Friday, July 13, 2012

French, the language of love

It’s Friday the 13th! But that means nothing in the world of romance…

Well, back to The Sheik. I’m sure everyone has been waiting with bated breath for the conclusion! Actually, despite some of my complaints in the last post about too much interior monologue-ing, it is quite an exciting book, especially the second half.

When we last left Diana and Ahmed, he had just re-captured her and she had just realized that she was in love with him. Of course, she doesn’t tell him, as Ahmed has made it quite clear that he’s uninterested in love. Instead she worries about his possible retaliation for her escape. And looks at him with “misty yearning in her eyes” (139). Diana has very mixed feelings.

Two months pass and Diana and Ahmed are actually getting along pretty well: 

A still from the film The Sheik with Rudolph Valentino and Agnes Ayres. Actually, probably a publicity shot.

“Weeks of vivid happiness that had been mixed with poignant suffering, for the perfect joy of being with him was marred by the passionate longing for his love.” 

Just like Movie Weekly, E. M. Hull was very fond of adjectives.

Diana has from the start had a bit of a thing for the desert (an essential element of the mystique of the sheikh – sand is a necessity) and now’s she’s really taken to it, in an only slightly racist way: 

“The beauties and attractions of the desert had multiplied a hundred times.  The wild tribesmen, with their primitive ways and savagery, had ceased to disgust her, and the free life with its constant exercise and simple routine was becoming indefinitely dear to her” (144).

Ahmed has been nice to her recently, relatively speaking. Yet Diana is now filled with jealousy about the Sheik’s past ‘affairs’: as she refers to them, “les autres.” French is the language of passion in this book – as well as a marker of the colonial government in the area and Ahmed’s hatred of the English, which we’ll find out about soon.  And now the Sheik’s French friend the author Raoul Saint Hubert (not to be confused with the wonderful restaurant chain… mmm… St-Hubert…) is coming to visit. Diana is upset that an aristocratic white guy will be coming to the camp and seeing her shame, and also jealous of the deep friendship between Ahmed and Raoul. Is there any Ahmed/Raoul fan fiction? I wonder…

And since I’m talking about slash… Obedience is a recurring theme in The Sheik – Diana moves from obeying no one but herself, to obeying and submitting to the Sheik, who (in Emily Dickinson fashion) she eventually refers to as Monseigneur, “mon maĆ®tre et seigneur” (292). Does considering The Sheik as a fantasy of domination reframe its narrative? It makes for some interesting interpretations of passages like the following:

“He demanded immediate obedience, and only a few hours before she had made up her mind to unreserved submission, and she had broken down at the first test. The proof of her obedience was a hard one, from which she shrank, but it was harder far to see the look of anger she had provoked on the face of the man she loved” (164).

Of course there is an essential element missing here, and that is consent, the watchword of current bdsm communities. Diana has not consented to be in this relationship. Can she later then consent retroactively? It’s not an advisable prescription for real life behavior, but can it work in fiction?

For me, it’s not working. Of course, I’m not the intended audience, not being a reader in the 1920s. Would that make a difference? There are some discussions in romance land about the role of  ‘reader consent’ in rape/forced seduction narratives in romances. How did readers in the 1920s interpret this story?

This will come up again shortly, but for now Raoul Saint Hubert’s visit continues. He and Ahmed argue about Ahmed’s behavior towards Diana. Her Englishness is a bone of contention – for Raoul it means that Ahmed should never have abducted her, for Ahmed…well, he hates the English so for him it’s a sticking point.

Did I mention that Raoul, of course, falls in love with Diana, but out of respect for Ahmed represses his love?

Anyway, now comes the thrilling drama. In a twin scene to Diana’s first abduction, Diana and Gaston (the Sheik’s valet) and some of the Sheik’s men are riding in the desert when they surrounded by a large group of Arab men on horseback. Diana and Gaston try to escape, but Gaston is shot and Diana captured by the men, who are with Ahmed’s hereditary enemy: the robber Sheik Ibraheim Omair. It has happened again, and the book makes the parallels clear, as Diana thinks of how “the same feeling of unreality that she had experienced once before the first day in the Sheik’s camp came over her” (197).

When Ahmed realizes that Diana has been taken by Ibraheim Omair, he is distraught: “she had become necessary to him as he had never believed it possible that a woman could be” (200).  He assembles a group of fighting men and they go after her.

Diana wakes up in the camp of Sheik Ibraheim Omair. An Arab woman (one of the few in this novel) tries to make her drink drugged coffee. Diana resists and holds onto the hope that Sheik Ahmed will come for her. But first Ibraheim Omair arrives.  Unlike Ahmed, he is “the Arab of her imaginings”: slovenly, fat, his face marked with vice (219). For every noble Arab on a horse, there must be a fat evil Arab with giant Nubian slaves. It’s an obligation…

Horrifyingly, the Arab woman jealously flings herself at Ibraheim Omair’s feet, arguing with him in Arabic. He flings her off, and then, as she returns, kills her with a knife. It’s pretty unexpected and very gruesome. This ‘robber’ Sheik’s behavior begins to make Sheik Ahmed’s behavior seem quite reasonable and gentle in comparison.

Ibraheim Omair then turns to efforts to rape Diana. She fights him wildly, and just as she is about to lose, Ahmed arrives! So Ibraheim Omair tries to strangle her, but is instead himself strangled by Ahmed. This is described quite vividly and bloodily, but I’m not going to quote it here. This violence revives in Diana her old fear of Ahmed, but she has no sympathy for the dead man. At that moment, some of Ibraheim Omair’s men enter the tent and attack Ahmed and Diana. They are eventually fought off, with the aid of Raoul Saint Hubert, but in the process Sheik Ahmed has been stabbed in the back and ends the battle prostrate on the ground.

Is he dead?

I know I promised the conclusion today, but discussing the final revelations about Ahmed is going to take more time and space than I have in this post. It’s already too long! So – Monday, I promise!

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