What is your interpretation of The Lawsuit by Naguib Mahfouz?
What is the significance of "the law" in this story? What does "the law" represent? What effect does the title have on the story and the plot?
Naguib Mahfouz's short story The Lawsuit has elements that are both universal and that are unique to the Egyptian culture from which it springs. Told through the first-person perspective of the narrator, The Lawsuit is the story of a family that finds itself on the opposite side of a legal dispute from the much younger second wife of the family patriarch. As is common in such situations in many cultures, conflict arises out of the competing claims of the father's natural family (in effect, his children by his first wife) and those of the second wife, who seeks to secure any inheritance for herself. When the narrator's father surprises his family, including the woman to whom he is already married and with whom he has raised the narrator and his siblings, with the arrival of a beautiful young woman to whom he has become married (the Western reader has to remember that the story takes place in Egypt, an Islamic country; in many interpretations of Islam, a man can have as many as four wives), the family is aghast. The narrator describes his mother, the now-disgraced matriarch of this clan, as reacting to this unwelcome development by lamenting, "What a catastrophe! We'll end up without a bean."
The story begins in the present day, when the father has passed away and the young wife is now older and economically destitute. She is suing her late-husband's surviving family members for some sort of financial support, something akin to alimony. The younger wife has, since the father's death, been married and divorced a number of times, primarily because of her inability to become pregnant. The sight of this broken, despondent woman softens the narrator's heart in spite of himself. He had harbored great bitterness towards her, but sees now only a pathetic victim of circumstance. As he observes this once beautiful female, he notes,
"[s]he was fat, excessively and unacceptably so, and the charming freshness had leaked away from her face. What little beauty was left seemed insipid. A veneer of perpetual dejection acted like a screen between her and other people."
Confronting the narrator in court, she apologizes for the lawsuit, but concedes that she has no other choice given her financial situation.
Mahfouz's story is about mercy and compassion more than it is about law. The woman has brought suit against her late-husband's family because she views it as the only viable option she has. The truth of judicial systems in countries throughout the Near East and South Asia, however, is that such an individual would stand little chance of succeeding in a lawsuit. Such is the conservatism of many judges throughout the Islamic world that women are left destitute at the whims of men, who can easily divorce under Islamic law.
"The law" represents justice. That is its entire basis: to protect the citizenry from each other and against government but, as many recognize, the enforcement or application of law is not always just, especially in more ancient societies with little or no experience with democratic government. The significance of "the law" in Mahfouz's story, then, is that it represents the woman's sole recourse in her pursuit of financial assistance, but the reality remains that this recourse is unlikely to succeed as a result of her gender.
The effect of the title of the story -- The Lawsuit -- on the narrative and the plot is ironic. The story opens in the courtroom, and there it also ends. In between, however, The Lawsuit is about the disruptive influence of the father's second marriage on his existing family. The lawsuit itself is of minimal relevance or importance to the plot. Indeed, the title's main significance lies in the irony of its reference to legal processes in a story in which such processes do not actually occur. The tragedy lies in the "fact" that this woman will not prevail in her course of action. That tragedy also lies in the probability that neither did she deserve to prevail -- at least not at the expense of the narrator.