How does Mahfouz use surrealism and setting in "Half a Day" to convey his message?

Quick answer:

The speaker uses the surrealistic elements of setting and symbolic significance to create a strong sense of place and to develop the theme of coming-of-age through the use of both surrealism and symbolism.

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There is a clear indication of surrealism in this short story through the symbolic significance of the school that the speaker attends and how, in retrospect, we can see that the speaker actually is using it to refer to the "school" that life represents rather than an actual school. Consider the following quote and the way in which the author is very careful to use words that indicate life lessons rather than merely learning how to read and write:

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 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.

We can see that the "rivalries" that are referred to a clearly reminiscent of the rivalries of life and the punishments indicative of the way that mistakes can bring their own punishment upon us. Such descriptive detail suggests deeper meaning to this surrealist tale, as we, like the speaker, realise how the entire experience of the school of life can somehow be encapsulated in one day and that the young boy that enters the school one morning can leave it at the close of day an old man who does not remember where his home is. The theme of coming-of-age is thus focused on and developed.

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