The Use of Descriptive and Figurative Language in ''Halfa Day"

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1431

Mahfouz makes skillful use of language in this concise, economic story. Describing the narrator's journey from home to the gates of the schoolyard, Mahfouz takes advantage of both descriptive and figurative language to convey the anxiety of the young boy on his first day of school.

Rich, descriptive language is used to describe the positive elements of the little boy's experience on this momentous day. His new clothes are described with a child's attention to color: ‘‘All my clothes were new: the black shoes, the green uniform, the red tarboosh.’’

When he first sets out with his father, his surroundings are described as if they were a lush and abundant paradise: "We walked along a street lined with gardens; on both sides were extensive fields planted with crops, prickly pears, henna trees, and a few date palms.''

By contrast, the little boy's apprehension about being taken to school is conveyed through language that evokes images of punishment, confinement, military discipline, and industrial labor. The first indication of his anxiety is expressed through a description of the first day of school as "the day on which I was to be cast into school for the first time.'' The phrasing to "cast" something away is more often used to describe the shedding or throwing out of something undesirable. The narrator thus feels that his parents are treating him as an undesirable person whom they wish to "cast'' into the school in order to rid themselves of him.

Even when his father protests that school is not a "punishment,’’ he describes it in terms that sound equally undesirable: ‘‘It's a factory that makes useful men out of boys.’’ This image suggests still more negative connotations; if school is a "factory, '' then the boy himself is being treated as no more than a mass of raw material to be "processed'' into manhood through methods of industrial labor, hardly an appealing image of the process of growing up.

The narrator's description of what is being done to him accumulates still more negative connotations: "I did not believe there was really any good to be had in tearing me away from the intimacy of my home and throwing me into this building that stood at the end of the road like some huge, high-walled fortress, exceedingly stern and grim.’’

He describes the process of leaving home as "tearing'' him away from it, a word that suggests violence and rupture. Furthermore, he perceives that he is being "thrown'' into the school building, an image which picks up on the term "cast," used earlier, to describe the experience as if he were an undesirable object being violently "thrown" away by his parents.

The school is then described as ‘‘some huge, high-walled fortress.'' The image of a fortress suggests a warlike atmosphere, and evokes images of a building that is heavily guarded against anyone who wishes to escape from it. This image further builds on the child's fear that he is being "punished," for the fortress sounds something like a guarded prison.

When they arrive at the gate to the courtyard, the little boy perceives that it is "vast and crammed full of boys and girls.’’ The word "cram" implies both that they have been violently shoved together and that they occupy a physically uncomfortable space.

Once he enters the schoolyard, the child's sense of disorientation and confusion at his new surroundings are expressed through figurative language, for he first feels ‘‘like a stranger who had lost my way.’’ The first child who speaks to him only confirms the narrator's sense that school is an ominous place;"my father's dead,'' the boy tells him.

This line has strong implications for the rest of the story. First, the fact that this child's father is literally dead functions as an external expression of the narrator's feeling that his father has abandoned him completely, as if he were dead.

Furthermore, the death of the narrator's father is foreshadowed. When, at the end of the allegorical ‘‘half day’’—meaning the end of the narrator's life—he leaves the gates of the schoolyard, his father is not there. By this point in the story, the narrator is an old man and it can be assumed that his father is not there to help him across the street because his father has indeed been long dead.

The mention of death also functions as a foreshadowing of his death. By the end of the "day," the narrator is an old man, and very close to the end of his life. In allegorical terms, when this story is read as a description of life and the human condition, it is a reminder that death is already lurking. Everyone who is born must eventually die.

The narrator's sense of distress at been"pushed'' into the schoolyard and abandoned by his father is further expressed through use of descriptive language. He mentions that ‘‘the gate was closed, letting out a pitiable screech.'' The"pitiable screech'' of the gate sounds like a description of a child crying.

Indeed, ''some of the children burst into tears.'' The earlier description of the school as a "fortress'' is echoed in the military style by which the children are organized, as ‘‘the men began sorting us into ranks.’’ This military imagery evokes associations of discipline, strict authority, violence and an unshakable structure of power.

The child's sense that he is at the bottom of a hierarchical structure and that he stands under the eye of an all-knowing and unforgiving authority is expressed through his description of the architecture of the school itself, as well as the physical location of the children in that architecture: ''We were formed into an intricate pattern in the great courtyard surrounded on three sides by high buildings of several floors; from each floor we were overlooked by a long balcony roofed in wood.’’

