Salman Rushdie

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What is the attitude toward the religious relic in Rushdie's "The Prophet's Hair"?

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The relic in this case is the prophet’s hair.

When the story begins, one cannot immediately tell anything about the relic. However, as the story progresses, it is apparent that the relic is full of mystery and magic. The relic can be a source of curses or blessings for those who possess it. For example, the thief who must steal the relic from Hashim has to be one who is not afraid of the consequences. When Hashim steals the relic, a curse is brought upon the entire family. These happenings and the way in which the author talks about them reveal that the narrator’s attitude is that of consternation. The relic also seems to change Hashim's nature. The introduction to him in the story reveals that he is not a religious man. However, when he starts to possess it, he becomes very religious and requires his family to behave in the same way: his daughter has to cover her face, and the family has to pray five times a day. This reveals that the narrator thinks of the relic as powerful and magical.

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The attitude of the narrator towards the hair in this story seems to be that, while there may be some "magic" in the hair itself, it is ultimately people themselves who determine the effect it will have on them. The sardonic tone of the narrative does not privilege the hair as a holy relic but rather critiques the ways in which belief in the relic has caused people to act—often in a very unattractive way. We know that the hair does not inherently cause good luck, because, as the story reveals, the only people who benefit from touching the relic are those who had no idea what they were in contact with. Meanwhile, Hashim destroys himself through greed and his desire for the relic, an attitude which ultimately causes him to act in a deeply disrespectful way towards his religion, despite his purported belief in the power of the prophet as contained in this hair. The tone of the narrative leaves the reader in no doubt that this behavior was extremely foolish and that Hashim, not the hair, has caused his own destruction.

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The "story's attitude" is usually a reflection of the narrator's attitude, which is correctly called the tone of the story. First though, there are several interesting sources of attitude toward the religious relic, the Prophet's hair. The first is Hashim. He is a deceitful and hypocritical man, so when he expresses his attitude as being one of disinterest in the relic's religious value, we have no way to know if he is reliable or not. On one hand, he is greedy and the relic's setting is beautiful and of value. On the other hand, he immediately requires of his family that they read the Quran two hours daily and burns all other books in his library and insists on prayers five times daily. His children have attitudes of loathing and dread toward the relic. They each seek to hire a thief to take it. Huma even calls her family "the hair's victims."

The narrator's attitude, reveled in the tone, is an ironically sarcastic one. It seems the narrator's attitude is devoid of awe or fear of the relic itself, speaking of it in words with a humorous undertone. This undertone is exemplified by high diction (i.e., elaborate vocabulary and syntax) and by words that demonstrate a suggestion of disdain or exaggeration, as in this passage:

The thieves--no doubt alarmed by the pandemonium, by the procession through the streets of the endless undulating crocodiles of lamentation, by the riots, ... the massive police search ...had evidently panicked and hurled the phial into the gelatin bosom of the lake.

The vocabulary is sophisticated (e.g., procession, undulating, lamentation), the syntax elaborate, words and phrases reveal a hint of disdain or exaggeration: e.g., endless undulating crocodiles, pandemonium, gelatin bosom of the lake. All in all, it seems safe to say the "story's attitude," or narrator's tone, is ironic sarcasm suggesting a lack of deep felt respect.

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