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The Red Tent | Themes

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Female Empowerment

The theme of female empowerment operates throughout the novel in several ways. First Dinah, Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, Bilhah, and other women such as Rebecca use rituals in order to establish their identities as women in the face of the generalized submission expected by the patriarchy. In ancient Semitic society men and woman functioned separately in their daily activities; they even took their meals separately. As a result the women developed their own set of rituals for their gods and goddesses, which they used to validate themselves. For example, when Dinah begins to menstruate she goes through a ritual performed by her mother and aunts that sanctifies and celebrates her womanhood. The ritual helps Dinah to appreciate her femininity. These rituals are secret mainly because men do not want anything to do with them, especially any rituals dealing with menstrual blood. Ancient Semitic men viewed women discharging menstrual blood as unclean.

Women also derive power by gathering in close communities. Because Jacob and other men in his tribe view menstruating women as unclean, Leah, her sisters, and other women in the tribe isolate themselves in the red tent during their menstrual periods. Rather than seeing this sequestration as a ban, the women use this private time to bond, as they do when they grieve over the abandoned bondwomen. They share stories, give each other massages, and perform their secret rituals. Such a community is a source of power for these women.

Dinah and many of her female relatives also achieve empowerment through a connection with the divine. For example, Dinah senses a special spiritual connection with water. As she crosses a river she floats on the water, which makes her feel euphoric. Afterward Inna tells Dinah, "You are a child of water. Your spirit answered the spirit of the river." When Dinah dies she is visited by the spirits of her mother, aunts, and other women in her life. The narrator says, "Each one [spirit] welcome[ed her] in her way."

Finally, women derive strength themselves in The Red Tent by taking aggressive action. Two examples stand out. First Ruti defies Laban when she asks Rachel to abort her child. By performing the abortion Rachel enables Ruti to have control over her own body and also defies the patriarchal family system. Also Dinah takes aggressive action by cursing Jacob and his sons for the murder of her husband and the massacre at Shechem. She then breaks away from her tribe. Dinah refuses to accept the abuse of her family system. She identifies her abusers and then separates from them. Eventually this action leads to a fuller life for Dinah.

Patriarchy

Diamant shows the system of patriarchal abuses throughout the novel. In a system in which men are superior to women, the men are able to treat women as less than human. Such a hierarchy leads to abuse, like Ruti's beatings at Laban's hands. She becomes "such a ragged, battered misery to look at that no one saw her." Jacob's worship of one male god, El, also makes him intolerant toward others. He feels animosity toward Hamor, the king of Shechem, who worships other gods and allows his sons to slaughter the men in this city. He also grows more suspicious of the female activities in the red tent and destroys the teraphim, which leads to Zilpah's death.

Patriarchal rule in Egypt is presented as distinct from that of Jacob. While men hold leadership roles, Egyptian society does not operate with a strict separation between men and women. Egyptian women, for instance, are allowed to eat their meals with men. It is in this system that Dinah meets Benia, who is not at all patriarchal in his behavior and can have a marriage of equality with her.

Birth and Death

The author emphasizes the natural connection between birth and death through the ordeal women suffer in childbirth. Bearing children is a painful process that can often result in the death of the mother, the child, or both. When Dinah gives birth she senses death lurking in the corner, ready to come out at any moment. Indeed Dinah only averts death at her own delivery through her quick thinking. Throughout the novel many women die in childbirth, including Rachel, and others come close to death.

In addition the author often links death with the birth or rebirth of a character on an emotional and spiritual level. Dinah is immersed in death when her husband and the other men in Shechem are killed. However, because of this death Dinah changes her path in life and eventually attains a new, fuller way of living. Later Dinah becomes deathly ill after she helps Joseph's wife give birth. At this time Dinah meets Joseph, which reopens old, painful wounds. But through this process Dinah achieves a type of rebirth. She unburdens her tragic story to Meryt and Benia, which she has been keeping locked inside her, and achieves healing. The story's end seals the theme of rebirth as the dead Dinah addresses readers directly and blesses them.

Life's Stages

The characters in The Red Tent experience great change and growth as they progress through the stages of life. For example, Dinah's first menstrual period is marked by a significant women's ceremony in the red tent. When she becomes a mother Dinah feels intense love for her child but also is forced to show this love within strict limits. Later when she becomes a wife Dinah discards any restrictions in showing love and bonds intimately with her husband. At her death Dinah joins the spirits of her loved ones, forming a spiritual bond she could never attain during her life.

When Leah gets married, her experience as Jacob's wife during the first seven days is joyful and intimate. In contrast Rachel's experience with Jacob is more reserved and less fulfilling. In motherhood Leah and Rachel also have contrasting experiences. Leah gives birth with relative ease and has many children. Rachel suffers through many miscarriages and almost dies when she bears Joseph. Through these characters Diamant shows that physical and cultural markers of personal growth can be both challenges and opportunities for joy.

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