The key term in this description is ‘‘overlooked’’; although the narrator does not indicate actual people in the balconies who overlook the children, the implication is that authority lurks in every nook and cranny of the school, whether it is seen or not. A feeling of being overlooked by unseen eyes carries ominous undertones, for the threat of discipline and punishment hangs upon the vision of absolute authority.

Finally, the children give in to their powerlessness over their situation: ‘‘We submitted to the facts, and this submission brought a sort of contentment.’’ The use of the word "submission" confirms the previous implications that this is a place where one has no free will over the powers that be, and that the only way to achieve "a sort of contentment’’ is to ‘‘submit to the facts,’’ to give in to the will of the authorities.

Once the narrator has overcome his initial anxiety, the language that evokes images of punishment, discipline, and imprisonment disappears. He describes a rich variety of experiences in the school that culminate in the line: ''We ate delicious food, took a little nap, and woke up to go on with friendship and love, play and learning.’’

However, these positive experiences inside the school are tempered by negative ones. The "lady,'' who is the schoolteacher often resorts to physical punishment. So the child's initial apprehension that school is a place of punishment is in part confirmed by his actual experience.

Furthermore, the sense of being stuck in the school remains since "the time for changing one's mind was over and gone.’’ Here, the opening imagery describing the neighborhood of the boy's family as a paradise is echoed once again: "there was no question of ever returning to the paradise of home.’’ The use of the term "cast" to describe the boy's experience of being forced to leave his home is given greater depth, as the children have all been cast out of the paradise of their own homes.

Here the story's allegorical implications become more apparent, for Mahfouz suggests that the experience of life, the human condition, is that of being cast out of a paradise of early childhood into a harsh world of struggle and pain, tempered by moments of love and joy. ‘‘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 implication is that, like the children who "submit" to their imprisonment in the school, human beings must "submit" to the conditions of life, and make the best of it"amid the worries."

Source: Liz Brent, for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000.

Time in "Half a Day"

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1607

‘‘Half a Day,’’ included in his 1989 collection of short fiction The False Dawn, is one of Naguib Mahfouz's final works. It was written toward the end of his long and successful writing career, which spanned much of the twentieth century. In his fiction, both novels and short stories, Mahfouz chronicled the significant political, social, and cultural changes Egypt had experienced during his lifetime, such as the rebellion against the British colonizers and the loosening of restrictions on women. Mahfouz's work often concerns itself with overarching moral and spiritual themes told through the experiences of very real people. His short stories differ from his novels in their immediate impact on the reader. As Mahfouz once said, he extensively researched his novels, but his ‘‘short stories come straight from the heart.’’

In "Half a Day''—which derives its style from the ‘‘sudden fiction,’’ or short short stories, that a younger generation of Egyptian writers began producing in the 1970s—Mahfouz encompasses a vast span of time. He is able to do so by using the literary device of a young boy attending school for the first time who emerges at the end of the school day an old man. The half day, from sunup to sunset, represents almost an entire lifetime. The narrator in the story conflates mnemonic time—time pertaining to the memory—and spatial time, blending the passage of his life into one brief period. While the story demonstrates how quickly time can pass, it also functions on a larger level, focusing on Egypt as a place of transition instead of on only the aging of one man. Ahmad Muhammad 'Atiyya writes in his article "Naguib Mahfouz and the Short Story'' that "the short story is certainly the art of the partial, the individual and the simple, through which we are led to totalities and generalities.’’ In ‘‘Half a Day’’, with only a few carefully chosen words, Mahfouz evokes the changes that Egypt has undergone throughout the course of the twentieth century.

The story is told from the point of view of a young boy who takes "delight'' in his surroundings but is fearful of being "cast into'' his first day of school. The physical scene that the narrator describes is idyllic; his clothes are new and colorful, and he walks hand in hand with his father "along a street lined with gardens.'' The street is surrounded by fields filled with growing crops, themselves symbolic of the regeneration and vitality of life. The prickly pears and henna trees appeal to the senses as well, and contribute to the completeness of the boy's experience growing up in this pleasant suburb of Cairo.

The boy, however, does not want to go to school. He unfavorably compares the "intimacy" of home, where his mother watches for him at the window, with the "building that stood at the end of the road like some huge, high-walled fortress, exceedingly stern and grim.'' The boy's father understands the magnitude of this day, though his son does not; he knows that this is the first step made by his son toward becoming a productive citizen, as he enters the '‘‘factory that makes useful men out of boys.''' More optimistically, the father also tells his son, '‘‘Today you truly begin life,'’’ for the boy is about to begin to learn about the world.

