their skills (self worth is often measured not just by the number of children one has, but by the skills one possesses. For example, Leah's managerial skills and cooking skills, and Rachel's skills as a midwife), their religious faith (or lack thereof, as in the case of Leah), and their sexuality/physicality. In a way, the novel is just a celebration of being a woman, and an attempt to paint a picture of the world from a woman's eyes.
But Jane Austen did that, and with greater success, because she was able to describe the relationship between people (parents and children, siblings to one another, neighbors, best friends, and men and women) realistically and deeply. Austen highlights the freedom of women, their skills, their religious faith, and even their sexuality (if not physicality), but whereas Diamant focused so much on the graphic and superficial details of interpersonal dynamics, Austen focused on the internal, intellectual/psychological/and emotional. Her heroines are creatures who are the products of structured social orders, just like Dinah, but unlike Dinah, they don't act without reference to their belief systems and social orders. Dinah, essentially, lives and behaves as a woman without any real connections. No matter how much Diamant might talk up this web of sisterhood, she has created a character who does not seem to fully understand the duties that go along with such a system of connections. Another way to put this would be: the purification of freedom is a sense of what is owed to others. Dinah's freedom was not tempered, and so she fails to use it in a way that's truly liberating.
Ironically, I wonder if Diamant's retelling of Dinah's story places the blame of the bloodshed connected to it (see Gen. 34:25-29) more glaringly on Dinah herself, rather than on her brothers, Simon and Levi, as I suspect she wanted to. After all, in my reading of the text, Dinah [who is not a victim of rape in the novel, by the way], is very much at fault. Her first real act of personal freedom (if not rebelliousness) is a bad one, and precipitates the clash between her father's tribe and the men of the city. Thus, while in the biblical text she remains a mystery, a victim, and a tool for intertribal politics. In Diamant's text, Dinah is a victim, to a certain extent, of her decision to act without reference to others. If only she had absorbed some of Leah's pragmatism or Rachel's caution. The opening words of the prologue, having finished the novel, now strike me as especially sad, since the brokeness they refer to between the line of mothers and daughters was the narrator's own doing.
Another comparison I will make between Diamant and Austen before shelving The Red Tent, would be to note that while Austen's novels are just as "gender defined" as Diamant's novel was--with spheres for men and spheres for women, Austen was able to show how those two spheres overlapped--how they existed in the same place, in the same families, how they functioned together. The gendered world of The Red Tent is so segregated this reader felt he did not know any of the men, nor understood their true importance to the women.
And needless to say, telling a Bible story with little reference to God in a meaningful way seemed odd to me. Dinah, as Diamant created her, was not truly a daughter of Abraham, in the sense of being a woman of the Faith--neither were her mothers, nor Rebekah, nor, perhaps, Sarah. Did Diamant need to separate these women from the Tradition in order to raise them up in Modern terms? Did she need them to be "Pagan" to incorporate feminine images of God into the story, or was she working out of the presumption that only the patriarchs themselves truly encountered, and so believed, in the God of Abraham? And wouldn't such a presumption feed into the perception that women played a minor role in shaping the Jewish faith tradition?
What's next for the St. Luke Book Club? Mrs. (Elizabeth) Inchbald's novel A Simple Story. A Regency love story between a young heiress and her priest guardian. (Yikes!)
Br. Paul, OP~
*Want to learn more about the story of Dinah? Check out Ita Sheres' book: Dinah's Rebellion: A Biblical Parable for Our Time