Sunday, May 08, 2011

Hardship And Injustice

Hardship and injustice pack a powerful punch, and are among a novelist's most effective tactics for engaging the reader's sympathy... say for the hero or heroine.

Truism, right? Too obvious to mention?

One of my favorite things about alien romances is that we can rip a modern hero out of the headlines, disguise him most cunningly, and translate him into an alien villain. Or vice versa. We don't have to be swayed by populism or political correctness. As long as we are not caught.

I wonder whether I am cowardly to even think such a thing. Do you censor a powerful story in your head for
fear of reprisals or mere obloquy? I have to be honest. I do.

When does a great human story become propaganda, or character assassination, or sleazy opportunism? And, does the modern writer have any kind of moral responsibility?

I admired George Orwell, particularly his essays. Do you see echoes of "1984" in the news every now and then? Remember the torture using rats... or the threat of rats? Whatever is the worst thing in the world for you, the interrogators will discover what it is, and threaten you with it. Is it torture if the rats don't bite you? If the scorpion doesn't sting you?

I think that one can learn a lot from Shakespeare... but not all of it is something to be emulated. Shakespeare wrote to please and flatter his sovereign. Therefore the enemies and rivals of Elizabeth Tudor and her forefathers were vilified.

Macbeth. Richard III. Their reputations were besmirched for generations. Who knows who really killed the princes in the Tower, or how physically attractive Richard might really have been?

In Church this morning, we considered the Book of Esther. Several details of the story intrigued me, as a modern Anglo-American romance writer.

The Persian king (pre-Iran) might be Ahasuerus or Xirxes. His true identity does not matter. He had a wife, and also concubines. He asked his wife to do something dishonorable and possibly dangerous.

According to our Minister, the King and his friends had indulged in a seven day booze-up and were roaring drunk, which is why the queen declined to go into the man cave so the guest could see how beautiful she was. Wikipedia doesn't mention the inebriation, but says that the queen was ordered to go to a party that had lasted 180 days, and to remove her veil so the all-male guests could see her beauty.

Maybe the veil was a burquah?
Can you imagine a party lasting 180 days?

The queen refused to remove her veil. The trophy wife refused to be a trophy. For fear that the other women in the kingdom would hear of the queen's disobedience and follow suit, she had to be punished. The wise men agreed. So, the queen Vashti was divorced or banished or set aside... but no one says that she was executed, but the Minister said she was lucky to get out of the marriage alive.

The Minister claims that the King became lonely. Why he didn't marry one of his concubines, I do not know. Apparently he had a harem. The Minister said that the King decreed a beauty contest, and that the most beautiful girls in the land spent a month getting beautified.

Wikipedia says that the kingdom's best-looking virgins spent twelve months (a year!) in the royal harem getting beautified. What could take a year? Whole body threading, maybe. There has to be more to it than two 6-month regimens of sweet smelling oils.... or, one has to doubt Wikipedia's sense of timing.

The next bit sounds rather like the Arabian Nights. The King entertained a different virgin "beauty contestant" each night, and after their night in the King's bed, the girls were sent back to the harem unless the King asked for them again by name. Apparently, he asked for Esther, and made her his queen.

Did he? Who knows. No disrespect intended. Out of fairness, did he continue to try out the other virgins who'd spent a year being anointed, and plucked, and instructed in his harem? We're not told. I've read that a man with many wives (and concubines are often counted as low-status wives) is expected to treat them equally, and give each of them equal time in bed.

We are told that some time passed, and for at least 30 days, Esther was not summoned to see the King and had no chance at all to talk to her new husband. Obviously, he wasn't sleeping with her. She might, of course, have been pregnant, but that isn't mentioned.

It struck me as rather peculiar. Why marry a beautiful young stranger on the sole basis of her beauty and a one-night stand, and then not go near her? Anyway, Esther had to speak with him to alert him to a planned mass murder. Apparently, any woman who went into the King's presence without a specific invitation, could be killed on the spot by his guards. Even his wife!

Imagine a marriage like that!

There's one more detail from this savage story. The King allegedly gave Esther's people permission to arm themselves and to kill not only those who had plotted to kill them, but also to kill those conspirators' wives and children. According to Wikipedia, the Jews showed admirable restraint, and did not kill the wives and children. It should be noted that "The story as a historical record must be definitely rejected" according to the Jewish Encyclopedia."

What shocks me is the apparent callous acceptance that wives and children can be killed in cold blood, for revenge, along with their allegedly guilty husbands.

What kind of choices do we imagine those Old Testament women had, given that even a queen could be divorced or struck dead for pretty much looking askance at her husband, entering his presence uninvited, wearing or not wearing the right veil?

I suppose that I must be a feminist. So much of what men do makes me very, very angry.


  1. Fascinating. I have often thought that Queen Vashti should be given more credit for standing up for her dignity.

  2. Thank you, Margaret. I do agree.

  3. Anonymous7:06 PM EDT

    Check out the comments on this news item.|main5|dl1|sec3_lnk1|61204

    What will Pinetta do? Waterboard the wives?