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Seraglio: An analysis

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 3113 words Published: 1st May 2017

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‘Seraglio’ centers on a fundamental mystery: the complexities of a husband and wife’s relationship. The barrier that they experience between them is further emphasized through being from two different cultures, which is portrayed as almost being from two different worlds, ‘close but not touching, like two continents, each with its own customs and history, between which there is no bridge.’ It is evident that Swift sets this barrier from the start as his interesting choice of title refers to a room where the women are kept secluded from the men.

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The narration is in first person singular and is enhanced by the main protagonist – the husband. The exotic setting which the characters are indulged in, contrasts deeply with the dark events that have the taken place in their lives; the husband’s affair, his wife’s miscarriage, the misfortune of not being able to have children in the future and the ways in which they try to mentally escape from these woes. Cosmic irony is common in Swift’s work as his characters are hardly ever happy, and when they are, the feeling is almost alien to them.

‘Seraglio’ seems to defy the common story structure as there is no solution to the predicaments the characters face. The husband as a flat character means he has no function other than to provide us with the narrative, which is useful to us as readers when interpreting the essentials of the story.

Swift’s preservation of names and detail of the characters lives evokes further curiosity in the reader, proposing a desire for us to learn more about the characters. In comparison, if we look at swift himself, the Telegraph states ‘No contemporary author is such a closed book’, indicating that his characters may be mirroring himself. In contrast to the lack in detail of the characters, Swift is quite descriptive when illustrating the city, possibly to indulge the reader’s attention further into the story.

When it comes to the husband’s personal life such as his current marriage, he makes more use of narrative passages, leaving the reader to dig in further for clues about the couple. It is as if Swift uses these narrative passages as a device for the author to piece certain things together, including the sensitivity of the couple’s relationship and the feelings associated.

In ‘A Family Man’, Pritchett narrates in third person whilst introducing to us the main protagonist Berenice, a woman who is involved in a ‘piquant’ affair with William Cork. We sense that it is on the verge of being discovered when Florence (Mrs. Cork) enters the story, ‘a large ponderous woman’ who immediately grips the reader’s attention due to this presentation of her. Initially, the reader is drawn to her size, but later it is who she really is that keeps us drawn to her further. Pritchett also injects curiosity into the story when describing how one character is towards the other, in this case, Berenice with Florence as the reader is stepping into her shoes and experiencing what she feels and how she reacts. The author uses her as a tool to aid us in interpreting this, as we are placed only in her shoes. Pritchett makes this easier for us as we read of Berenice’s character from a third person limited point of view.

The tension is soon created when Florence reveals herself to be Mrs. Cork, the wife of William Cork, and continues to mount throughout the story as we observe how the two characters react with each other. Pritchett presents to us the two women meeting for the first time, at first humble towards each other but eventually confrontational, ‘Is that what he has been stuffing you up with? I know what you and he are up to.’

Florence is indefinite about the affair, however the reader knows completely well that it occurred, indicating elements of dramatic irony within the story. However, we are also left in the dark as much as Florence is when it comes to knowing the precise details of the affair (for example when it started), creating further suspense and mystery.

Berenice is a dynamic character, in that she lies to Florence and changes her story to get around the difficult situation she finds herself in. We see another side to her, especially as Pritchett states in the beginning, ‘She had been brought up by Quakers and thought it wrong to tell or act a lie.’ This affirmation completely contradicts what she does later, creating a complex in her character. She encounters conflict and transforms as a result of it.

On the other hand, Florence serves as a flat character as there are no multidimensional traits in her personality. Also, she is readily recognized as the adulterer’s wife, making her a stock character. Evidently, Prichett may have placed her there to bring out the multidimensional traits in Benerice.

The other flat character in the story is Mrs. Brewster, who’s involvement in the novel is minimal, but her importance is great. It is through her words that we view (for the first time) another outlook on Benerice.

After thinking Benerice would have learnt her lesson in regard to nearly getting caught by Mrs. Cork, Benerice visits another couple and we see elements of a flirty nature through Mrs. Brewster’s view of her, ‘She ought to get married…I wish she wouldn’t swoosh her hair around like that.’ Through this ironic ending, Pritchett is almost alluding to a possible recurrence of another affair with a married man (Mrs. Brewster’s husband?), which presents the reader with a whole new series of events to look forward to.

‘The Prophets Hair’ portrays a family from the valley of Kashmir who are broken by a strand of the Muslim prophet Mohammed’s hair. This story is full of overtones, regarding the effects of religion on others, and the way in which corruption is associated with money. Ultimately, Rushdie highlights two strong forces within our society: money and religion, and how they conflict with each other. In the end, the hair itself raises this point through the way it affects each character; the materialistic Hashim & family and Sheikh Sin the thief who craves jewels, who all perish eventually.

