Quasi-Hopelessness and Martyrdom in Persian Letters
Persian Letters seems like a hopeless account lobbying against female empowerment. Starting from each of the wives’ opening letters to Usbek and continuing to Roxana’s death by suicide at the end of the novel, at first glance, these letters reek of despair and cyclical dread for womankind during this time period. However, while these epistles might seem to speak to insurmountable irreparability and impossibility for gender equality, deeper inspection reveals a heavily feminist manifesto circumventing this society. These feminist undertones are largely seen in Roxana’s sacrificial death, as well as the writings about the Female Paradise. But even aside from these plot points, there is a consistent tone of female rights providing an underpinning throughout all of the novel. This alternate, empowering reading encourages unique sources of power for these women; they may not be able to fully escape the hell they are subjected to in an optimal manner, but time and time again, their writings and actions remind readers that female agency is possible, depending on how they look for it.
The wives in The Persian Letters portray a prime example of protofeminity. Usbek’s wives are submissive in every way, but oftentimes, this behavior is purely displayed out of necessity or survival — later on, we learn that this is also related to them carrying on extramarital affairs and wanting the freedom to do so. As humans, they are entirely enslaved and used for their bodies, always having to submit to Usbek’s rule. They are aware of this limiting lifestyle they are forced into as well, with Fatme even dubbing herself “a free woman, by the accident of birth…enslaved by the violence of her love” (46). Each wife has a unique way of dealing with Usbek’s whims and desires while communicating with him.
While writing him, they each display their own unique style and mode of managing him in order to gain maximum freedom; they are acting on every feminist urge and ability they have. They are unable to stand openly for women’s rights or speak out against their injustices, so instead, they use specific, distinctive diction to manipulate Usbek and get their way. Zashi plays the nostalgic lover, reminding him that she is “searching for you all the time, and finding you nowhere” (43) and referencing the moments at which “they” fell in love. Zephis is the damsel in distress, griping to him about “how miserable I am!” and how “all I need is yourself” (44) to bring her happiness again. Fatme takes on the role of the unabashed lover, bordering on resembling Stockholm syndrome at various junctions in her letter. She pines over him and “still [tries] to make a habit of being attractive” (47). Roxana is unlike all of the other wives. She doesn’t write to Usbek until the last year of his escapade, playing hard to get (minus any “play”). Their different approach tactics prove significant because they are acutely aware of every word they say and the order in which they talk to him. These letters at first create concern for the women, and an urgent need to save them from Usbek, who has seemingly brainwashed them; Fatme in letter seven seems especially too far-gone. However, the way they present themselves is actually more a form of agency than anything else. In each letter, a significant amount of buttering up takes place — be it in the form of displaying weakness or withholding communication entirely, so that by the time they need or want something, they’ve swooned or impressed Usbek enough to ask for it. Through their letters to Usbek and their actions at home, it is seen that the power they have at the end of the novel is far greater than the power they were allotted at the beginning, with The Chief Eunuch even stating to Usbek that his “wives have come to think that [his] departure meant complete impunity for them” (270). The shift in the power structure here ends up leading to Usbek’s demise because it provides the wives agency over their own lives. They become characters who are able to manipulate and writhe skillfully within their adverse situations to make the best out of the hand they’ve been dealt. Roxana may not be able to be with the man she loves; Zashi may not be able to be as sexually adventurous as she wishes outside of the company of her slaves (270), but they are able to find nooks and crannies of time to carve out a life they want – given unavoidable and unfortunate circumstances. It is through this hushed, written manipulation that comes off initially disparaging that any of this agency is made possible.
