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Dinah begins the novel by explaining that she feels compelled
to share her story in order to elaborate on the brief but violent
footnote devoted to her in the Old Testament. She declares the vital
importance of memory and remembering, and she laments that the stories of
many women have been lost through the years. She alludes to the tragedy
of her own story and her surprise that any mother would ever choose
to name her child Dinah again. She closes with a Jewish blessing.
As the narrative begins, Dinah describes how her mothers
first met her father Jacob. The four sisters, born to their father,
Laban, by four different women, are barely adolescents who still
live with their father, a hard-drinking, unpleasant man. Jacob,
Laban’s nephew by his sister Rebecca, is banished from his home
in Canaan for stealing his twin brother’s birthright, and he offers
his shepherding services to his uncle’s family. Jacob meets Rachel,
the second youngest sister, outside their camp and is immediately
struck by her beauty. Rachel feels the same about Jacob, and he
tells her that he will marry her. She runs home immediately to share
the news with her sisters and receives mixed reactions. Rachel is
not yet marriageable, since she has not yet menstruated. The eldest
sister, Leah, feels jealous of Rachel, because she is older and
is sill unwed.
When Jacob arrives in their camp, Leah finds that she
is also attracted to him. Cursed at birth with one blue eye and
one green eye, she has become accustomed to the way the ignorant
boys in town scoff at her abnormality. In contrast, the tall, handsome
Jacob stares her squarely in the face and likes what he sees. Though
she is only a girl of fourteen, she is the most capable of the sisters,
brewing beer, baking bread, and managing the entire camp competently.
An attraction grows between Jacob and Leah, which the shrewd sister Zilpah
Months pass, and, under Jacob’s care, Laban’s herd flourishes. As
they wait for Rachel to reach maturity, Jacob bargains with Laban
for his daughter. After much discussion, Jacob agrees to one year’s
service on Laban’s farm and accepts the youngest sister Bilhah,
the kindest and quietest of the girls, as Rachel’s handmaid. This arrangement
gives Rachel status as a wife with a dowry and Jacob the possibility
of a concubine, even though Bilhah is still a child. Jacob further
insists on one tenth of the lambs and kids born to Laban’s flocks
while he tends them. Finally, nine months after Jacob’s arrival,
Rachel begins to bleed and is welcomed into the red tent with an
elaborate ceremony. The rend tent is a place reserved for women
while they menstruate or bear children. Rachel’s sisters and surrogate
mother Adah, who is Leah’s birth mother, sing a special song announcing
her entry into the world of women. They paint her hands and feet
with henna while she rests in the red tent. Adah rubs Rachel’s body
all over with scented oils and they feed her special sweets. She
drinks wine and wears an embroidered veil. When she emerges from
the tent after several days, she insists that her wedding to Jacob
be set for the customary seven months from her first blood.
Though Diamant takes liberties with the biblical sources
of The Red Tent, she richly illustrates the world
of Laban’s family and the community of women formed by his daughters.
Her language is poetic and her sentences perfectly paced, as if
the narrator were in the room reciting the story directly to the
reader. The noise and smells of the family’s camp are vivid and
intense, as are the physical descriptions of each of the four sisters.
Rachel’s beauty and natural scent of fresh water give the story
a sense of fantasy, as does the configuration of several sisters
of almost marriageable age interested in the same man. To many,
Leah and Rachel are familiar characters from the Bible. Diamant
takes great liberties with their original descriptions, turning
Leah’s “ruined eyes” to simply mismatched ones. Rachel is presented
as more of a spoiled child than a beautiful and deserving wife-to-be.
By opening with the scenes of each sister meeting Jacob, we see
the beginning of the web of complex female relationships into which
Dinah is born.
The introduction of the red tent as a figurative device
creates a clear separation between the worlds of male and female
characters. Although the women of the Bible did not use a red tent,
menstruation and childbearing tents were a common feature in pre-modern cultures
around the world—from Native American to African. Many women’s rituals,
especially pagan rituals, such as Rachel’s first menstruation, involved
bodily functions that women would have taken care to hide from the
men. As no man would dare enter a menstruation tent, anything that
the women do and say within the tent remains private. While the
fields and pastures are clearly the domain of Jacob and his sons,
as the places where adolescent boys are educated to become men,
mothers school their daughters in the ways of women in the red tent.
The device also provides Diamant an opportunity to contrast how
the women act in front of the men with how they behave alone with
one another. Leah, the bold and brash leader of the sisters when
they are alone, appears humbled in the company of men, embarrassed
by her eyes. Rachel too behaves differently in the privacy of her
sisters, willing to show the spiteful and jealous side of her nature
that she does not reveal in front of the men.
Diamant uses the first part of The Red Tent, which
recounts the memories of Dinah’s mothers, to flesh
out the stories of several biblical women. Dinah’s brief but bloody
story in the Bible, often referred to as “The Rape of Dinah,” is
a one-sided narrative, since Dinah herself never speaks. While the
Bible includes ample description of Jacob and his sons, little is
known about his wives and their stories. Leah and Rachel, considered
his two most important wives, become fully realized characters in
the first few chapters, with their shared husband creating an obvious
strain on their relationship. The day-to-day lives of the different
classes of women living in ancient Iraq, Syria, and Israel are omitted
from the Bible, and after embarking on a tremendous amount of research,
Diamant attempts to present clearer pictures of their reality. Diamant
skillfully create a tangible picture of the life of women in biblical
times, weaving in voices of slaves (Werenro), midwives (Inna, Meryt),
queens (Re-nefer,) and abused wives (Ruti).