By Anita Diamant
New York: Picador, 1997
ISBN # 0-312-19551-6
261 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
April 2009

This is a beautifully told story centering around the four wives of Jacob, the Biblical son of Isaac and Rebecca. One critic called it “The Bible if it had been written by a woman.” However, I think this critic, while creating a clever line, sort of misses the point. This is a novel of and about women, and they happened to be set in biblical times, but it doesn’t set out to do the task of The Bible, to give the history as basis of the religions of the book. Rather, it is a tale of the lives of women, and while set in antiquity, it could well be the lives of many women well into the 20th century in most parts of the world, and even of many women today, especially in less developed nations.

The narrator of the story is Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob. Jacob had, effectively, four wives, all the daughters of Laban, Jacob’s uncle.

The center space of the plot moves geographically from one geographic location to another, but in reality it is the red tent. With the tribe of Laban, the women would retire to the red tent at any time when blood was involved. Given the closeness of the women, and the psychology of the times, the women all tended to menstruate at the same time, at the time of the full moon. All of them retired to the red tent, sat upon fresh straw, and spent those several days together inside the tent. Not all women got to do this, since they were served by their own female servants, but the women of a certain class were allowed this privilege.

It is also the tent of births and labor, again closed off to women only. A singe incident occurs in the novel when a man is allowed to enter the red tent and that occurs when Laban, the father or grandfather of the women in the tent, enters at one point to search for his stolen idols.

The tent life as Diamant constructs it is humane, maternal, kind, supportive and critical for good health and nurture. It also helps the women to build close ties and to develop a sense of community that is very uncommon in our modern world of individualism, but has some very appealing aspects, the deep and loyal friendships being perhaps the most important and attractive feature.

Diamant writes with power and grace and it is almost impossible to read this novel and not come to read it as history. It isn’t Diamant who suggests this, it is just the naturalness of the story as she relates it that makes it appear that way.

But this is a novel. And while she is dealing with events and people who are recorded in some detail in the book of Genesis in the Hebrew scriptures, Diamant takes some liberties and those liberties are rather interesting and at times puzzling.

The basic biblical and Diamant story is that Abraham and Sarah produce Isaac, and Isaac and Rebecca have Jacob and Esau. Then Jacob flees the ire of his brother Esau (more about this later), and goes to the far off land of his uncle, Laban. The young Jacob works for him and in the course of years marries (on Diamant’s account) Laban’s four daughters. In the Genesis account he marries two of the sisters, and takes the other two as concubines, but that’s sort of quarreling over terms! The four women, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah, who have little in terms of personality revealed in Genesis, are given rich characters in Diamant’s treatment.

There are significant similarities in structure and form between this novel and a later novel of hers, The Last Days of Dogtown. Both novels are historical fiction, and in both cases Diamant takes a very slim existing historical account and then imagines a detailed, rich and fascinating life for these characters, who in the historical record are little more than names and perhaps a the mention of a role in life. The characters come to live and breath, and, as I mentioned earlier, to take on a reality that seems to transcend the fiction. It is easy to confuse Diamant’s fiction with history.

In both novels she has to create the bulk of the story and detail, but is guided, lightly, by the original accounts, neither of which is much of a reliable history from the standpoint of historical scholarship. In both cases she enriches the texts she uses by gathering lots of data from more traditional historic accounts of the cultures and times.

However, in both cases she seems to transfer the sense of love, marriage and unions into a much more modern sense of relationship based on personal love and passion than what one might expect in the historical times she is writing about where marriage, particularly, tended to be much less rooted in romantic love than in marriages arranged by parents for strategic, economic and political reasons.

I find it fascinating to read her taking a bare bones thin “sketch” of some times past, and building it, in both cases, into gripping novels where this reader is taken into the “history” of the lives of the principals and comes to believe in them. This is a significant achievement of Diamant’s which attests to her power as a novelist.

I will never be able to think of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph without thinking of them as they are presented in this novel. The small bits of detail given in Genesis gives me little sense of these people, but Diamant gives us riveting accounts of the persons of Jacob, Joseph as well as their close relatives. She leaves the characters of Abraham and Isaac as more barebones, but still gives us some details, perhaps fictional, that make them a bit seem more full blooded and real.

