The Road to Mecca

by Athol Fugard

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What does Helen's Mecca symbolize for her personal pilgrimage in The Road to Mecca?

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Helen's private Mecca symbolizes the light in the darkness of her lonely and isolated soul; it is the creative expression which gives life to her spirit.

Mecca, of course, is the birthplace of Mohammed. However, as a common noun, mecca has come to denote a center for any activity or interest. For Helen, then, her "road to Mecca" represents the place where her soul can express itself. When the Calvinistic minister, the Reverend Marius Byleveld, suggests that Miss Helen Martins retire to Sunshine old age home, she knows that her going to such a place will extinguish the lights of her creativity and destroy her soul as there she would be forced to dwell within the limits of an acceptable and rigid lifestyle without her lights and sculptures. This limited life she has already known as she was certainly discontent in her marriage to her now deceased husband.

 "I'm alone in the dark," she has written earlier in her letter to Elsa that prompts her friend to drive for eight hours to visit her. While she talks with Elsa before the arrival of Rev. Byleveld, Helen tells her friend, "If my Mecca is finished, Elsa, then so if my life." Further, she explains that her lighted room with mirrors and reflective glass that is a "miracle of light and color" as well as a delight to her friend Elsa, is the reason for her being alive. Without her sculptures and light, Helen feels that she is useless: 

[It is]the only reason I've got for being alive is my Mecca. Without that I'm nothing...a useless old woman getting on everybody's nerves... and that is exactly what I have started to feel like.

Further, during Elsa's visit, Helen tells her friend that when Elsa first came to her house, she revived Helen's life because afterwards, Helen was awake all night with visions of the statues she would create and she was motivated to work until all was finished. The candles and their light also have provided courage for Helen, just as they did when she was a girl and was frightened. 

Described by Elsa as the "first truly free spirit I've ever known," Helen delights in her sculptures that all face the East. "This is my world and I have banished darkness from it," she tells Elsa earlier in their friendship. Later, she informs Elsa that she has had to travel "the road to my Mecca" alone; she would have chosen no other way. For, her personal pilgrimage is the only real purpose her life has held. "If my Mecca is finished, Elsa, then so is my life." Still, she knows that she has been wrong to think that she could always banish darkness with candles and mirrors. For, the inner light for the soul comes with self-expression and fulfillment in life, a fulfillment that is enhanced by the appreciation of others.

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