Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Dinah is consumed by the weight of her memories—the memories of her mothers, her childhood, and the loss of her husband, which render her unable to move on with her life. What compels Dinah to narrate her story is the fear that her memories will not live on, that people will not remember her and that her tragedy will mean nothing. She would seem to have good cause to worry: her story is practically a footnote in the Bible, while the stories of Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel live on, although the Bible does not represent these women as Dinah knew them. She holds on so tightly throughout the novel to her memories that when faced with a fresh start and a new life, she is barely able to experience it, as she is still living in her past. As the narrator, she relays her ancient story to a modern reader, giving us her version of the past in order to release herself from the burden of her memories. According to Dinah, and contrary to the Bible, her mother Leah was beautiful, Jacob did love Leah, and, mostly important, Dinah’s marriage to Shalem was truly a union of love, not a rape.
With four central characters acting as midwives—Inna, Rachel, Dinah, and Meryt—childbearing is highlighted throughout the novel as a woman’s unavoidable battle with life and death. The Red Tent vividly describes the frightening and painful conditions of childbirth in ancient times. Many of Dinah’s would-be sisters and brothers die, and as a midwife she loses many children and their mothers. By narrating graphic scenes of women in labor, being clutched at by their sisters as they tear and bleed in the process of giving birth, Diamant portrays a world where women must fear for their lives at every moment during delivery. Dinah might have lost her own life in childbirth had she not the experience and presence of mind to ask for a knife and mirror. During many of the births described, either the baby or the mother almost dies at least once. The assistance of a midwife was a luxury to women, and even this assistance offered no assurance that woman or child would live out the day. Dinah’s narrative as a midwife offers a startling portrayal of the real and bloody experience of childbirth in ancient times.
In The Red Tent, the moon provides more than just a way of marking months and seasons to Dinah’s family: it also denotes the harmony between the women themselves and the women with the Earth. Diamant’s descriptions of the monthly celebrations in the red tent illustrate the close relationship with land and nature cultivated by seminomadic women in ancient times. The women in Dinah’s family menstruate at the same time, attributing their cycles to that of the moon, and thus allowing them to celebrate the lunar cycle together each month. Their dependence on the land for food, exposure to the elements, and close observations of the cycles of the sun and moon to mark time forged strong bonds between people and nature—bond much stronger than those generally possessed by people today. The women’s worship of the moon’s power also signified the renewal of their bodies and the gifts of health and fertility they received from the goddess Innana.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Allusions and images of healing and renewal occur throughout the novel. These images refer to the women’s monthly rebirth in the red tent, to the ongoing struggles of childbirth, and to Dinah’s luxuriating in the smell and feel of the river. This motif is most visible in Dinah’s coming to terms with her own history in Part Three. She bottles up her story for years, unaware that healing can only begin when she faces her tragedy head on. When she first tells her story to Werenro, she stops focusing on her painful past and focuses for a moment instead on the present. The release she feels is tremendous, and as time passes she tells her story again and again—to Re-mose, Meryt, and Benia. Each time she feels a bit stronger, a bit freer, and in the final telling she does not cry. Although it takes her nearly twenty years, she slowly undergoes a process of healing and renewal, gaining the ability to talk about and accept her past, and at last finds peace.
Mothers play the roles of teacher, caregiver, protector, and best friend in The Red Tent. The men in the novel have little impact on the lives of the women, other than to father children, and the comfort of mothers is paramount in Dinah’s life. She begins telling her own story by first telling the story of each of her mothers, explaining that without them she would have no story of her own. With no school to go to and no friends her age in the family camp, Dinah grows up in the small society of her mothers, learning their songs and their stories as her daily lessons in life. They carry Dinah through her pampered childhood, offering her every attention and protection. Her shocking entrance into adulthood—the murder of her husband—forces her, for the first time in her life, to find her way alone, without the comfort of female arms around her. She stumbles for years, lost, until she finds a new mother to guide her: Meryt. It is Meryt who resuscitates Dinah, working alongside her as a midwife. After many years, Dinah then passes the torch to Kiya, at last assuming her role as mother and teacher.
Dreams are a powerful source of prophecy, premonition, and faith in the novel. Each of the main characters attaches great importance to his or her dreams—from Jacob wrestling with an angle of God to Zilpah’s dream of giving birth to a fully grown daughter. Dinah finds both comfort and spiritual direction in her dreams. Even though she has not seen her mothers in many years, when Meryt dies, she dreams of each of them, and through her dreams alone they exchange forgiveness and goodbyes. She also dreams of the river goddess Taweret on the night her womb is opened but, despite feeling a deep connection to the water and despite her faith in her vision, never fulfills the prophecy of living by a river. By virtue of his similar power to interpret dreams, Joseph rises from a slave to the position of a great man. Dreams represent a personal spirituality and sense of power for the characters, in that they can foretell the future or determine the will of fate through them, rather than relying on the gods alone.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The goddesses of Dinah’s mothers are represented by the teraphim and symbolize the difference between the religion practiced by Jacob’s wives and the religion practiced by Jacob. Jacob has received the word of the One God from his father and grandfather, and his religion recognizes only the one deity, with animal sacrifices and practices, such as the circumcision of baby boys. This new religion does not fit the lives of his wives, who have practiced their rituals for their goddesses under the moon for many years. They fulfill their religious duties to his god to his face, but under the cover of the red tent they consider holy only their teraphim and secret rites. They take care not to offend Jacob with their practice, keeping it out of sight, knowing that he cannot condone such practices by his wives. When he learns of Dinah’s initiation into womanhood, he smashes the teraphim, in essence forcing his wives to end their practices and convert entirely to his religion. The loss of her beloved goddesses is too much, and Zilpah dies.
As its title indicates, the red tent is one of the most important and recurring images of the novel and symbolizes the private and magical world of women. It is the red tent in which each of the children in Dinah’s family are born, and it is the red tent where each girl becomes a woman. But it is more than just a place of birth and maturity; it is also a sacred gathering place for women. In the red tent, the women sequester themselves for several days each month, taking time out from their daily duties as mothers and wives to spoil themselves with cakes and rest upon the straw. It is in the tent that they forge, break, and rebuild their bonds to one another, as occurs between Leah and Rachel. Outside of the tent, men rule society and the families. But inside the tent there are only women, and therefore women make the rules. They share special songs and rites that only the sisters of the tent are privy to. In a story that uncovers the bonds between women, it is fitting that so much of the action occurs in the red tent.
The midwives’ bricks, which women stand on as they are giving birth, represent the strength and endurance exhibited by women of ancient times while in labor. In Dinah’s world, women were not attended to by physicians during childbirth and would consider themselves lucky to have a skilled midwife. Without epidurals, antibiotics, or antiseptics, as many babies died as lived, often taking their mothers with them. Leah, Bilhah, and Rachel all lose babies to miscarriage and stillbirth, despite having the benefits of Inna’s midwifing skills. In each birthing scene, as the women prepare to push, they mount the bricks for support and positioning, symbolizing the gathering of their courage as they prepare to stare death in the face. Diamant chillingly details the strength of these women, portraying how they were able to consistently return to the red tent and stand on the bricks, not knowing if they would walk out.