Provide a comprehensive character study of Mahmoud Darwish's poem "The Prison Cell." Choose two of the following areas and discuss them through compare / contrast: roles relationships, motivations, attitudes, values and personality.
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In his poem “The Prison Cell” Mahmoud Darwish contrasts two men: the inmate and the prison guard. These men are differentiated by the roles they assume in the poem. The first character introduced in the poem is the inmate, who is also the speaker of the poem. Rather than assuming the traditional, subservient role of a prisoner, the inmate uses his imagination to escape the prison walls. This is most notable in the opening lines of the poem, where the speaker calls on his imagination to tear down the prison walls:
It is possible…
It is possible at least sometimes…
It is possible especially now
…It is possible for prison walls
For the cell to become a distant land
Without frontiers: (ll. 1-3, 7-10)
The speaker begins with the phrase “It is possible” as a way to call up his imagination. The phrase is repeated in lines 2 and 3 and the speaker’s imagination evolves from a vague ideal that can be called up “at least sometimes” to a manifestation that is brought into the present “now.” Ultimately, the speaker uses his imagination to make the prison walls disappear.
In contrast to the inmate, the prison guard lacks imagination. The inmate, who physically remains locked in the cell, tells the prison guard that he has made the prison walls disappear. The prison guard responds with anger:
What did you do with the walls?
I gave them back to the rocks.
…The prison guard got angry.
He put an end to my dialogue.
He said he didn't care for poetry,
And bolted the door of my cell. (ll.11-12, 17-20)
The prison guard’s reply represents the voice of reality, a voice which refuses imagination. The guard’s response suggests a belief that one cannot use imagination to escape physical confines. By bolting the door to the cell, the guard attempts to mark the reality of the inmate’s situation, which should be one of suffering and remorse.
The poem suggests two conflicting value systems: imagination and reality. Although the guard values reality, by the end of the poem, he recognizes the significance of imagination. The guard realizes that the inmate uses the power of imagination to escape his physical condition, a power that the guard does not have. Rather, the guard remains trapped in his occupation and the physical constraints of reality. In the final lines of the poem, the guard asks the inmate how he obtains freedom, to which the inmate replies, “From the chain you tied me with last night” (ll. 40). At this, “The prison guard grew so sad… / He begged me to give him back / His freedom” (ll.41-43). In these final lines, the prison guard realizes his own lack of imagination and freedom. Although he has physical power over the inmate, as noted in his ability to bolt the door of the cell, the inmate ultimately has the power of imagination, which is the more valuaable of the two.
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