Characterization in From Sleep Unbound
Oppression is a common theme in literature; this is not surprising in light of humanity’s history of vying for power. In literature as in society, are many factors behind oppression – differences in skin color, sex, religion, and family history among them. The one motivation which ties these together is a desire to be in control and an aversion to those who are different. The first step in overcoming oppression is the realization that the system needs to change. This sounds simple, but changing the mentality of an entire society is truly a difficult task which requires the effort of many. In the novel From Sleep Unbound, Andrée Chedid uses characterization to reflect the theme that as long as somebody is brave enough to change, there is hope for a system to grow past oppression.
Samya, the main character, is an example of a victim of oppression in late 20th Century Egypt, and her tragic end is an inevitable result of an unjust system. Samya is one of the few to actively rebel against this society. She is a minority rebel compared to most of the women who openly accept their role in the system. However, the other women have distractions: they work, they take care of children, they talk with each other. Samya is alone, with a pitiful excuse of a family and an isolation that stems from marrying into a wealthy family. She has to face the corrupted system by herself, and one person cannot beat an entire system. Samya explains her motivation to rebel, claiming “Others besides myself must have felt their souls worn away by the interminable length of a life without love. They will understand me… And if there is only one who understands me, it is for her that I protest as loudly as I can” (Chedid 133). Perhaps the cruelest fact is the most Samya can do to fight this system is to accept death. She is a lone soldier at war with an idea, a warped mentality. She “suffer[s] from something much deeper than boredom… Days [come] one after another, smothering the past, but they [bring] no relief. [Her] pain never [stops] burning. [She wants] to put an end to it” (Chedid 130). She feels she has nothing to lose. In light of these ideas, the reader can see the murder of her husband is inevitable. It is only a matter of time before she lashes out. When Samya does lash out, even her act of murder and passive acceptance of death do not convince the people of the village that there is a problem within their society. Similarly to the situation in which the depressed man commit suicide by setting himself on fire, most only see fault with her. However, also similarly to that situation, one person sees the true core of the problem and is changed by it. Samya’s action impacts Ammal’s heart.
Surprisingly, Boutros can also be considered a victim of the system. Admittedly, he passively implements the system without second thoughts because it benefits him. For example, “Boutros never forgot to place a kiss on [Samya’s] forehead each evening, a ritual he could not do without… This thought stirred in [Samya] a last impulse toward revolt… One day [she] would no longer be able to bear it. [She] knew this” (Chedid 138). Boutros, by habit, kisses Samya. He believes it is his right as a husband, and perhaps even feels he is blessing Samya with his kiss. He is oblivious to the rebellion which is stirring in her, and the fact that in Samya’s depression “Every one of the people around [her] seemed heavy with symbolic meaning, and in [her] eyes took on exaggerated importance. The image of Boutros, for example, went far beyond Boutros… [she] loaded upon him [her] own sorrows as well as those of the whole world… To [her], he had become the symbol of those who live by principles as dried up as their souls” (Chedid 132-133). In the perspective of Samya, Boutros is a living representation of the oppression Samya is confined by. But the reader must keep in mind that this is the norm of Egypt, and Boutros has never known any other way of life. Can the fault be put solely on him when society made him this way?
The women of the village can be viewed as one entity, as well as representative of the most frustrating component of a warped social system. The women are the oppressed who accept oppression, those who have let themselves be convinced that they are truly lesser. This is shown when the woman Ratiba’s father and brother kill her sister Sayyeda for talking to an unmarried man, and Om el Kher (a popular woman in the village) does not support Ratiba in her anger. Instead, she claims Ratiba’s “father and her brother are right in a way. In all the villages the men approved of the murder. It was an affair of honor. The men, above all, approved it. The women took it as a warning” (Chedid 80). Here is an emphasis on how the men approved of this murder, and the women passively accepted this as a type of reminder of their standing in society. The horror of the act is inconsequential, in light of the patriarchal hierarchy in place. The women actually perpetuate the system which hinders them by excluding Ratiba and calling her bitter, telling her to be quiet and as passive as they are. Samya, similarly, is not included with these women. She is ostracized for being barren, and eventually ostracizes herself by rejecting the advice of the sacred Sheika regarding her infertility. This rift between Samya and the rest of the women is significant, because as mentioned earlier, isolation is what pushes Samya off the edge and makes her more open to rebellion. Ironically, as an outsider she has the most objective perspective of the nature of their situation. The question arises: why do the victims self-impose this system? Do they feel change is impossible, that pretending it is okay will be better than attempting to make a change? Or perhaps, they are too tired to make a change. Whatever the reasoning may be, the motive is inconsequential. The reality of this situation is that because the women accept their fate, they damn themselves and future generations to a life of suffocation under the weight of patriarchy and repressive tradition.
The blind man is the only male in the novel who sees the corruption of the nation, and he speaks out against it. He is described as “some sort of silent divinity who [reigns] over the village when the men [are] away.” Om el Kher tells Samya that “’The day Bahia was beaten, [the blind man] got angry.’ But Om el Kher excused him, saying, ‘It is such a long time since he saw anything. He lives in another world.’ When his anger rises, he beats the ground with his stick” (Chedid 81). Om el Kher has to excuse the blind man for his minor rebellion and his disapproval of the violence, because the only socially acceptable response to whatever the men decide is an unfaltering acceptance. The only reason he is allowed even this angry act of beating the stick is because he is old, feeble, blind, and therefore not a threat to the other men.
At the end of the novel, after Samya has killed Boutros, Ammal realizes she does not want the same life as Samya. She makes a decision, and a woman who sees I cries out: “’Ammal is running!’ Leaning against the wall, the blind man breathes in peace. How she can run, Ammal! How she runs!” (Chedid 141). Notably, with the action of Ammal, the blind man “breathes in peace,” reflecting his joy in her decision to take action. Ammal runs because she cannot do anything else. She runs despite all of the logic, the facts which tell her that realistically she has nowhere to go. Logic and facts do not matter, because playing it safe, following the rules, constantly considering the consequences- are what have allowed the oppression to continue on for so long. Ammal sees what so few in the village see- change must occur as quickly as possible, with as much fervor as one can manage, or change will not occur at all. Chedid teaches us with this ending, neither happy nor sad but necessary: do not settle, do not be okay; sometimes all you can do is run.
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