The opening of the story is filled with overtones of religion and money, which are emphasized from the start as we learn that Hashim is a ‘money-lender’ and ‘not a godly man.’ From the beginning we are informed that Hashim sees value in nothing else but money. Also, on discovering the religious trinket, Hashim immediately thinks of ‘American millionaires who buy stolen paintings and hide them away’, which may suggest one of his thought processes of wanting to sell the phial in future.

Hashim is a dynamic character and Rushdie demonstrates extreme contrasts and complexities in his character: the protagonist starts off as an atheist then transforms into (what he thinks) a deeply religious individual (even though he continues to beat others and has sinned to his wife), imposing strict religious acts onto his family. His character also becomes dislikeable to the audience after the effects of the Prophets hair. On discovering the find, he does not do the honorable thing of returning it to the shine. The reader expects this as we learnt in the beginning that ‘he set great store by ‘living honorably in the world’, however, his actions were not honorable and resemble that of a thief.

In contrast to Hashim, Atta is a flat character in that he does not undergo any change throughout the course of the story. Rushdie may have used him as a device to enhance the plot as he is at one point involved in removing the religious trinket from the home, and also represents the family’s wealth in the opening scene. He also wakes up Hashim in the end, causing a series of unfortunate events to unfold.
Huma is one of the main protagonists alongside her father, who also enhances the plot (perhaps more than Atta) as she introduces Sheikh Sin to the situation. She evokes pathos in the reader, and we can empathize with her more than Atta, as she is victimized by her father for no reason, whereas in the beginning Atta lands himself in trouble when looking for a thief, which the reader may interpret as foolish behavior.

Other round characters include Sheikh Sin and his wife. She is a round character as she evokes interest in the reader in regards to how she got her vision back when her husband was killed.
Rushdie’s use of symbolism is extensive throughout the story. I believe the religious trinket may symbolize the two elements of corruption involved in our society, folded into one. The phial has a monetary value whilst the hair contains great spiritual value. To attain the prophet’s hair is selfish and wrong, but the monetary value of the phial is greatly desired by all, possibly symbolizing that these two elements are not compatible with each other. Fiona Richards from the University of Leeds also states, ‘It illustrates the extent to which the icon’s meaning is determined by the context in which it is placed, and its ability to subvert and destabilize the limits placed upon its meaning by such a framing.’

Rushdie also prepares the reader with the series of events that are to occur, ‘the glassy contentment of that house hold, of that life of porcelain delicacy and alabaster sensibilities, was to be shattered beyond all hope of repair’, indulging the reader’s interest further.

Rushdie also induces cultural references through his use of words from the Kashmiri language, such as ‘kukri knives’ and ‘shikara.’ This gives the reader an insight into the culture by revealing to us different Kashmiri words. He is slightly expanding our knowledge of the Kashmiri culture here.

‘The Prophets Hair’ ends ironically, as the religious trinket aids poor Sheikh Sin’s wife and disabled children but destroys the wealthy Hashim and his family. In the end, it only worked for those who truly needed it.

Weldon’s ‘Weekend’ presents the habitual and normality of a standard middle class family, and the pressures that the main protagonist Martha faces. Weldon, who is a feminist also challenges conventional feminism here.

The story is illustrated from an omniscient point of view, as Martha and at times Martin’s thoughts are revealed to the reader. The author portrays Martha as a perfect, loyal and hard-working wife, but her efforts are unappreciated by her dominating husband Martin, who she tries hard to please but (sometimes) gets stern looks from him. As the story follows, it is evident that Martha’s daily struggle of being the perfect mother to her kids, keeping life organized and maintaining Martin’s satisfaction has had an effect on her mind state, to an extent that her thoughts have been tormented by fear and paranoia, ‘You don’t want his secretary providing a passion you neglected to develop. Do you?’ The presence of Katie (Collin’s new wife after Janet) may also trigger Martha’s paranoia as she represents what Martin could have after Martha. In her desperation to please Martin, Martha also changes her thoughts and ways to match that of Martins, ‘No such thing as an accident. Accidents are Freudian slips: they are wilful, bad tempered things.’ Although it appears as Martha is speaking, this is actually something Martin may have conditioned her to think. Her own thoughts have transformed to reflect Martins.

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The story contains heavy themes of gender stereotype and gender inequality. Weldon alludes to this when talking about the cars; Martin has a posh ‘sports car’ whilst Martha drives ‘an old estate car’. Also, the reader can notice that Martin tends to do the ‘manly’ jobs such as driving and lighting the fire, whereas Martha cooks and cleans. Predominately, Martin is the dominant force in the story and Martha is the secondary force, who is threatened.

Martha is also associated with further negative connotations, such as complaining too much, being paranoid and dull, and at times slow. This could represent the modern attitudes of housewives as they don’t work but stay at home all day. This idea is further emphasized when we see elements of quoted dialogue from Martin. He mainly speaks in imperatives to her, ‘You shouldn’t have bought it so ripe, Martha’ ‘Be honest now!’This creates tension in the reader as one may get tired of hearing demand after demand. This also enables us to experience the restlessness Martha may feel.