The boy soon comes to embrace his schooling and the intellectual, social, and spiritual growth that comes with it. Indeed, the next paragraphs reveal the development of the boy into an adult. He experiences friendship and love, and learns how to play and how to think. His transition from innocent and naive child, one who enjoys "delicious food'' and ‘‘first songs,’’ into a more knowledgeable adolescent takes place. The boy learns to be "watchful, at the ready, and very patient.’’ More importantly, he comes to understand that life "was not all a matter of playing and fooling around.’’ He also discovers that life can bring hardship and discomfort, as epitomized by the teacher's scolding and more frequent reliance on physical punishment. He is undergoing the process of maturation, learning to work and wait for what he wants, but accepting the difficulties and the setbacks that come with life.

Further evidence of the boy's ascent to adulthood is his understanding that "there was no question of ever returning to the paradise of home.'' The grown boy now has responsibilities, which preclude the utter bliss and carefreeness of youth. The narrator does not long for the comforts of childhood, but sets himself to the challenges of adulthood, realizing that ‘‘[N]othing lay ahead of us but exertion, struggle, and perseverance.’’ The narrator knows that some of his contemporaries manage to build contented lives for themselves, for they "took advantage of the opportunities for success and happiness,’’ but whether or not he achieves happiness with his own life is not clear.

The ringing of the bell "announcing the passing of the day and the end of work'' symbolizes the transformation of the narrator into an old man. Instead of tolling the end of the day at school, the bell signifies the end of the narrator's participation in the world of adult work. It is at this moment that the narrator re-enters the outside world—that is, the world not consumed by the duties required of productive citizens, whether it is school or employment; he experiences a great shock. He sees the change that has overtaken the landscape of Cairo. The streets are lined with automobiles and trash, and land that once was fields is now ''taken over'' with skyscrapers. The narrator also finds the street filled with "hordes of humanity'' instead of individuals. Among those who inhabit the world of Cairo are conjurers, tricksters, and clowns. The negative slant with which the narrator views his surroundings is apparent as he clearly evokes a chaotic street scene, filled with sirens wailing,"disturbing noises,’’ and angry people. The narrator's disgust with what he sees is further evidenced by his words when he sees a fire engine attempting to reach a blazing fire: '"Let the fire take its pleasure in what it consumes.'''

The final paragraph of the story indicates the changes that Cairo has undergone. The beginning of the story certainly takes place prior to the 1950s (and probably earlier), which was when Egypt achieved complete freedom from British domination. This time period is indicated by the reference to the red tarboosh that the boy wears, a hat that was banned by the government of the new republic. By the end of the story, many decades have passed, during which time Egypt, and particularly Cairo as its largest urban center, underwent enormous change. Egypt became industrialized and experienced all of the problems that go along with industrialization, such as overcrowding in the cities and pollution. Mahfouz saw firsthand the effects—both positive and negative—of the move toward modernization. At the age of 12, Mahfouz moved to a suburb of Cairo known as Abbasiyya, which he later described as "lush with greenery and had few building. Houses were small, consisting only of one storey and each surrounded by a garden, while open fields stretched as far as the horizon... and the silence was deep.'’’ In ‘‘Half a Day,’’ Mahfouz expresses his nostalgia for the old quarters of Cairo, in the days before industrialization. A comparison of Mahfouz's perception of the Abbasiyya of the 1920s with his representation of the neighborhood of the narrator's youth in ‘‘Half a Day’’ shows remarkable similarities between the two; and Abbasiyya certainly compares favorably to the chaos that comes to inhabit the area.

As the location transforms, so does the narrator, but the full extent of his aging is not revealed until the last line of the story. Unable to get across the busy street, the narrator waits a long time. Finally, a boy comes up to him and offers his arm along with these words: '‘‘Grandpa, let me take you across.'’’ With this gesture, the narration makes clear the unrelentless quality of life, which forces people and places to change. This narrative twist also returns the text full circle: the story begins with a young boy clutching tight his father's hand, about to be taken to a new and unknown place where he is not eager to go; the story ends with the old man about to grab hold of a young lad's arm so the boy can take him to what has become a strange place—modern Cairo.

