What does the image of Mecca symbolize for Helen in Athol Fugard's play The Road to Mecca?

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tamarakh's profile pic

Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Beyond a spiritual journey, Helen's image of Mecca in Athol Fugard's play The Road to Mecca symbolizes Helen's freedom, freedom from the oppression she experienced growing up in a heavily religious village. While Marius, the church minister, visits with her in the second act, trying to get her to sign the papers admitting her to an assisted-living facility, Helen gives Marius a very long speech that reflects her past feelings of entrapment and newfound freedom.

One confession she makes to Marius is that she has realized her faith which "brought [her] to church every Sunday" was all a terrible lie (p. 65). She had realized that sitting next to her husband, Stefanus, year after year, listing to sermons, saying prayers, and singing hymns was actually meaningless to her; "they had all become just words" that lost their meaning over time, leaving her to feel completely empty inside and a prisoner of that emptiness (p. 65). She even dreaded facing Stefanus's death because, even though she never loved him, his death would leave her to face the emptiness of her own life. However, the night of his funeral, she actually experienced a revelation when Marius lit a candle for her after taking her home. The candle gave her the epiphany that her life can be filled with light if only she sheds all of the pretenses of believing in the Christian faith she had grown up to believe in. In shedding all of her pretenses, she found true freedom. Helen began expressing her freedom by filling her house with candles and creating sculptures that members of her church would call heathen, or in Marius's words, "idolatry" (p. 61).

Mecca is considered the holiest city of the Muslims, and Christians consider Muslims to be heathens. Hence, in creating a Mecca and in facing all of her statues towards Mecca, Helen is breaking away from the binds of her oppressive Christian upbringing in a rebellious way that frightens and infuriates her fellow villagers.

Even Elsa recognizes that Helen's Mecca is her expression of freedom. More importantly, she recognizes the village is frightened and jealous of Helen's freedom. Elsa expresses her realization to Marius in the following:

... [S]he did something which small minds and small souls can never forgive ... she dared to be different! Which does make you right about one thing, Dominee. Those statues out there are monsters. And they are that for the simple reason that they express Helen's freedom. Yes, I never thought it was a word you would like. I'm sure it ranks as a cardinal sin in these parts. A free woman! God forgive us! (p. 60-61)

Hence, as we can see, Helen's Mecca represents more than just a spiritual journey because she realized at some point she has no faith. Instead, Helen's Mecca represents newfound freedom from religious oppression and rebellion against such oppression.

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sciftw's profile pic

sciftw | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Mecca and the concept of taking the road to Mecca are representative of a spiritual journey to Miss Helen.  Miss Helen's yard art and manipulation of light and dark with mirrors within her house is her way of traveling to her Mecca.  She is not taking an actual journey to a city in the middle east.  Mecca is symbolic for her.  It's the end goal of her spiritual travels.  What's a bit odd about her spiritual journey though is that it is not focused on attaining any sort of afterlife.  Miss Helen's goal, her Mecca, is daily spiritual comfort.  She is spiritually comforted by her artistic expressions, and she believes that through them she can keep some kind of spiritual evil away.  

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