The Road to Mecca

by Athol Fugard

Start Free Trial

What does Mecca symbolize for Helen in Athol Fugard's The Road to Mecca?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Beyond a spiritual journey, Helen's image of Mecca in Athol Fugard's play The Road to Mecca symbolizes Helen's freedom, freedom from the oppression she experienced growing up in a heavily religious village. While Marius, the church minister, visits with her in the second act, trying to get her to sign the papers admitting her to an assisted-living facility, Helen gives Marius a very long speech that reflects her past feelings of entrapment and newfound freedom.

One confession she makes to Marius is that she has realized her faith which "brought [her] to church every Sunday" was all a terrible lie (p. 65). She had realized that sitting next to her husband, Stefanus, year after year, listing to sermons, saying prayers, and singing hymns was actually meaningless to her; "they had all become just words" that lost their meaning over time, leaving her to feel completely empty inside and a prisoner of that emptiness (p. 65). She even dreaded facing Stefanus's death because, even though she never loved him, his death would leave her to face the emptiness of her own life. However, the night of his funeral, she actually experienced a revelation when Marius lit a candle for her after taking her home. The candle gave her the epiphany that her life can be filled with light if only she sheds all of the pretenses of believing in the Christian faith she had grown up to believe in. In shedding all of her pretenses, she found true freedom. Helen began expressing her freedom by filling her house with candles and creating sculptures that members of her church would call heathen, or in Marius's words, "idolatry" (p. 61).

Mecca is considered the holiest city of the Muslims, and Christians consider Muslims to be heathens. Hence, in creating a Mecca and in facing all of her statues towards Mecca, Helen is breaking away from the binds of her oppressive Christian upbringing in a rebellious way that frightens and infuriates her fellow villagers.

Even Elsa recognizes that Helen's Mecca is her expression of freedom. More importantly, she recognizes the village is frightened and jealous of Helen's freedom. Elsa expresses her realization to Marius in the following:

... [S]he did something which small minds and small souls can never forgive ... she dared to be different! Which does make you right about one thing, Dominee. Those statues out there are monsters. And they are that for the simple reason that they express Helen's freedom. Yes, I never thought it was a word you would like. I'm sure it ranks as a cardinal sin in these parts. A free woman! God forgive us! (p. 60-61)

Hence, as we can see, Helen's Mecca represents more than just a spiritual journey because she realized at some point she has no faith. Instead, Helen's Mecca represents newfound freedom from religious oppression and rebellion against such oppression.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Mecca and the concept of taking the road to Mecca are representative of a spiritual journey to Miss Helen.  Miss Helen's yard art and manipulation of light and dark with mirrors within her house is her way of traveling to her Mecca.  She is not taking an actual journey to a city in the middle east.  Mecca is symbolic for her.  It's the end goal of her spiritual travels.  What's a bit odd about her spiritual journey though is that it is not focused on attaining any sort of afterlife.  Miss Helen's goal, her Mecca, is daily spiritual comfort.  She is spiritually comforted by her artistic expressions, and she believes that through them she can keep some kind of spiritual evil away.  

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Discuss what Mecca symbolizes to Helen in the play.

For Helen, Mecca is a place created by her inspiration and her imagination. It is a place in which she finds spiritual fulfillment after she is liberated from a more traditional church—as a result of her husband's death fifteen years before the play begins. She seems to have been forced into a loveless marriage and compelled to attend religious services that felt, to her, like "a terrible, terrible lie." After her husband's death, she is set free; she can follow her inspiration. She says that the picture of her first sculpture came to her, and she "just had to go to work immediately while it was still fresh in [her] mind," and this is why she missed church that first Sunday. Following that day, Helen walked away from all the things that did not inspire her—her role as a widow, the church, a community of people who began to judge her—and moved toward what did: her art. For her, then, Mecca is the light that drove out the darkness that threatened to consume her. Instead of being consumed by darkness, she began to produce light, multiplying it again and again. When she describes Mecca, "she is radiantly alive with her vision." To describe her as "radiant" implies that she, herself, seems to produce light. Mecca, then, is freedom, creativity, and personal fulfillment.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Discuss what Mecca symbolizes to Helen in the play.

Helen has created her own Mecca—her elaborate sculpture garden—in this story, and it is symbolic of a few things. Helen enjoys making the sculptures. It is her way of coping, relaxing, and showing her own personal freedom. That freedom is a two part freedom. The first part is simply the fact that the sculpture garden is her way of expressing her own personal creativity; she sculpts what she likes and what she feels needs to be sculpted at that time. However, the entire garden is symbolic on a religious level as well. The entire garden is facing toward the East. It's facing the real Mecca. This doesn't mean that Helen has broken from the Christian church in her area to become a Muslim. It is symbolic of her break from the Christian church to follow her own personal desires. The garden is symbolic of artistic freedom, but it is also symbolic of Helen's religious freedom. Elsa does a nice job of explaining this to Marius at one point.