Against this cyclical nature of life, the young lad can also be seen as symbolic of death—as the being that will usher the old man to the next stage of existence. The young lad, like the boy's father, is taking the narrator to a new place against his will. The narrator's death is foreshadowed in the two encounters he has with other male figures. One is the boy he meets at school whose father is dead. Then, upon leaving school, the narrator encounters an acquaintance, a middle-aged man who is instantly recognizable to the narrator. The man answers the question of how he is doing with the words, '"not all that good.’'’ In this response, the narrator's death is symbolically foretold. The aging of the man's corporeal body is also reflected in the run-down state in which he finds the streets of Cairo. While the narrator's eventual death is a foregone conclusion, these elements further reinforce the inevitable cycle of birth and death—the cycle of change.

Source: Rena Korb, for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000.

Allegories in "Half a Day"

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1785

‘‘Half a Day’’ is an allegory in which a child's experiences at school symbolize a typical person's experiences of coming of age and maturation. This allegory is achieved through a multiplication and overlapping of"times.'' That is, the boy's narration suggests more than one unit of time (some obvious units or concepts of measure are: one minute, childhood, one light year, an average human life-span, a millennium, and so forth).

The narration about the school day engages four different times. First, it is understood to cover a school day, that is, almost the whole of the titular "half a day.’’ Second, it can be taken to encompass a youth's entire scholastic experience and, therefore, a temporal unit of roughly twelve years (the boy's description of his school day is presented in grammatical tenses that convey the passing of many years' observations, many of which specifically pertain to a person's combined years at school). Third, since the narrator meets a "middle-aged" friend upon leaving the school that day, his description also encompasses the "time" of childhood to full maturity or middle-age, which is a temporal unit of roughly forty years. Fourth, insofar as most everybody on this earth comes of age and then matures, this tale encompasses universal time (i.e. the time of global humankind). It is everybody's story. Thus, the progress of a human being from youth to middle-age is conveyed through a skillful rendering of (almost) half a day, in which (at least) four different"times'' are cleverly overlapped and interwoven.

Yet, there is also that part of"Half a Day'' that occurs after the boy leaves the school. In this "after school’’ portion of the story, the middle-aged man becomes a "Grandpa" whom a young man ‘‘gallantly" offers to escort across a busy street. Coming of age and maturation correspond to the time spent at school, and this second part of the story covers aging or growing old. This latter section also purveys the following idea: that when the boy was in school (for those forty years), a seemingly rural and rather bucolic world of "gardens," "extensive fields planted with crops’’ and other flora, mutated into a strange, mechanized, foreign world. This new world causes the now middle-aged narrator to come "to a startled halt'' outside of the gates of the school:

Good Lord! 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.

The "disturbing" nature of this new world is perhaps best symbolized in the man's alarmed focusing on the fire engine's wail, which to him is like a shriek: ‘‘The siren of a fire engine shrieked,’’ the reader is informed; and then again: ‘‘The fire engine' s siren was shrieking at full pitch as it moved at a snail's pace...’’.

This second part of ‘‘Half a Day’’ adds some complexity to this allegory of life and maturation. Clearly, there is at least one additional level of meaning to take into account; namely, that the maturation of this character coincides with the urbanization and industrialization of his surroundings. While this boy has been growing up, his surroundings have moved from being largely rural (‘‘gardens’’ and ‘‘fields’’), to being those of a typical late-twentieth-century big city (‘‘vehicles,’’ "refuse," "hordes of humanity,’’ and so on).

One thing to be said about this is that it adds a possible autobiographical dimension to the story. While Egypt may have begun to accommodate the technologies of heavy industry in the nineteenth century like most other nations, significant levels of industrialization did not occur in this country until the mid to late twentieth-century. As Naguib Mahfouz came of age and matured, so Egyptian metropolitan centers industrialized. Mahfouz is from Cairo; Cairo is Egypt's most urbanized area; Mahfouz's life-span coincides with Egypt's urbanization and industrialization.

An easy conclusion to come to, with the above in mind (but a far too hasty and incorrect conclusion), would be that the story recounts Egypt's ‘‘coming of age,’’ or its belated "modernization" on the heels of its already more industrially technologized global neighbors. The problem with such a conclusion is that it leaves a number of narrative details unaccounted for. For instance, why does this process of urbanization occur as a separate history? In other words, why is this process of mechanization depicted as occurring entirely separate from the story of the boy's coming of age and to maturity? Why does it occur in the second part of the story, in the "after school'' and "growing old'' portion? There is no mistaking, after all, the effect of having the character stop short in shock, upon leaving the school's gates, at the sight of the noisy and crowded scene before him."Half a Day," in no uncertain terms, is cleaved into two separate parts. In a story whose first part is a bravura meshing of disparate "times" (four, no less), why not the interweaving of one more, the time or history of industrialization? Yet, this process is very carefully set apart from the phase of maturation and is instead intertwined with the time of the man growing older. Clearly, urbanization in ‘‘Half a Day’’ does not pertain to coming of age or maturation, but, rather, to aging or becoming older.

