What can be learnt from "Half a Day" by Naguib Mahfouz?
Naguib Mahfouz's story suggests that modernity and material advancement are antithetical to meaningful social progress.
In the story, the narrator makes an ominous proclamation:
The time for changing one's mind was over and gone and there was no question of ever returning to the paradise of home. Nothing lay ahead of us but exertion, struggle, and perseverance. Those who were able took advantage of the opportunities for success and happiness that presented themselves amid the worries.
The phrase "exertion, struggle, and perseverance" encapsulates the monumental effort involved in securing economic progress. The narrator emphasizes the necessity of a progressive and expansive outlook; thus, looking back to "the paradise of home" is characterized as a negative stance. Yet, modernity and material advancement fall short; they cannot secure personal fulfillment for the average civilian.
Through his short story, Mahfouz highlights the alienation of the modern man and his failure to achieve self-actualization.
With a nod of my head, I agreed with him and in turn asked, "And you? How are you?" "As you can see, not all that good, the Almighty be praised!" . . . Where was the street lined with gardens? Where had it disappeared to? When did all these vehicles invade it? And when did all these hordes of humanity come to rest upon its surface? How did these hills of refuse come to cover its sides? And where were the fields that bordered it? High buildings had taken over, the street surged with children, and disturbing noises shook the air.
Mahfouz's modern man finds little consolation in a world governed by noise, conflict, and a destructive addiction to material success. A certain nostalgia is apparent in the narrator's words. He laments the destruction of tranquility and is troubled by the accelerated pace of modern life. The societal changes are irreversible, disenfranchising the average civilian and fueling his feelings of aloneness.
At the end of the story, the narrator realizes to his horror that he has grown old; the fast pace of modern life has left him bewildered and alienated, aging him before his time.
This parable is shown to be a kind of allegory for the quick passing of time and how swiftly we move from childhood to old age. The school that the boy at the beginning of the story goes to stands for the lessons that humans learn in the school of life. Note how the school is refered to and in particular the kind of lessons that are learnt there:
As our path revealed itself to us, however, we did not find it as totally sweet and unclouded as we had presumed. Dust-laden winds and unexpected accidents came about suddenly, so we had to be watchful, at the ready, and very patient. It was not all a matter of playing and fooling around. Rivalries could bring about pain and hatred or give rise to fighting. And while the lady would sometimes smile, she would often scowl and scold. Even more frequently she would resort to physical punishment.
References to the "path" clearly indicate that this school is more than just a school where students learn how to read and write. The pupils at this school learn about the vicissitudes of life and the need for patience and constant alertness. They learn too about the way that friendships cannot be depended upon and the pain that comes through betrayal. Lastly, they learn about the way that appearances and reality do not always match, and how deceiving some appearances can be. The ending, and the reference to the sudden realisation of both the speaker and the reader that he is now a grandfather indicates that the parable is a reference to life and how quickly humans pass through it, learning constantly.