The death of Roxana is sad and disheartening; she must die in order to gain power and happiness. In the midst of the Persian tale about women’s paradise, Zulema states, “we are so wretched that we cannot not want something different…I wish only to die myself…since that is the only way in which I can hope to be separated from you, I shall still find such a separation pleasant” (249). An idea of paradise for women is the exact opposite of what their life on earth is like, which is true of the four wives, as well. Zulema illustrates even in this tale that the only way a woman can attain agency in this society is via suicide. She adopts it as an act of power, and it is highly symbolic that she goes to Heaven afterwards to have her “happiness perpetually renewed” (249). This underscores how female suicide here death provides more joy and freedom opposed to a life in shackles chained to their husbands. It is also meant to lay the framework for Roxana’s suicide. It foreshadows that death by suicide in this time period is not something to be mourned, but something that could be a gateway to new realms of happiness. While suicide is typically thought of as heartbreaking, this changes it into a welcome act of power for women looking for a needed escape in this society.
The biggest source of female power — coming both from the structuring of the novel and the text itself — is found in the last letter from Roxana to Usbek as she poisons herself. Following the feminist motifs rife throughout the rest of the novel, this is not a suicide, it is a sacrifice and act of rebellion. She has manipulated everyone skillfully enough to tell Usbek, “I suborned your eunuchs, outwitted your jealously, and managed to turn your terrible seraglio into a place of delightful pleasures” (280). She is touting her accomplishments and the successful way she has undermined his power while he’s been away. She is akin to civil rights activists and valiant martyrs rather than someone who frivolously or over-emotionally committed suicide, which would have likely been seen as a sign of demented weakness during this time period. While killing herself could be seen as her acting out of desperation or finding an escape from ubiquitous power, the fact that she documents her death and writes to Usbek about it speaks volumes, as she is openly disregarding his authority, efforts, and rule. She acts against the feeling of entrapment felt by many women at the time: They would rather be killed or become martyrs rather than submit to the will of men who advance upon them. Every movement they made in spite of the men who controlled them was actually a movement toward freedom, as they were openly acting against the patriarchy and articulating the basic right of a women’s right to self-determination. She takes this act of suicide and turns it into her last word; the last word that will ever be said in their gender argument entirely. Her death might not have changed the world or granted women more rights than they originally held, but this act of selflessness could be seen as the beginning blueprints for feminism as a movement. Usbek asserts his dominance throughout the novel with his letters — especially the final letters where he gives the First Eunuch “unlimited powers over the entire seraglio” (271). He writes his wives and asserts threats, stating, “it is you who would be caught if I decided to follow the Chief Eunuch’s advice” (133), but Roxana’s last letter reminds Usbek that he is — and has always been — effectively powerless. He has spent years pining over Roxana and trying to control the seraglio and all of his wives, but this letter proves to him — definitively — that he cannot control anything. The irony in this is that he has spent his entire correspondence controlling people and running his society from the outside. In many ways, he was successful, as it would be near impossible to say his wives had wide degrees of freedom, but it is acts such as Roxana’s suicide that remind us how simply out of control he always was.
This is the note Montesquieu wanted to leave us with. The last thing that he wanted to tell us was that a woman felt so shielded by her husband that she had find happiness in the shadows and use her death as a way to escape a hell on earth. Montesquieu didn’t want to give Usbek the last word, didn’t want to give him a chance to explain himself. Throughout The Persian Letters, Montesquieu didn’t allow other people to stick up for themselves or let his wives have a say in their lives. They wrote letters and cunningly expressed their opinions, but he didn’t give them agency or power — rather, they had to find it themselves. His disregard for them is replicated, and dug in even more harshly, by Montesquieu’s — and the wives’ — disregard for him by lack of a final letter. It’s hard not to feel bad for Usbek’s wives and the people they represent, but it’s important to remember that at the end of the day, Usbek’s power is forgotten and undermined by his wives. They found glimmers of hope and unique ways to control him and eventually destroy him. Roxana had to sacrifice herself, but this act of dominance and power over him simultaneously destabilizes patriarchy while asserting female power. It’s hard not to feel bad for them. But it’s similarly hard not to see their actions as immense acts of clever, albeit saddening, power and strides toward eventual gender equality.
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