A reasonable interpretation of this distinction follows from deciding that while the boy-becoming-adult in the first part of the story stands in for all of humanity, the old man in the second part stands in only for Egypt. In this light, the story has two parts so as to separate Egyptian time from global, universal time. There are, therefore, two allegories to consider: one of significance to humans in general, and another which pertains to industrialization and societies in which the particular society in question is Egypt. What this leads one to realize is that the meeting of old and young at the story's end is, in an allegorical nutshell, the story's model for Egypt in terms of its long history and its metropolitan centers in their newly urbanized guise.

The man in the second part of the story is old already, and growing older. If one considers the long stretch of Egyptian history, industrialization would not signify, as it is tends to mean in the west, the latest major signpost on a road of continuous progress over time. It would present itself, rather, as the latest culture in a long history of different cultures, or the latest way of organizing life in a long series of different regimes and societies. The territory now hosting the United Arab Republic of Egypt, already had, as far back as 3500 B.C., a society and culture as complexly organized and bureaucratical-ly networked as any today. Moreover, after the age of the pharaohs, a number of other cultures and empires flourished on the very same soil— Mesopotamian, Roman, and Greek cultures, for example. In terms of different civilizations, cultures, or ways of life, Egypt is terribly old indeed. And, so, the old man sniffs in tired disdain, feeling, merely, ‘‘[e]xtremely irritated": "Let the fire take its pleasure in what it consumes.’’ Far from being bowled over by the advent of vehicles and other such inventions, the old man tends to notice how this machine of speed and efficiency can only proceed at a ‘‘snail's pace’’ in the clogged city space. The noise and smoke that accompany urbanization and industrialization could not possibly connote, the story pointedly makes clear, coming of age or absolute progress within the context of Egyptian history. It entails, rather, the inventions and ways of life of the new cultural kid on the block—old man (Egypt) meets young (heavy industry, urbanization). "Half a Day,'' in this way, reflects Mahfouz' s most recent stance toward societal changes in Egypt. Whereas he long has been known as one to embrace all varieties of change, by the time of the writing of this story, he has begun to express selective reservations about certain types of change.

By now, six possible timescapes have been entertained: a school day; a scholastic tenure; maturation; universal time; twentieth-century metropolitan Egyptian history; and, lastly, deep Egyptian time. There are at least two more "times" worth considering in this story, and they are especially felt upon reading the story's final sentence: ‘‘Grandpa, let me take you across.’’ With this, the reader is suddenly imbued with a sense of the terrible brevity of a human being's life-span. The protagonist has not simply aged, his life seems almost to be over! This, when but a few hundred words before this enfeebled old creature was a fresh little boy! The surprise of this final line makes the reader feel that the human life-span is an abbreviated and paltry thing. This last frame of time is that of the vast cosmos itself. And in this timescape, the life of human beings and the march of different civilizations seem petty, brief little events indeed.

And, finally, this story's amazing compression of time passing can be understood to be a representation of the way in which human psychology experiences the passage of time. Mahfouz, certainly, was greatly impressed, during his years of literary apprenticeship, by various writers and thinkers who were exploring the vagaries of memory and temporality. Why is it, they ask, that some moments seem like an age, but sitting down and trying to remember one's childhood makes one feel as if the years lasted no more than a few minutes? The regularly ticking time of clock and calendar means very little in respect to human psychology and emotion, they averr. Or, some propose, is not the passage of time more fully felt—and the past even recaptured—if one's memory of it is vast and faithful? One of the most famous books that explores memory, and which influenced Mahfouz, was written by a Frenchman named Marcel Proust. Its title, once translated from the French, tends to be either The Past Recaptured or else Remembrance of Things Past. It is a hugely long book, in three volumes, in which the main character remembers his whole life and society in great and minute detail. In this light, Mahfouz's tale of accelerated time signifies how most people feel about time passing. That is, unless one makes a prodigious effort to re-live and remember the past, one will feel, on the whole, that ‘‘time flies.’’

Source: Carol Dell'Amico, for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000. Carol

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Critical Overview