The Symbolic Significance of Eyes
In a society where women are made to be invisible, the ability to see and be seen is exceptionally impactful. Eyes serve as the ultimate testament to experiences and as a vital means of social commentary in a particularly misogynistic culture. Firdaus emphasizes eyes to reveal the emotional depth they hold, indicate the significance of relationships within her life, and stress the gender disparity she experiences throughout her life. The imagery of eyes is developed throughout the novel from a symbol of comfort to a statement of possession and dominance. Nawal El Saadawi utilizes eyes as a symbol of the forms of captivity present in Firdaus’ life in Woman at Point Zero.
Originally, eyes serve as a symbol for the comfort and security that Firdaus’ mother provides for her. The attention and affection one receives from a mother cannot be replaced, however it is this genuine connection that Firdaus so desperately yearns for for the entirety of her life. Firdaus’ reliance on her mother is strongly enforced by her need for a female role model in a society influenced purely by men, and eventually she learns to overcome the barriers even her mother could not surpass. Firdaus’ dependence of this relationship is evident as she describes the “two eyes to which [she] clung to with all [her] might… two eyes that alone seemed to hold [her] up” (17). However, what was once a symbol of validation becomes a constant reminder of her vulnerability, a by-product of her attempts to prove her worth and find acceptance. The first time Firdaus experiences rejection in this form is by her step-mother, and a crucial indication of this is within her imagery of her eyes, stating that “they were not two rings of pure white surrounding two circles of intense black… no light seemed ever to touch the eyes of this woman” (17). This imagery initially compares her eyes to her mother’s, and then emphasizes the difference in their emotional connotations, indicating darkness and fear. Because of the new intimations that become associated with eyes after this point, this significance of this symbol is no longer straightforward and simple. Eyes progressed passed plainly being an indication of trust or strength, and the symbol became complex by providing a dynamic representation of her relationships. From this point on, the complexity of eyes causes internal turmoil within Firdaus as she continues to seek the comfort and acceptance that is redolent of her past. However, her attempts to assert her personal value are constantly overshadowed by the fact that she is a victim of a fiercely patriarchal society that refuses to acknowledge her merit.
The evident eye imagery throughout Firdaus’ youth illuminates her search for comfort and acceptance, and becomes addressed particularly in an interaction with her teacher, Miss Iqbal. She intervenes with Firdaus’ pensive state of mind, prompting her to comment “I could see her eyes looking at me… despite the darkness…they were after me…holding on to me… refusing to let me go” immediately providing warmth and concern (28). Miss Iqbal’s motherly nature makes her easily comparable to Firdaus’ mother, and the parallelism between the two characters becomes undeniable once she is described as having the same “two rings of pure white, surrounding two circles of intense black” in her eyes (29). Her desperation for this motherly comfort is noted as she describes how “[her] fingers held on to her hand with such violence that no force on earth, no matter how great, could tear it away from [her]” (30). However, this seemingly unbreakable bond proves to be in vain, as Miss Iqbal fails to acknowledge the interaction furthermore. This abandonment causes the feeling of solace Firdaus once found in the eyes of another to become that of uneasiness and possession. The initial development in this symbolism becomes apparent when Firdaus is picturing Miss Iqbal’s eyes and “opened [her] eyes wide in panic as if threatened with blindness,” signifying how this symbol henceforth becomes haunting and despairing. The pattern that is established by the symbolic use of eyesemphasizes her tendency to rekindle a long lost memory that inevitably leads to loss.
Despite these newly developed nuances Firdaus begins to associate with eyes, she continues to cling to the remnants of a warmer past once linked to the symbol. Because the basic human right of acceptance has been denied throughout her entire lifetime, her desire for it only becomes more intense and evident within each of her interactions. Still seeking comfort in the eyes of others, she begins a new relationship with a man named Ibrahim. As she falls in love with him, she describes his eyes with the repetitive imagery of black and white rings, signifying the intensity of the relationship. However, this relationship follows the path of each before it, and turns into one of deceit and abandonment. Firdaus learns of Ibrahim’s impending marriage to another woman, and in her grief, she describes her natural tendency to yearn for acceptance and love by stating: “I wanted nothing, nothing at all, except perhaps one thing. To be saved through love from it all… To become a human being who was not looked upon with scorn, or despised, but respected, and cherished and made to feel whole” (94). This self-realization is essential to the character development of Firdaus, because as she finally acknowledges her own vulnerabilities, she can become stronger and more independent. Soon after this, Firdaus continues her revelations, understanding the truth of the discrimination and disparity in society. The parallelism drawn between Ibrahim and Miss Iqbal is uncanny, both including nearly identical scenes of Firdaus awakening from a frightened dreamlike state while imagining the eyes, then engaging in a conversation with a friend, stating both times that the love between Firdaus and the other is impossible. The blatant similarity between the two situations serves to equate the two, while also subtly emphasizing the difference in Firdaus’ reaction to each doomed relationship. She suffered after coming to realize that she would never again see Miss Iqbal, and though she did the same at the end of her relationship with Ibrahim, she finally used the experience to gain virtue and move forward with her life. This becomes clear when she notes how the greatest achievement is “being completely independent” and “enjoying freedom from any subjection to a man, to marriage or to love” (95). From this point on, she realized the atrocities that result from men, the uselessness of love, and the importance of independence. Losing her love with Ibrahim led to her finally grasping self-love and asserting her feminism, and accordingly, she never again mentions eyes as a symbol.
Throughout Woman at Point Zero, Firdaus has difficulty discerning the forms of captivity that are developed through the symbolism of eyes. She relishes the safety and comfort that can result from captivity out of love, because her desperate need for acceptance and affection cannot be fulfilled. Yet without fail, this captivity becomes one of fear, and Firdaus fully experiences the trauma of rejection and abandonment. Though eyes are symbolically utilized with both positive and negative connotations, ultimately, they represent others’ perceptions, something Firdaus learns to dismiss, after an incessant series of disappointment and loss.
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