However, while these main men of the novel are known from history, it is the creation of the women which is paramount and exciting. The narrator, Dinah, is hardly mentioned at all in Genesis, only about three passages, two which just name her as the daughter of Jacob and Leah, and one which does mention she was taken physically by an Egyptian man and then he seeks permission to marry her. Yet we come to know Dinah well and to love and respect her. Similarly with her mother and three aunts. They are merely names in Genesis in relation to men. Here they are the key characters who create the fundamental form of life this family lives and knows. Diamant is extremely convincing and the accounts spellbinding and heart warming.

Both Dinah and her aunt Rachel are midwives. And the red tent is where they do all their own family’s delivering. The role of birth, both the giving of life by the mother, and the role of the midwife in helping, are central to the role of women in that family. Dinah tells us:

“In the red tent we knew that death dealt with the shadows of birth, the price women pay for the honor of giving life. Thus our sorrow was measured.”

About half the novel follows the general story as sketched so briefly in Genesis. Jacob flees his home when his brother is after him (again, more about this later), he makes a deal to work for his uncle for his upkeep, and stays many years taking all four of his daughters as his own. Then Jacob leaves Laban’s world and sets out on his own, makes peace with his brother Esau, and begins the path which makes clear that his son Joseph is his favorite, thus alienating the older brothers, and leading to their selling Joseph off into slavery in Egypt.

However, most of the second half of the novel is pure creation. Both Dinah and Joseph end up in Egypt, and while we follow primarily the life if Dinah, midwife and “slave” to a decent Egyptian family, Joseph becomes a sort of shady figure in the Egyptian world.

I did find it quite odd that in a couple places Diamant seems to set out to completely change the sparse biblical account of Genesis and to make Jacob and Joseph be rather different, perhaps startlingly different, from whom they are in Genesis.

Joseph’s portrait is most startlingly at odds with Genesis. There we are told that when Joseph’s brothers sold him off to get rid of him and his dominance over them in their father’s eyes, he was sold into the home of a prominent Egyptian, became a favored servant, but that the Egyptian man’s wife lusted after Joseph and tried to seduce him, but Joseph resisted her advances, so she set him up as though he attacked her to have her husband punish him. In Diamant’s account, the Egyptian lord has purchased Joseph as a homosexual slave, and then catches him in bed with his wife.

I was rather startled at how much Diamant seems to detest this person of Joseph while the author of Genesis honors his character and role.

The deviance from Genesis is much less noticeable in the case of Jacob, but still I found it odd. In Genesis Isaac and Rebecca have two children, the elder Esau and younger Jacob. Rebecca seems to favor Jacob and thus when the blind Isaac tells Esau to make a feast for him and he will then bless him and confer his property on him, Rebecca has Jacob hurry to do it first, dressing as Esau to confuse his father. The ruse works and Jacob steals the birthright of Esau. When Esau finds this out he is, of course, furious, and sets out to get Jacob, and that is how Jacob comes to flee to his maternal uncles’ land, the home of Laban.

In the novel, the scene between Isaac and Jacob is sort of covered over, and much later when Jacob wants to leave the situation of being sort of a servant to Laban, he heads back into the land of Canaan, he is in terrible fear of Esau. Well one might expect Esau to be a good deal furious with what his brother had done to him.

But in Diamant’s account it seems it is Esau who is the bad guy, and we all come, like Jacob’s children and wives, to believe that Esau hates Jacob and nothing of what Jacob DID to Esau is known. Esau appears to be the heavy and the bad guy. Thus when they do meet and Esau is all forgiving and friendly it all has a rather strange feeling, as though something important is missing, which is precisely the case.

I kept asking myself why in the world Diamant felt the need to shift the biblical account in the tone of the story of Jacob, and to give a totally contradictory account and portrait of Joseph.

In any case, the last third or so of the book, which is pure creation on Diamant’s part – Dinah’s life in Egypt is a beautiful story and reveals much about the life of women in that culture as she had done for life in Canaan in the first half the novel.

The Red Tent is a marvelous achievement, gripping and revealing, touching deeply the everyday life of people of an ancient time and radically different culture from what we are used to. I would highly recommend the novel to all. Ah, but can one come away still thinking of it as a novel. That’s the trick.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett