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The Theme Of Disembodiment In Woman At Point Zero By Nawal El Sadaawi

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In the novel Woman at Point Zero, Nawal El Sadaawi explores the genre of ‘creative non-fiction’ – a form which influences the reliability of the narration. An array of devices such as a frame narrative, the first-person narrative, as well as symbolic nouns and verbs, are used, to convey the theme of disembodiment. As Firdaus, the imprisoned main narrator, recalls her life story, it becomes increasingly evident that disembodiment, defined as any extra-corporeal experience which can act as a defense mechanism, was a theme that threaded its way through her entire life, and is also represented in the reflective narration. The narrative devices also show the difficulty in distinguishing the fictive from the non-fictive elements of the novel. 

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The novella is framed by a preface, a foreword, as well as chapters one and three which act as an introduction and an epilogue. In the preface, Sadaawi forms the reader’s expectations of Firdaus even before Firdaus has a chance to tell her story. To start the novel with a story-within-a-story effect in ‘This is the story of a real woman’ is a brave and loaded choice which shapes the reader’s response Firdaus – a response of respect and high expectations – unequivocally. Furthermore, it adds pressure on Sadaawi as she has to do justice to the story of a ‘real woman’, rather than that of a constructed fictional character. This choice may also be seen as having more social significance, as El Sadaawi gives a ‘real woman’ in the patriarchal Egyptian society a voice. The recognition which is given to Firdaus’s character in ‘this woman who had killed a human being, and was shortly to be killed herself, was a much better person than I’ keeps the suspense alive, as the reader wonders what makes El Sadaawi think Firdaus is a better person than her, considering it opposes the common negative prejudice held against prisoners. At this point it can be questioned to what extent Sadaawi’s introduction hinders the reader to form their own opinion of Firdaus. With regard to the main narrative in chapter 2, one can interpret that it is a transcript of what Firdaus is telling Sadaawi in the prison cell. For instance, the parataxis in ‘Let me speak. Do not interrupt me. I have no time to listen to you.’ creates a clinical tone through the jarring sound and straightforwardness. The use of imperatives also strengthens Firdaus’s character, making her appear more self-assertive. 

Firdaus’s first person narration as a prostitute is effective in conveying her feeling of disembodiment from the body of society. The line ‘Only my make-up, my hair and my expensive shoes were ‘upper class’. With my secondary school certificate and suppressed desires I belonged to the ‘middle class’. By birth I was lower class.’ clearly shows her in a societal limbo. The use of quotation marks around ”upper class” and ”middle class” conveys that Firdaus is actively distancing those two concepts from herself, although her achievements, such as her education, are undebatable. The factors that would make her belong to the ”upper class” are listed in a tricolon ‘my make-up, my hair and my expensive shoes’ and can all be considered superficial symbols of wealth. However, Firdaus does not think her superficial image is aligned with her inner self. The use of a tricolon also has the effect that each component is sapped of its significance. Notably, the lack of quotation marks around ‘lower class’ suggests that it is clear that no one, including herself, doubts her lower class status. Quotation marks would suggest a need for the word in them to be discussed. Overall, given Firdaus’s mind and body represent different things, the first person narrative gives the reader an insight into her mind, which a third person narration could not capture through mere observation. El Sadaawi is also paying her respect for Firdaus, as she is giving a voice to the voiceless, a prisoner, throught he first person narrative. 

In this bitterly brutal Bildungsroman, El Sadaawi presents a strong sense of Firdaus’s character development through the use of the first person narrative. At the end of the novella, Firdaus distances herself from her character in the beginning of the novella – another form of disembodiment. For instance, in the line ‘in an organ which had ceased to be mine, on the body of a woman who was no longer me’ Firdaus suggests that her body or her relationship with her body has changed throughout her experiences of physical abuse. The use of the functional noun ‘organ’ also objectifies and disembodies this essential part of her. Although the reader followed the story of the traumatic experiences with Firdaus, her distorted relationship to her body was never made as explicit as in the directness of the line ‘a woman who was no longer me’. This new discovery makes the reader feel Firdaus has been internalizing some of her emotions, thus the first person narrative adds a layer of tragedy. This also serves as a reminder that a first person narrative perspective has the effect that the narrator can shape the image of themselves and society how they see fit. Although an issue with the first person narrative may be that that ‘The first person, in the long piece, is a form foredoomed to looseness’, this is not the case with regard to ‘Woman at Point Zero’ and Firdaus (James). Firdaus’s first person narrative is extremely tight and does not give the reader the possibility to drift away into their own reverie. There are no true moments of catharsis in this novella.

El Sadaawi develops the theme of disembodiment through the use of imagery which separate the man’s words from his body and refuse him of emotion to present Firdaus’s emotional vulnerability. This mirrors the lack of emotion found in clinical case studies, reflecting El Sadaawi’s medical background. In the line ‘words emerge from between his lips of their own accord’ the power of his words is portrayed. The independence of the words ‘You are not respectable’, created by the phrase ’emerge of their own accord’, places the importance and emphasis onto the words, rather than the man whose lips they emerged from. Firdaus is hurt not by the man but by his words, powerfully showing that she is much more emotionally than physically vulnerable. Through the sense of disembodiment of the words from the man, El Sadaawi also suggests the lack of emotion he conveys, representing the general coldness men have toward women in this society. The verb ’emerge’ creates an image of stream of consciousness which is the basis of narration. In the context of the novel, the disembodiment of words from the body may suggest that the words of the novella carry the power, rather than El Sadaawi. It also makes the reader question if the words forming this novel ’emerged of their own accord’ in a stream of consciousness or if El Sadaawi was carefully choosing words to shape meaning. This phrase represents one of the various points in the novella where Woman at Point Zero appears to be on the cusp of falling into the genre of magic realism which very much juxtaposes the clinical connotations of disembodiment. 

El Sadaawi uses the language of disembodiment to present Firdaus’s coping mechanism. When she describes her husband abusing her she says ‘I (…) abandon my body. (…) A dead body with no life in it at all, like a piece of wood, or an empty sock, or a shoe’. The verb ‘abandon’ suggests the active part Firdaus takes in the disembodiment, and highlights the necessity of the action. Her ability to disembody her mind may have been the crucial skill which allowed her work through the traumatic assaults. In addition, the reference to death in ‘a dead body’, is tragic as Firdaus is awaiting her death sentence in a prison cell whilst recalling this story. However, ‘I abandon my body’ suggests that ‘I’, Firdaus’s self, can still be complete without her body. Thus, the language of disembodiment gives rise to some hope. Perhaps the execution will put her body to rest but not her mind. 

In conclusion, the first person narrative achieves the portrayal of Firdaus’s mind as separate from her body. Furthermore, the structure of the frame narrative and the voices of different narrators shape the reader’s impression of Firdaus successfully, and the both the at times clinical tone, as well as the features of magic realism bring the genre of ‘creative non-fiction’ to life. In effect, the disembodiment of the words gives hope that despite Firdaus’s execution, her voice and story live on in this novel. 

Works Cited 

  • El Saadawi, Nawal. Woman at Point Zero. New York, Zed Books Ltd, 1983.
  • James, Henry. The Ambassadors. The Literature Network. Web. http://www.onlineliterature.com/henry_james/ambassadors/0/. Accessed 22 Nov 2018.
10 Jun 2021

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