Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi

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Woman at Point Zero Characters

The main characters in Woman at Point Zero are Nawal El Saadawi and Firdaus.

  • Nawal El Saadawi is a writer, psychiatrist, and women’s rights crusader who interviews Firdaus about the story of her life.
  • Firdaus is the protagonist of the novel. She has experienced a life of poverty and exploitation and has worked for most of her adult life as a high-class prostitute. During her interview with Nawal El Saadawi, Firdaus is in prison for the murder of her pimp. She is executed at the end of the book.

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Characters

Nawal El Saadawi

The author of Woman at Point Zero, Saadawi is a writer and psychiatrist whose latest research involves interviewing female inmates in the infamous Qanatir prison. As Saadawi conceives of both herself and Firdaus as real people and fictionalized characters in the novel, a duality is born that allows Saadawi a degree of creativity and freedom within the framework of the novel.

The contrast between Saadawi and Firdaus is evident from the start, as Saadawi is a respected scientist, writer, and scholar, while Firdaus is a former prostitute and a murderer. After hearing about Firdaus, Saadawi becomes consumed by a desire to interview her. Saadawi’s sense of inadequacy is born out of Firdaus’s apparent rejection of her and leads her to describe herself as “nothing but a small insect crawling upon the land amidst millions of other insects.” This metaphor situates Saadawi as base and parasitic and is an image closely tied to the hypercritical part of her mind that surfaces during times of loss or abandonment. This imagery also denies Saadawi’s individualism and pride in her intellectual prowess as a researcher, writer, and psychiatrist.

After Firdaus agrees to the interview, Saadawi’s feelings are transformed along with the environment around her, restoring her sense of self-worth. Yet the fictional Saadawi’s self-worth remains precarious, as she is again overwhelmed by feelings of failure after witnessing the injustice of Firdaus’s tale. Saadawi the author, in contrast to her fictional counterpart, was already a prominent women’s rights activist. While the fictional Saadawi’s reaction to the plight of Egyptian women is one of despair, the author Saadawi was able to utilize the power of literature to shine a light on the oppressive forces policing women’s lives in Egyptian society, in a bid to drive women to resistance. As Saadawi asserted later on in her career, words have the power to expose the most insidious parts of society, as “Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies.”

Firdaus

Firdaus is the protagonist and focal narrator of Woman at Point Zero, relaying the story of her life as a woman in Egyptian society before her imprisonment, as she sits in Qanatir prison facing the last moments of her life. Firdaus’s situation is reflected in the title of Saadawi’s novel: Firdaus is “at point zero,” as she will soon lose everything, including her life. This situation puts her in a unique position of experiencing a peace and tranquility of mind that allows her to tell the story of her story like a witness rather than an active agent.

Firdaus spends most of her life trying to attain freedom and respect, but the freedom she desires is constantly at odds with the systematic oppression of patriarchal society. From childhood, she learns that men will always have power over her, and she is often paralyzed by her lack of personal freedom, as most of her choices are made for her.

Firdaus arguably remains in prostitution until the end of her life because she understands that true independence is not possible for her. She comments toward the end of the novel that “All women are prostitutes,” and her own experience proves this to her. While working as an office assistant, she sees that women’s economic status is still dependent on sexually satisfying men.

The bleak ending of the novel, as Firdaus is led to her execution, appears to confirm that the patriarchal policies that govern...

(The entire section is 1,153 words.)