"Those statues out there are monsters. And they are that for the simple reason that they express Helen's freedom. Yes, I never thought it was a word you would like. I'm sure it ranks as a cardinal sin in these parts. A free woman! God forgive us!"

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Athol Fugard's play The Road to Mecca, Helen Martin does not physically travel to the geographical city of Mecca. Discuss what the image of "Mecca" symbolises for Helen. 

Miss Helen's "Mecca" symbolizes what it is that inspires her and her own independence. She began to create her Mecca when her husband died, some fifteen years prior to the start of the play, when she realized that both her marriage and her church were never what they were supposed to be. She neither loved her husband nor felt inspired by church services.

Miss Helen quickly learned that, as a result of her refusal to adopt the socially appropriate role as a meek, church-going widow, she would be ostracized by her community. When she chose, instead of fulfilling this unsatisfying role, to embrace her new independence, acting on her inspirational visions of animals and wise men, she began to find what truly does make her happy. She created her own place of inspiration and independence, and she, therefore, found a way to reach spiritual fulfillment, much to the confusion and chagrin of her neighbors.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Athol Fugard's play The Road to Mecca, Helen Martin does not physically travel to the geographical city of Mecca. Discuss what the image of "Mecca" symbolises for Helen. 

For Helen, Mecca symbolizes her own spirituality, the visible expression of her soul, and the lightening of her dark fears of aloneness and age.

Having been stifled in her marriage, Helen was unhappy and felt as though she were in the dark because she could give no expression to her soul and feel no comfort. But, after her husband dies, Helen finds meaning in her life through her artistic endeavors. But, now that she is older, she tells her friend Elisa,

[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.

Thus, the image of Mecca represents for Helen the spiritual comfort that arises from color and light and the creative expression of forming something as evidence of one's existence and vitality. Looking to Mecca returns to Helen an interest in life, making her feel productive, and truly vibrant in her acts of creation that are given meaning by standing in her yards.  It is this inner life which nourishes Helen and makes her feel fulfilled and happy. Her sculptures and statues are witnesses to Helen's creativity and soul.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Athol Fugard's play The Road to Mecca, Helen Martins does not physically travel to the geographical city of Mecca. Discuss what the image of Helen's Mecca symbolises for Helen.

For Helen, the Mecca that she has built in her yard and within her home symbolizes freedom. When she was married to her husband, Stefanus, she felt that "it was all a terrible, terrible lie." She admits that she never loved him, and that her

black widowhood [after his death] was really for [her] own life [...]. While Stefanus was alive there had at least been some pretense at it . . . of a life [she] hadn't lived. But with him gone . . .

After his death, she began to feel the light of inspiration, as she was called to create her statues, and her life "started to get brighter and brighter" when she responded to these callings and stopped going to church. Helen created a world for herself where she does not depend on the opinions of other people, where she can do what she wants because it has meaning to her, regardless of what others think should be meaningful. She tells Marius, the pastor,

This is my world and I have banished darkness from it.

All of her statues face east, toward the real Mecca, in the direction where the sun rises each morning, and so the symbolism of a new lightness in Helen's life lines up with the light of the life-giving sun. Marius sees Helen's sculptures as a "nightmare," but to Helen, they are an "expression of freedom": from social rules and from others' expectations. Helen wasn't free when she played the dutiful wife to a man she didn't love and attended a church where she did not feel inspired and uplifted. And, as Elsa says,

That stopped fifteen years ago when she didn't resign herself to being the meek, churchgoing little widow [everyone] expected her to be. Instead she did something which small minds and small souls can never forgive . . . she dared to be different!

Elsa is not surprised that the statues seem monstrous to the pastor because "they express Helen's freedom," something which she feels probably "ranks as a cardinal sin in these parts."

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Athol Fugard's play The Road to Mecca, Helen Martins does not physically travel to the geographical city of Mecca. Discuss what the image of Helen's Mecca symbolises for Helen.

The image of her Mecca symbolized her opportunity to continue her life without her husband and the ability to fill the void that had been with her throughout her life. She filled up her house with light, art and cement sculptures in her garden in an attempt to create her Mecca. Helen understood that she was unable to effectively take care of herself but at the same time she did not want to go to a home for the aged. According to her, by refusing to go to the home she was in turn holding on to her creativity and life. Her Mecca also symbolized her desire for freedom, light and the need to sustain her faculties. These were the reasons she gave to the pastor who felt that Helen had alienated herself from her previous Christian values.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on