Themes and Meanings

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When ordinary distinctions between appearance and reality seem to founder on semantic confusion, and any dealings with others appear to be fraught with misunderstandings, basic problems of human relations seem cast in high relief. Each of the characters has a specific and distinctive point of view which seems grounded in certain presumptions that limit or indeed exclude any comprehension of different situations—even where the interpretation of ostensibly mundane facts is concerned. Bihana and Bahadir Efendi, in particular, do not carry on conversations so much as they engage in tangential discourses in which certain images or thoughts may coincide. When the same sounds or colors may call to mind the wife’s missing daughter or the husband’s tree, there will be a temporary conjunction of ideas which then will cause one or the other to embark on a fixed course.

As the extent to which their own preoccupations have affected relations with each other becomes clear, it may be observed as well that each has become devoted to some imagined or anthropomorphic being—whether a garden-dwelling lizard or a child who was never born—that has displaced the wife’s attentions toward the husband and the husband’s regard for the wife. In encounters of another sort, once the detective has become convinced that any disappearance means murder, his questions of the accused man seem to lead ineluctably to this conclusion, until the husband, to prevent any digging around his beloved tree, maintains first that Bihana has not been buried there and then that he has not actually killed her. The detective protests that there is a lack of understanding between them, whereupon the husband contends that they share no mutual understanding about understanding. Similarly, many of the wife’s statements appear to be internally consistent (at least until the end), but what she says cannot be reconciled with the preconceived notions that others have formed. Reasoning sometimes seems to proceed backward from premises that may be plausible to some but are seriously mistaken to others.

For that matter, the reader or playgoer is not necessarily much better informed; during the initial investigations, there is from the standpoint of the audience little to distinguish one supposition from another, and some queries remain unanswered throughout. It never is determined where Bihana actually was during the three days of her disappearance, and other matters remain no less murky for viewers or readers than they are for actual participants in the drama. At the end, it is by no means clear what has happened to the wife’s body, if indeed she even was killed once and for all. Although Tawfiq al-Hakim does not really advance any form of outright solipsism, the notion that facts and perceptions cannot be distinguished from the subjective bases of knowledge and ideas is raised implicitly throughout this work. The question of whether logical reasoning also follows a course which is specific to each individual is also considered. In another light, it is hinted that words and objects may be confounded; by referring to some person or some entity in a certain way, habits of speech eventually seem to impose certain qualities and attributes upon the referent. In an extreme form, through this transposition of functions, it may appear that speaking of an object may call it into being; some of the dervish’s sleight of hand seems to be accomplished in this way, and indeed the entry and disappearance of certain characters appear to follow particular invocations of their names.

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Characters