The Red Tent
Observer Scene | Monday, October 6, 2003
Great ideas always start small. In the case of the novel The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, this is quite literally the case.
The Red Tent is the story of Dinah, a Biblical character in Genesis. However, the tale of Dinah is not one that is largely noted. The episode in the thirty-fourth chapter of Genesis is generally known as “The Rape of Dinah” and is a mere reference that then moves to focus on how her brothers revenged her alleged rape. In Genesis, Dinah never utters a single word. In the feminist twist of the story by Diamant, Dinah becomes the main character of a tale that has largely left her out for ages.
Diamant says of her novel, “In my retelling of the story, Dinah finds her voice. The Red Tent is told entirely from her perspective and the point of view of the women around her”. The patriarchal society of the Old Testament did not give much notice to Dinah in the writing of the Old Testament, but Diamant interprets the text in an entirely new way, no longer giving the story to the men of the time, but giving the story of the women, entirely from the perspective of the women.
The novel begins with the history of Dinah’s family, through the matriarchal line, because, as Dinah points out, “To know a woman, one must first know her mother”. The first section of the novel is largely spent introducing the family of Laban, the Biblical character Jacob’s uncle. The reader learns of the relationships of the four daughters of Laban, Leah and Rachel, the two daughters that Laban claims, and Bilhah and Zilpah, two that Laban fathered, but treats as housemaids, so that he would not have to pay the dowry for their mothers. The sisters themselves then describe the story of Jacob coming to the house of Laban and falling in love with each of the unique sisters in a unique way. All of the conversation and stories are told from Dinah’s memory, as her mother and aunts passed them on to her in the red tent. The red tent is the tent where the woman of the house of Laban went while they were experiencing their menstrual cycle. Only matured women could enter the red tent, and the women would spend the week together, as they were ritually unclean during this time, and could not exit the tent and mix with the household.
As the sisters all marry Jacob and begin to have his children, the novel becomes exceedingly graphic at times. The realities of polygamy and child-birthing in the times of the Old Testament are not softened or subdued by Diamant in the novel. However, although at times the graphic nature and depictive language of the novel can be a bit disturbing, it is largely outweighed by the beautiful and poignant scenery descriptions in the novel. Diamant describes images of the desert, of the beauty of Rachel, of the strength of Leah, that will remain in your head for days. The stirring imagery is immensely enjoyable, and fully worth the consistency that is further shown in the not so picturesque scenes of the novel.
The female spin that is put on the novel is very intriguing throughout the first two-thirds of the novel. The introduction of the sisters, Jacob and the rest of the family through the eyes of the women puts a very interesting spin on all of the Old Testament characters that people feel like they already know so well. Dinah’s tale of falling in love with the prince of Shechem is beautiful, and the reader feels the tragedy of her loss. Diamant never, at any time, strays from the story of the Old Testament, she only elongates it, adding new details and perspectives on what may have really happened. The last third of the novel is a bit over-feminist as Joseph, the alleged good brother, is portrayed as selfish, arrogant and homosexual. The credibility of the novel begins to wane as the level of feminism begins to make the story a bit unbelievable. The completely unrelenting and unforgiving character of Dinah starts to lose cohesiveness in the last third of the novel, but until that point, Diamant writes so convincingly, it is almost hard to believe that this may not have been how the story went.
As a whole, “The Red Tent” is a touching novel. While the novel focuses greatly on the relationships of the women in the story, the themes of the novel cover a very broad spectrum that allows the novel to be enjoyable for a male and female audience. In history classes, one is always told to realize that history is written by the victorious, and it is necessary to view the situation from the other perspectives as well. While one doesn’t often hear that in theology classes, Diamant’s novel “The Red Tent” makes a convincing argument that perhaps one should.