Raschida El-Charni’s short story, Life on the Edge, is foremost a powerful and uncompromising attack against a version of patriarchy in which women and children are subjected by men, and which accepts that a husband and father may exercise absolute authority over his wife and children. The author conveys her aversion towards this form of patriarchy through the voice of an unnamed first-person female narrator recounting the events of one particularly traumatic day in the life of her family when she was aged 10.
The story witnesses the narrator’s dramatic transition from childhood to adulthood and, exposes the rigid gender roles imposed by the patriarchy to be baseless and inhumane. The narrator and her two younger brothers lose some of their father’s sheep when they are caught outside in a sudden heavy downpour of rain. Their father “was very attached (16)” to his sheep and “was more saddened by any illness among them than by the death of a relative (16).” He reacts to this loss by giving the children a thrashing with his leather belt, and does not spare their heavily pregnant mother when she tries to protect them. The events of the day reach a climax that night when the mother goes into labour during the night. The narrator implores her fathers help, but is told: “Let her die, her life is cheaper than the sheep she’s made me lose (18).” Shocked and saddened, the young narrator is left to help her mother give birth without any assistance.
El-Charni draws on words and phrases that hold connotations of the narrator’s impending transition from childhood to adulthood and enhances them with the use of alliteration. The very title of the story, Life on the Edge, suggests the prospect of a dramatic change of position, foreshadowing the narrator’s coming of age. She is actually living “on the edge” of both childhood and adulthood. The narrator feels that she is ready for these changes, stating that she should “be able to conquer [her] childhood fears more now than at any other time” (15). In hindsight, the story title also represents the restraints placed upon the narrator due to patriarchy. As a girl, the narrator may expect to live a life of subservience on the edge of a household and society governed by men, enjoying little respect, status or value.
In the early part of the story, El-Charni has the young narrator lying down in a field “smelling the sweet scent of spring and basking in its splendour” (15). The connotations associated with spring, which suggest a new beginning or the dawn of new ideas, foreshadow a pending change that will affect the narrator as the story unfolds. The author’s use of alliteration in this quote, being the repetition of the soft letter ‘s’, is a subtle, almost subliminal, signpost to the reader of things to come.
In addition to using connotations and alliteration within the story, El-Charni employs symbolism to provide a background for the narrator’s attempt to escape from the forced subservience that she is faced with in her patriarchy. The short story is set in an isolated, rural village in a valley surrounded by high mountains. Beyond these mountains is the “hereafter,” which the narrator has been led to believe to be the end of the world, the place where God is said to stand “judging the dead surrounded by His angels” (15). The narrator wants to journey into this unknown despite being warned by her parents to “stay close” (15). The hereafter has become a taboo for the narrator and is a tool used by the patriarchy to ensure that the beliefs within their society are not challenged. This is shown when the narrator speaks to her brother’s, inviting them to accompany her on the journey. However, in response to this request, a “deep sense of fear [runs] through their every pore,” (15) clearly having been taught from a young age to keep away from the hereafter.
This firmly reinforces the sombre and tense mood that was introduced in the first sentence of the story with their mother’s words of warning advising them not to “go too far, [as] its going to rain soon” (15). It is a very bittersweet mood, as the sheep are “invigorated by the return of the warm sun (15)” yet this is juxtaposed against their mother’s warning. There is also a marked difference in the attitudes of the narrator, and that of her two brothers towards the journey. For the narrator, the journey to there hereafter has symbolical significance, something it does not have for her brothers. Although Ammar and al-Amin, the narrator’s two brothers, are also physically abused by their father, they are male, and as such will be empowered once they come of age. This could either be absolute power over their wife and children, a direct replication of their father, or power within the isolated society.
The gender of the narrator is not specified, and thus prevents the reader from establishing any gender bias towards the character. It is the author’s intention that due to the ‘masculine’ traits exhibited by the narrator in establishing this journey to the hereafter, automatically assume that she is male. It is with this assumption that el-Charni undermines the belief central to the workings of a patriarchal society which is that only males are both worthy and capable of holding a position of power and influence within society.
The ‘masculine’ traits possessed by the narrator are those which, in a patriarchy, should theoretically be exhibited by males only. This gender ambiguity allows the narrator’s independence and courage to be conveyed through her journey to the hereafter using the setting and the contrast that is created between her and her brothers. This contrast is clearly shown as the narrator both initiated the journey and made the final decision to return home with her brother Ammar “agreeing immediately” (16) to her suggestion. Without this ambiguity, the construction of the narrator’s character and her ambitions would not be viewed with the same significance.
The narrator’s mother does not play a significant role as an individual within the story and is more an extension of the narrator and the ideas she portrays. The character of the mother, whose name is not given, acts as a means to highlight the contrast between the two genders within the story. The first major contrast between the genders is between the narrator’s mother and father. The mother, despite being heavily pregnant, “tries her best to protect” (17) her children, offering herself to be physically beaten by her husband in the place of her children. This contrast between the emotional strength of the mother and the irrational anger of their father reinforces fundamental flaw in el-Charni’s male-dominated society.
El-Charni uses the character of the narrator’s father to convey the dehumanisation of women in the patriarchy. This patriarchy allows men to view women as being of less worth than animals, as is shown through the father’s devotion to his sheep. He puts his sheep before the lives of his wife and unborn child, refusing to aid his wife during childbirth, irrationally stating “that is women, spoilt! (17).” His reaction to the pleas of help from his children was “worthy of an enemy (17)” and his refusal to help his family showed how little they were valued.
As the events of the day reach a climax that night, the mother goes into labour. This event coincides with the revelation of the narrator’s gender. The narrator’s father has locked himself in the barn with the remaining sheep leaving the children to prepare for childbirth alone. This is the narrator’s defining moment in the story, it is her opportunity to either take control of the situation and reinforce el-Charni’s beliefs regarding the capabilities of women, or to shy away from the responsibility.
Ammar and al-Amin respond to their mother’s labour in a way that would be expected of a woman in a patriarchy. They do not initially attempt to actively aid their mother, only “staring at her in bewilderment (18).” Al-Amin, the elder of the two brothers, also attempted to negotiate with his father similar to the narrator. He, like the narrator, was also ignored. Instead of staying with his mother and assisting with the childbirth, he announced in a “nervous, childish way” (18) that he was going to his grandfather’s. A direct contrast is created between the reactions of al-Amin and that of the narrator, who stayed and helped her mother give birth, fetching hot water and scissors.
The narrator has not been given a name in the story, despite being the central character. She is referred to only once in the story by her mother as “my daughter (18)” which is also the phrase that identifies the narrator as a female character. Although this emotionally distances the reader from the narrator, it allows her character to be generalised. The reader can then relate the narrator’s experiences, as well as el-Charni’s message of gender equality, to their own personal experiences and society. By doing this, el-Charni is encouraging the reader to re-evaluate their views on the capabilities of the female gender, integrating her own perceptions into their personal mindset.
Raschida el-Charni challenged the rigid gender roles imposed by a patriarchy in the short story Life on the Edge. Through the unnamed first-person female narrator and her transition into adulthood, el-Charni conveys the dehumanisation of women in a patriarchy by the men surrounding them. In the family, is accepted that the narrator’s father may value the welfare of his sheep over that of his wife and children. The narrator’s family, the only other characters in the story, do not have individual roles and are developed by el-Charni to expose the inhumane and base gender roles within a patriarchy. The physical setting of the story is used to represent the constraints placed upon females in the society, with the high mountains bordering the community symbolically preventing the narrator from developing into an adult who holds respect, status or value.