April 21, 2020 in Literature
Marital Affairs in Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Heart of the Night

In his novel Heart of the Night Naguib Mahfouz reveals that class struggle remains the strong in the contemporary Egyptian society. The plot is developed through the narration of the main hero, Jaafar al-Rawi, who came a long way from an honorable man of a rich heritage to a murderer and homeless person. Depicting the views and life experience of the protagonist, the author makes an explicit assumption that social segregation is fostered by consumerism in marriage and likewise. Besides, this situation is supported by government because social inequality is favorable for politicians. This paper analyzes social unequally and its impact on marriage arrangements that are stipulated by government’s endeavor to preserve classical stratification through imposed culture and traditions.

To begin with it is necessary to stress that social stratification is strongly reflected in marital affairs. In particular, Heart of the Night reveals that, according to marriage traditions of the Middle East, the feelings of young people are not considered. Instead, marriage arrangements are done by their families basing on financial and social compatibility. Undoubtedly, this approach is rational and fair because it provides favorable conditions for future personal and social growth of each member. This idea is well-developed through describing the two marriages of Jaafar al-Rawi. Specifically, the first wife of the main hero is Marwana, a shepherdess who can ruin a heritage because she is poorer, less educated and, thus, she would prevent her husband from climbing to a higher social rung or, at least, keeping his present one. This is exactly what happened because Jaafar’s noble heritage and all related financial and social benefits are taken away by his grandfather. As a result, a man remains an uneducated, semi-literal singer who struggles badly to provide his leaving and support his wife and 4 songs by singing. As one may predict, Jaafar applies to unhealthy coping strategies (he drinks and takes drugs). His life becomes worse and worse with every day till the end of his marriage. The interesting peculiarity is that Marwana is not happy either because she is reluctant to be entrapped in social bonds that impose on her the roles of being a good hostess, honorable woman, respectful wife and mother. These social roles are unusual and atypical for Marwana’s community where people are used to live the lives of nomads, criminals, and semi-savages. As a result, her marriage conflicts with the expectations about the realities of the adult life, which puts this young woman in despair and frustration. Depicting the destructive interactions of these two completely different characters Mahfouz assumes that class segregation complicates social interactions between representatives of various social groups, which is a negative tendency because it makes each of them unhappy.

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Nevertheless, the idea of arranged marriages remains topical in the modern Egyptian society. The qualities that are considered while making a choice include the level of income, job position, family heritage, education of a marriage applicant and his/her family members, age, and previous marital relations. All these factors are the indicators of financial prosperity. In this regard, one should point out that government fosters the traditions of arranged marriage that are based on social and financial equality of spouses. Simonsen scrutinizes that “social scientists have concentrated on the drive to change which is embedded in youth, and economists and people working in public relations and advertising have for decades been aware of youth as consumers”. The drive for change of the Egyptian youth is well-described by the author who educates the readers: “open doors boldly, don’t be servile: everything you want is your right. This life belongs to the human being, to everyone. You have to get rid of your stupid habits; that is all you need to do”. As one may observe the writer’s message contradicts with the state’s mainstream idea about the benevolence of socially equal marriages that are arranged on the basis of consumerism. This example illustrates author’s personal opinion about the wrongness of this approach of constructing a society. Hence, ‘youth consumerism’ is strongly developed in the sector of marital enterprises. For example, individuals who seek for a spouse check compatibility of characters by investigating the reputation and social position of a spouse’s family, which even includes survey the life of their siblings. Given this approach, it is natural to deduce that the search for a person to marry has nothing to do with love. Instead, it occurs by measuring tangible and intangible assets and choosing the most appropriate candidate as Jaafar’s grandfather endeavored to do.

Unfortunately, the rational approach and consumerism in marriage affairs do not protect people from failures that are stipulated by social segregation and political regimes that underlie and foster this stratification. This assumption is conveyed by author through depicting the second marriage of Jaafar. The second wife of this protagonist, Huda, is older than him, well-educated, with good reputation and honorable social position. She sacrifices her social heritage to marry a person of a lower position, exactly as Jaafar does for his first wife, Marwana. Hence, Marwana has a bad family character of gypsy who is engaged in illegal actions and unhealthy lifestyle. In contrast, the family character of Huda resonates with Jaafar’s heritage, which allows him to reach her developmental level. Mutual personal growth is the reason why the second marriage of the main hero becomes more successful and lasts longer than the first one. Depicting harmonious co-existence of Jaafar and Huda, which contrasts with the passionate and abusive relations of Jaafar and Marwana, the author makes an implicit assumption that personal features are less important than a family character of spouses. This premise implies that starting with social inequality, the second marriage of Jaafar is doomed to become a failure even despite similar mental and emotional developmental level of spouses. The fact is that, being well-educated and respectful individuals in their communities they start arguing about political and religious matters. Consider an example, the main hero states “I have rights and I am educated. I can talk to you about the drawbacks of democracy and those of communism” Increased educational level and awareness about social discrimination intensify misunderstandings between Huda and Jaafar. What makes the things even worse is that, being jealous protagonist begins to argue with their mutual friend about political matters, this quarrel leads to a fight and murder of the opponent. Life sentence ends Jaafar’s second marriage; when he manages to get free from a prison, his wife is already dead. Developing the plot in this direction, the author assumes that consumerism in marriage that is encouraged by a state, does not help avoiding conflicts that are predefined by class struggle.

Summing up the above-mentioned, one should stress that Naguib Mahfouz attracts readers’ attention to the problems of class struggle as it is reflected in marital affairs of the modern Egyptians. Heart of the Night reveals the life-story of Jaafar al-Rawi who was married two times. The first time, the protagonist sacrifices his social position for a poor gypsy girl, Marwana; whereas, or the second time, he marries a lady, Huda, who is richer, more educated, and older than him. Both marriages are untypical or the Egyptian society, and thus, both of them end up with a failure. In this story, the writer’s main idea is that social stratification is a critical negative factor that limits possibilities to develop harmonious relations between individuals who belong to the diverse social groups. This segregation is fed by the politicians because they benefit from unequal social structure of the nation. In these conditions, even westernization of the nation does not reduce the notion of consumerism in marital affairs.


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