The Red Tent | Study Guide

Anita Diamant

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The Red Tent | Part 1, Chapter 2 : My Mothers' Stories | Summary

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Summary

During their betrothal Jacob often talks with Rachel and flatters her. Jacob relates how he became his mother, Rebecca's, favorite. Jacob is the younger of twin boys. His father, Isaac, wanted the older brother, Esau, to be his heir. But Rebecca wanted Jacob to be the heir. Jacob says he felt bad about trying to fulfill his mother's wishes because he loved Esau.

As Jacob courts Rachel, he senses a strong sexual chemistry with Leah. Zilpah realizes a romantic triangle is forming with Jacob, Rachel, and Leah. Because Zilpah doesn't like Rachel, she convinces her that having sex with a man is very painful. Terrified, Rachel asks Leah to secretly take her place during the wedding. Although Leah thinks this deception is wrong, her desire for Jacob makes her go along with it. Wearing a veil to disguise her face, Leah marries Jacob. According to tradition they spend seven nights together. Jacob realizes he has married Leah and is pleased by this. They make passionate love and form a close bond. When Rachel hears Leah's moans of pleasure during lovemaking, she realizes she has been tricked. After the seven nights Jacob pretends to be upset about being deceived. He demands and is granted Zilpah as part of Leah's dowry. Then Jacob soothes the angry Rachel, and they soon get married as well.

When Leah becomes pregnant, Rachel becomes jealous of her older sister. Soon Rachel also gets pregnant, but she has a miscarriage, which makes her bitter. Rachel suffers depression, and the midwife Inna offers words of comfort. In the red tent Adah, Inna, and Zilpah help Leah deliver her baby. When Rachel sees the labor pains that Leah endures, her envy of Leah wanes. Leah gives birth to a healthy baby boy and names him Reuben. Although overjoyed about having a son, Jacob feels dread about circumcising him. With tears in his eyes Jacob uses a very sharp knife to do the circumcision. He does the task efficiently, and Leah dresses the wound. Before long Adah dies, and as the oldest daughter, Leah takes her place as the leader of activities in the red tent. Also Jacob becomes the active patriarch of the family, even though Laban retains the title.

Jacob and his tribe become prosperous with healthy herds. Leah uses her domestic skills to aid this prosperity. Zilpah and Bilhah weave the sheep's wool into high-quality cloth. Traders pay a good price for this material, thereby increasing the tribe's wealth. Leah proves to be fertile, giving birth to several sons. Rachel, though, suffers several miscarriages. Desperate, Rachel tries numerous homemade remedies but nothing works. During this time Rachel begins to assist the midwife Inna. Rachel learns a lot about midwifing and eventually helps a woman give birth without Inna. Tired from her pregnancies, Leah lies fallow for two years. Then she gives birth to another son and names him Zebulun, which means "exalt."

Analysis

Part 1, Chapter 2 contrasts patriarchy with other practices. For instance, both patriarchy and matriarchy governed the tribe of Jacob's father. Isaac wants to follow the tradition of patriarchy and name his eldest son Esau the heir, but Rebecca comes from a matriarchal tradition in which the mother has the right to name the heir, and Jacob is her choice. This clash between patriarchy and matriarchy leads to deception and a split in the family. The author provides a solution to this conflict through the romantic relationships between Isaac and Rebecca and between Jacob and Leah. Isaac has treated his wife as a goddess and she has treated her husband as a god, giving them an equal partnership. Jacob and Leah carry on this type of relationship. Jacob refers to Leah as Innana, a goddess, and Leah calls him Baal, a god. Their equality has its limitations, however. In their day-to-day lives Jacob and Leah each fill their expected roles in a patriarchy. Even so these lines are blurred somewhat. For example, Leah has demonstrated skill and knowledge concerning the flocks, which is typically considered the man's domain. Jacob realizes this and often asks Leah for advice about the herds.

The theme of female empowerment is revealed through secret knowledge. Secret knowledge becomes especially instrumental in the journey of Rachel. Early in the chapter Rachel is a victim because of her lack of knowledge concerning her own body. Rachel is naive about sexual relations between men and women. Zilpah takes advantage of this and frightens Rachel by telling her stories about how men hurt women during the sexual act. Rachel's ignorance makes her a fool. She pleads for Leah to secretly take her place as Jacob's bride. In this way Rachel works against her own best interests. However, in a twist of situational irony Rachel becomes the sister who gains the most knowledge of women's bodies, especially during pregnancy and birth. Situational irony is created when there is a distinct difference between what is expected to happen and what does actually happen. When Rachel suffers miscarriages, she goes to the midwife Inna for help. She becomes Inna's assistant and thereby gains secret knowledge about midwifery. This knowledge empowers Rachel, who becomes a respected midwife herself.

Also Zilpah attempts to empower herself with action. However, because of the patriarchal system, this action has to be done in secret, thereby limiting its effectiveness. Zilpah doesn't like Jacob and, as a result, doesn't want him to be the patriarch. However, in her family system Zilpah as a woman has no say in this matter. Frustrated by this, Zilpah decides to control Jacob's marriage as much as possible. So she concocts a deception, which results in Leah secretly marrying Jacob. The plan seems to work to perfection. However, the result is not what Zilpah expects. Zilpah hopes to frustrate Jacob by preventing him from marrying Rachel. However, Jacob not only marries Rachel but also takes Zilpah as his concubine. In a patriarchy the man has the last say.

The symbols of the red tent and blood convey the theme of birth and death. The novel describes many miscarriages, which involve women bleeding extensively. In this way blood represents a waste of life, which leads to the death of the infant and/or the death of the mother. For example, with Rachel's first miscarriage Leah and Zilpah "found her sobbing, wrapped in a bloody blanket." In contrast when Leah gives birth to her son, Rachel says that "a flood of bloody water washed down her [Leah's] thighs." In this context blood represents the giving of life. Rachel realizes this close connection between birth and death through her experience as an assistant to Inna. Rachel describes seeing "blood that carried off and blood that healed." The red tent is the place where women learn about the relation between birth and death. The narrator states, "In the red tent we knew that death was the shadow of birth."

Also in this chapter the theme of life's stages is illuminated through Leah's and Rachel's marriages, Leah's giving birth to sons, Adah's death, and Rachel becoming a midwife. Through these stages Dinah's ancestors take part in the circle of life—birth, growth, and death.

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