'People of the Book' (2008): An Analysis
This is an English paper I wrote in grade 12 and decided to post it here with edits, for nostalgic purposes.
Warning: Contains spoilers.
People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks, is a novel that sets itself apart from many traditional works of historical fiction because of the wide-ranging themes prominent throughout its story: the persistence of extreme religious oppression, issues of religious and personal identity, and the relationship between Christians, Muslims, and Jews, among several others (Bookreporter).
When considering the previous ties between these two monotheistic religions, as depicted in the novel, there is hope that one day their bond can be revived. That idea of hope lays the foundation for one of the major elements in the novel, which has to do with a sense of longing for freedom. This is associated with yet another issue raised in the novel: religious tolerance versus intolerance (American Bibliophile).
All of these ideas guide the reader into a more in-depth understanding of how the issues discussed in the novel reflect the interaction between all three religious groups today, and between all people through their actions and motives.
In the book, religious oppression is documented to have taken place from 711 B.C. to 1492 A.D during the era of Islamic Spain, which was comprised of Muslims, Christians and Jews. This period is generally described as "The Golden Age" of religious and ethnic tolerance as well as interfaith harmony between the religions; however, some historians actually debate the truthfulness of this and, as a result, it might cause readers today to misinterpret as an irrefutable fact that their true positions were, and still are, far more complicated than this.
At first, Muslim rulers are generally tolerant of non-Muslims for several reasons: 1) Judaism and Christianity are monotheistic religions, like Islam; 2) the Christians outnumber the Muslims in population size; 3) bringing in non-Muslims provide the government with administrators; and 4) passages in the Qur’an confirm that Christians and Jews should be tolerated if they obey certain rules.
Eventually, the oppression becomes more apparent as the Muslim ruler, Almanzor, imposes heavy restrictions on non-Muslims, causing their rights to be gradually diminished. Instances of this include: 1) not being able to afford bigger houses than the Muslims; 2) yielding the right-of-way to them on the streets; 3) being forbidden to employ Muslim servants; and 4) the inability to practice their own faith in public.
The pressure is put on all the religious groups at various points, such as when the Christians gain back land while the Islamic Empire declines as a result of violence and discrimination. Under Christian influence, all the restrictions Muslims had imposed on the other groups are now placed on them (BBC Religions).
Extreme oppression is a recurring event in alternating segments of the novel, depending on where the oppression forces the Haggadah to seek refuge, those being the Spanish migrants who travel through Italy and Germany before reaching Bosnia. As in Islamic Spain, the three religious groups get along at first.
However, as the tension between them becomes more apparent, Ben Shoushan raises this point: “What reason could there be in this constant fighting with the Moors? Had not the Muslims, Jews, and Christians shared these lands in contentment—in convivencia—for years? What was the saying? Christians raise the armies, Muslims raise the buildings, and Jews raise the money” (Brooks, 232), which essentially explains why he cannot understand the dispute between the monotheistic religions, when the people had once lived in peace and shared all their property with one another.
Each religious group has assets, as outlined in Shoushan’s quote, all of which contribute to the economic growth in their society. One of the first signs of oppression in the book, as stated by the Doktor, is “discretion. That was what the [aristocrats] paid [Jews] for. All the aristocrats… He knew well that many of them would not have a Jew defile their drawing room, or even keep him company over a coffee. But they were only too pleased to entrust him the care of their private parts and the confidence of their private lives” (Brooks, 116).
To put this in context, Jewish people are faced with a situation in which they have to speak and behave in a discreet manner to avoid committing offences, or revealing private information about the aristocrats. This is because the upper class does not trust them whatsoever. The Jews are used primarily for entertainment and sexual purposes, which greatly demean their status as human beings.
This example shows that freedom of speech and action is limited in favour of obedience, in the sense that the only way in which oppressed religious groups have a better chance of survival is to do as they are told as opposed to fighting back.
In People of the Book, it is evident that valuing the humanity of others can help to overcome the disasters created by inhumane, yet very human, tendencies at the same time, those being hatred, greed, and intolerance. The only way the characters in the novel survive these catastrophes is through human connectors: the love, bravery, and respect that people actively express toward one another.
This links to the concept of religious tolerance, which is best described as the permission given to followers of any religion to practice their spiritual beliefs without oppression or discrimination. It is a fundamental democratic right, and it is believed to be essential for world peace (Religious Tolerance and Cooperation).
This concept similarly applies to Hanna's parallel arc; while the Jews and Muslims journey through their struggle to freedom, she must realize the importance of human compassion and empathy for a better quality of life. Her research on the Haggadah, which assists her in producing the book early on, slowly begins reducing her pattern of dysfunctional relationships when she falls in love with Ozren and hesitantly pursues a meaningful relationship with him. Hanna discovers her father's family during this journey, but also learns of his other Jewish family as a result of her grandmother's death. Putting two and two together, she realizes that she is half-Jewish.
Her newly-discovered relatives welcome her into the family at her grandmother's funeral. All the pieces are in place for Hanna to build the kind of relationships that likewise enable the characters in the Haggadah's history to survive. But in order to truly build upon these relationships, she must end her relationship with her mother, the antagonist of her arc.
Her mother is the barrier that keeps her from learning to have close relations with anybody, just like how there may be barriers in people's understanding of why accepting other religions is virtuous and essential for a functional society (according to the book).
Many complex issues come up at various points of the novel. They are presented in reverse chronological order, giving readers an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the basics of these subjects before eventually taking bigger steps toward the central themes.
As Hanna states on page 19, the development of the stories and the characters, specifically those who are a part of the Haggadah, speak out to her while she compiles the book. She puts it together according to their instructions, in order to convey a message to their readers about the significance of their time period and what circumstances they are faced with.
The creation of this book is more powerful than just the story on its own, or however much of a straightforward story it even is, when one really thinks about it. It is more like a story within a story, with Hanna's arc serving as the conclusion from the start and the later events unfolding all as part of the process of putting the book together.
Most importantly, the book is created by Christians, Muslims, and Jews collectively, all of which are monotheistic religions and have similar approaches to practice. They all essentially build upon one another, and so the Haggadah shrine in People of the Book is built in Sarajevo to symbolize and preserve the strong relationship and harmony that once existed between these groups.
The strive for freedom cannot be dependent on simply predicting the future; the message here tells us to be wary of what decisions we make now and how they can affect any given outcome later, to avoid causing a cycle of repeating conflicts that trigger religious disputes in the first place.
Brooks, Geraldine. People of the Book. United States: Viking Penguin, 2008. Print.
"Islam: Muslim Spain (711-1492)." Religions. BBC. Web. 24 Jan. 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/history/spain_1.shtml
Maslin, Janet. "People of the Book - Book Review." The New York Times. 20 Jan. 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/07/books/07maslin.html?ref=review
Robinson, B. A. "Religious Tolerance and Cooperation, Worldwide." Religioustolerance.org. Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, 7 Oct. 2011. Tues. 10 Jan. 2012. http://www.religioustolerance.org/rel_tol.html
"A Sourcebook for "People of the Book" and the Sarajevo Haggadah." Scribd. http://www.scribd.com/doc/49791226/A-Sourcebook-for-People-of-the-Book-and-the-Sarajevo-Haggadah