The Red Tent
Analysis of Major Characters
Dinah is the first daughter born to a polygamous family that includes four mothers and eleven sons. As the long-awaited daughter, she is spoiled, adored, and given special treatment and attention from her multiple mothers. She enjoys her special status and occasionally uses the jealousy between Leah and Rachel to her advantage: for example, she sleeps in Rachel’s tent when Leah is short with her.
Intelligent and lively, Dinah makes up games to play with her many brothers. Although most of her brothers are older, she often assumes the role of boss and chief storyteller. When the boys grow older and move out to the fields with their father, Dinah contentedly spends the majority of her time in the tents with the women, as she is a keen and diligent observer who takes pleasure in noting their family dynamics. As a narrator, she is careful to detail even the subtlest actions of her family members but rarely takes such care in describing herself. For the majority of Dinah’s life, she describes herself as a passive observer, taking little responsibility for the events in her life. When Re-nefer takes Dinah’s son as her own, Dinah is practically unresponsive, grieving quietly but not defending herself. This passiveness is a curious aspect of Dinah’s personality, as her mother Leah had been a role model of the strong-minded and assertive woman.
Over the course of the novel, Dinah grows from being a lively but passive girl attached to her mothers to one who an independent, active agent in her own life. Although Dinah endures unspeakable grief and loss, she rebuilds herself—eventually finding a new home, a new husband, and a new family that fulfill her desire for a productive and peaceful life.
Leah is a determined, decisive, and capable woman. She marries Jacob, despite his love for her sister, and revels in the joy he finds in her arms. She’s taller than most men and more talented than most women: she brews excellent beer and effortlessly produces fine spinning. While Leah is probably the least self-centered character in the novel, she is self-conscious about her mismatched eyes. She takes care to hide them as much as possible and rewards those who can look into them.
As a mother, Leah is formidable. Bearing eight healthy children and breastfeeding many of her nephews barely distracts her from her daily duties as the head of Jacob’s household. She is surprisingly sexual, craving Jacob’s body and enjoying the pleasures they find in each other. Leah proves herself to be a skilled herdsman, noting the mating patterns of their flocks and helping her husband to grow their meager beginnings into more prosperous holdings. She even proves herself to be cunning at times, cleverly outwitting her father by stitching herbs and spices into the women’s clothes in order to smuggle them.
Yet even with all of her talents and triumphs as a mother, Leah is a somewhat tragic figure. Her sister Rachel remains the true love of Jacob’s life, and she loses her only daughter, Dinah, through circumstances beyond her control. She dies pining for the love and comfort of her only daughter.
Among her sisters, Rachel stands out initially for her beauty, her magnetism, and her magical water smell. “Their father, Laban, treats her most gently; as a result, she ends up somewhat spoiled and conniving. She is fully aware of the power her beauty has over others and is quite willing to use it. She insists on having Jacob when she meets him, though she is not yet marriageable and would embarrass her two older sisters by marrying first. Then she shows herself to be deceptive as well, agreeing to let Leah replace her under the bridal veil.
Rachel’s jealous nature flourishes when Leah conceives and bears several healthy sons in a row and Rachel remains barren. Rachel is not satisfied with being Jacob’s favorite wife—she needs more. She compensates for Leah’s fertility by seeking out the calling of midwife and finds that she is extremely talented. Her new skills help heal her relationship with her sister, though Rachel is not satisfied until she bears her own son.
Rachel changes significantly with the birth of her son and her growing success as a midwife. She finds a softer, more maternal side in her personality and begins to cultivate a more peaceful relationship with her sister. She takes delight in her niece, and, through Dinah, her relationship with Leah improves further. She acts as a midwife mentor to Dinah. Although Rachel improves significantly with age and is a talented midwife and healer, she remains primarily a jealous and unhappy woman.
At the start of the novel, Jacob is a confident and charismatic man, favored by his god. He is a good husband and a kind and gentle lover to each of his wives, giving and taking satisfaction in equal measure. He meticulously ministers his attentions to each of his wives, wanting to keep peace in his household and to do what is best for his family. He works diligently as a herdsman to grow Laban’s flocks and honor his bargain of bride-prices for Leah and Rachel, while also increasing the prosperity and prospects of his family.
As a father, he is attentive to his sons and brings them to the fields with him, teaching them the ways of good pasturage as well as the religion of his father’s people. He is entirely devoted to his god and liberal with his sacrifices. When he leaves Laban’s lands to return to his own people, his is fairer and more generous in his settlement with Laban than might be expected by a son-in-law who has been treated as poorly as he was.
As Jacob grows older and his properties multiply, he changes. He becomes less of the fair and honest man he was in his youth and relies more on the poor counsel of his sons Simon and Levi than the just counsel of his wife Leah and son Reuben. He grows greedy, seeking to move continuously to new lands to increase their property. Never attentive to Dinah as a child, he is callous and unfeeling when he hears the news of her union to Shalem. He allows his sons’ suggestion of a hideous bride-price to be exacted and in doing so orchestrates his downfall. Full of regrets, Jacob dies cursing several of his sons.
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