Monday, July 9, 2012

So…women are like horses?

Back to The Sheik:

When we last saw Diana, she had just been abducted and raped by Sheik Ahmed ben Hassan, and brought to live in his camp. His tents are beautiful, by the way, in the fashion that ‘Oriental’ living spaces are in Western representations: full of hangings and a hint of sex, “a curious mixture of Oriental luxury and European comfort. The lavish sumptuousness of the furnishings suggested subtly an unrestrained indulgence, the whole atmosphere was voluptuous” (61).

In fact, Diana initially ascribes the splendor of the tents to what she thinks of as the “strain of vanity in all natives” (67). Yet the Sheik’s bookshelves are full of books on sport and travel. And, a bit inexplicably, on veterinary surgery.

Maybe these books on veterinary surgery are related to the Sheik’s passion for horses. The novel really hits us over the head with the ‘taming women is like taming horses’ metaphor.  There are numerous scenes of the Sheik taming various horses; these horses are vicious and dangerous, but beautiful. A horse named Shaitan, for example, has killed three men, but Ahmed, of course, can ride him. And, just like he breaks horses, Ahmed tells Diana that he will break her. As he says “I do not kill a horse until I have proved beyond all possible doubt that I cannot tame it. With you I have no such proof. I can tame you and I will” (113).

In addition to being a brutal, if effective, horseman (no horse whispering for the Sheik), Ahmed is also a fierce and independent leader, inspiring both fear and loyalty in his men. This is pretty typical of the heroes in sheikh romances. In a way, it’s a counterpart to historical romance’s fascination with British aristocracy (all those Dukes who loved me). Men with power, status and inherited wealth are desirable heroes.

However, while British men get to be ‘everyday’ guys in contemporary romances (well, as everyday as doctors and business tycoons can get), Arab men pretty much only show up as sheikhs. Without the title, they become invisible as romantic interests. And, in the 1920s, as we’ll see in the next post, sometimes they were never really there in the first place (oooo…mysteries!).

Anyway, the next few chapters dwell on descriptions of Diana’s emotional turmoil: fear, anger and, most of all, humiliation. “A numb feeling of despair came over her and with it a sense of unreality, as if it were a hideous nightmare from which she would wake, for the truth seemed too impossible, the setting too theatrical” (78). It’s compelling, but can get to be a bit much. At a certain point you start to think – yes, we already know she is feeling these emotions! They are not a surprise to us! These chapters are all told from Diana’s point of view – at this point we get very little insight into the Sheik’s motivations or feelings. All we know is that he wanted her, so he took her.

Yet, while the horse metaphor suggests that Ahmed will break Diana, Diana also recalls an incident in her past that suggests that Ahmed too might be ‘tamed’, if not broken. Once she went to the circus in Vienna and saw a young female lion tamer. The highlight of this woman’s show was when she ate dinner in the lions’ cage “surrounded by savage snarling brutes” (84). Diana is reminded of this incident by her own fear when dining with the Sheik.

Here the Sheik is like the lions: dangerous and hungry. Diana doesn’t even think of trying to tame him at this point in the novel, but as readers we might consider that a possibility. Especially since this reminiscence is immediately followed by Ahmed’s dog, who doesn’t like most people, making friends with Diana.

Of course, the next time Diana compares the Sheik to an animal, she compares him to a tiger she shot in India! She felt a strange admiration for his power and beauty, but he had just eaten a woman the week before. So she had to shoot him. How unreliable are metaphors and foreshadowing…

After many weeks with the Sheik, Diana finally gets an opportunity to try to escape. Riding out alone with Ahmed’s French valet, Gaston, Diana distracts him and takes her chance. She gallops away into the desert and for a short while feels like she has regained her self. Unfortunately for her, but fortunately for the plot, the Sheik finds her.  He will keep her at all costs and even shoots her horse to stop her! And he loved that horse.

Now the next twist occurs. Riding with the Sheik, held by his strong arms, Diana realizes that she loves him, “that she had loved him for a long time, even when she thought she hated him and when she had fled from him” (133). Frankly, I didn’t see it. I mean, I saw it coming, but it’s hard to see her love developing. Admiration for Ahmed’s vitality and strength, yes. But love? I'd love to hear opinions!

Apparently, it is Ahmed’s difference (especially his difference from the men she’s known and been indifferent to) which has made Diana love him: “her heart was given for all time to the fierce desert man who was so different from all other men whom she had met, a lawless savage who had taken her to satisfy a passing fancy and who had treated her with merciless cruelty. He was a brute, but she loved him, loved him for his very brutality and superb animal strength” (133). Well.

This love has even overcome any scruples Diana might have about being involved with someone “of a different race and colour” (134). Did I mention that the race politics in the book are pretty complicated (aka mostly racist in a 1920s way, but also super interesting)? On the one hand, Diana describes Ahmed as ‘a savage’ and there are so many offhand comments about the ways of ‘Arab men’ and the ‘Oriental temperament’. On the other hand, love appears and erases categorical boundaries. Yet…on the third hand, it is these very differences (described as racial differences – although ultimately revealed not to be) which create love in the first place!

Tune in next week to find out how E. M. Hull manages to tie these difficulties up in a neat bow at the end of the book. Biological essentialism solves everything?


  1. Yeah, I really didn't see the 'love' coming either - it's just like 'rape victim, rape victim, rape victim, oh! I am in love!'

    1. It's interesting to compare this with Beauty and the Beast, another imprisoned woman love story. If I remember correctly, in the Disney version Belle tries to escape, like Diana, and then starts to fall in love with the Beast once she is recaptured, also like Diana. But in Beauty and the Beast, the Beast saves Belle from wolves during her thwarted escape and is injured doing so (making him a more likely love interest), while in The Sheik, Ahmed just recaptures Diana. There is a second rescue where Ahmed does save Diana from danger (I'll talk about it in the next The Sheik post), but it's interesting that this 'I'm in love' moment happens at the first 'rescue'.

    2. Yeah - in B&B, the rescue is a true rescue and gives the Beast the opportunity to show a softer side by making him vulnerable to Belle (that is, it's really the side of him she sees while nursing him that makes her fall in love) but in this case, it's more that her love comes when she is so totally subdued that he begins to show mercy. It's so intertwined with her spirit being broken that it can't help but look like Stockholm Syndrome.

    3. Yeah, so far as I can tell, Ahmed never really shows a 'softer side'. And he is always making the decisions, even when he decides he's not good for her...

      Stockholm Syndrome is not out of the question (although I've heard that may not be a real thing - is it? I guess this is fiction in any case!).