Martha contrasts to Katie, who is childlike in stature and also in manner, as Martha cannot trust her in the kitchen. She can also be viewed as being more independent than Katie, as Katie is ‘in [her] mid thirties with nothing at all to her name, neither husband, nor children, nor property.’ However, in the story it is almost as if Martha feels threatened by Katie because Martin states that she is ‘exciting’ and ‘wonderful’ and has restored Collin’s youth.

Weldon cleverly reveals to the reader Collin and Janet’s past relationship to symbolize what could occur if Martin was not satisfied with Martha; he could find someone like Katie who is more extrovert and relaxed, and who could ‘bring out the youth’ in him. We learn that Janet was also ‘dull and quieter than her husband’ just as Martha is.
The ending can be viewed as either being pessimistic or optimistic. Is it that Jenny has motherhood, marriage and friendship to look forward to? Or are these the things that she will find hard to embrace? In the end, Weldon leaves the reader to assume their own opinions.

The story of Philomela is told in first person narrative, and it is Philomela’s sister Procne who narrates the story. This contradicts the reader’s expectations as the title is ‘Philomela’, so initially, we expect the story to be from from her point of view.

Procne narrates in a cold and firm tone throughout the story, which creates more pathos without any extra detail being needed to create this mood.
The reader cannot help but notice comparisons with Ovid’s tale of Philomela as it is a much more detailed version, providing an elaborate account of Philomela’s suffering. On the other hand Tennant has cleverly condensed her version of the story, leaving the reader to conjure up thoughts about what might have happened themselves.

On killing her son, the reader can still empathise with Procne when she states, ‘Years and years will pass, and these minutes will still be longer than them all. Every hour will be made up out of them.’ Although she keeps an unemotional tone during this scene, Tennant still informs the reader that this tragedy will never escape her mind, engaging our sympathies with her.

Tennant’s use of symbolism is reflected through the birds in the story, ‘I moped, like the birds my children bring back when they go out for a walk.’ Procne associates herself with these birds, and this association may allude to the women of that era who weren’t allowed to speak out, who didn’t have a voice.

The absence of Philomela has led the grief-stricken Procne to isolate herself, and it is the sound of birds that is the only thing which keeps her content, ‘It was summer, and birds were singing in the thicket of olives.’ This could perhaps forshadow the events that are to occur, as the birds are the only thing which give her hope and also represent the voiceless women, particularly Philomela who will give her the power to avenge later.

Procne turns from a grief-stricken sister to a murderer and an avenger. These complexities in her character cause her to be a dynamic one. Philomela is also a dynamic character as she encounters conflict and is changed by it. She also introduces and enhances the plot. She evokes the anger and hostility needed towards her husband in order to carry out the revenge, ‘She reached my side and took my hand so I could rise with new strength.’

On the other hand, Tereus is a flat character because he has no other function other than to serve as a villain in the story, who offers to take Philomela to Thrace but then rapes her.
Isyth is a flat character as he has no major involvement in the story apart from being served on a plate to his father and used as part of revenge.

Procne constantly describes Philomela’s physical features, ‘I watched her all the time- for signs of happiness, or discontent, or simply to see what her eyes would say to me.’ Her eyes which speak their own language provide the reader with an insight into how she feels, as this is the only way we can understand her.



Bradbury, Malcom (1988), The Penguin Book of Modern British Short Stories, Penguin Books

Internet Sources

Malcom, David (2003), Understanding Graham Swift [Online] University of South Carolina
http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=EttQoAGfCcsC&pg=RA1-PA72&lpg=RA1-PA72&dq=criticism+on+seraglio+by+graham+swift&source=bl&ots=s3rfxl9fbv&sig=3LdeVZlPHVfNg2 02fSIWzw2dHc&hl=en&ei=lWWJS4P2H4n60wSF0p3UCw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CA4Q6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=&f=false
[Accessed: 25/02/10]

KCS,(2007) Analysis: Rushdie’s The Prophet’s Hair [Online] http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/226858/analysis_rushdies_the_prophets_hair.html
[Accessed: 10/01/10]

Richards, Fiona The Desecrated Shrine: Movable Icons and Literary Irreverence in Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Prophet’s Hair’ [Online] University of Leeds http://www.soas.ac.uk/soaslit/issue2/RICHARDS.PDF
[Accessed: 25/02/10]

Marks, Tracey (2000), Philomela in Ovid’s Metamorphoses [Online] Ancient Sites Communityonline discussions on Greek and Roman mythology
[Accessed: 25/02/10]

Gradua Networks (1995-2009) “A Family Man” by V.S. Pritchett: How the writer makes the story interesting and entertaining [Online]
[Accessed: 18/12/09]


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