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.