From Sleep Unbound
is a 1952 fiction novel written by Andrée Chedid. First published in French and later translated into English, it tells the story of a young Egyptian woman who is forced into a loveless marriage. She spends her life avoiding conflict and shutting down her emotions until circumstances force her to awaken from her “sleep.” Chedid was a French poet and novelist of Lebanese heritage. She was born and educated in Cairo but spent much of her adult life in Paris. Her body of work explores the connection between an individual and his or her world.
The novel begins when Samya is just fifteen. She attends a Catholic boarding school but is forced to leave it when her father encounters financial difficulties. Like much of the Egyptian society around him, he sees his daughter as little more than a commodity. So, to save himself, he decides to take her out of school and marry her off to an older man, Boutros, who is forty-five. The process is humiliating for Samya: her father is unable to provide a traditional bridal gift to Boutros on her behalf.
Samya has a will of her own, but often has no way to express it. Social custom forces her to submit to Boutros and his needs. One night, they are lying in bed and hear a girl, Ammal, singing a song outside. Samya is moved by the beauty of the music and lyrics
. Boutros, however, doesn’t share her appreciation. He throws a fit because Ammal has disturbed his sleep, and rages that he will go outside and “teach her.” Samya calms him and protects Ammal by closing the window, shutting out her own enjoyment of the song for his sake.
Other women in Samya’s new village arrive with small gifts for her. One elderly woman, Om el Kher, shows up and promises to bring her eggs and vegetables every day. She also gives Samya a blue stone pin that she says will protect Samya from both the evil eye and from her husband. Women in the village are considered the property of their husbands, with little power of their own, but they find small ways to come together in friendship and to show solidarity with one another.
As Boutros’s wife, Samya is expected to become pregnant quickly and deliver an heir for her husband. But months pass with no sign of a viable pregnancy, and she is shamed for this as well. Once, during a disagreement, Boutros slaps her. She tells her father, hoping he will agree that she should leave her husband. Instead, her father tells her Boutros has the right to hit her. Samya also has very little freedom. Boutros doesn’t allow her to go out on her own, so she spends much of her time alone in the house. The women of the village sometimes do go out without their husbands’ permission, but they must be careful.
Years go by, and Samya has produced no children. She is dispirited and losing faith. In desperation, she visits the Sheikha. As the village believes, the Sheikha is the spirit of a fortune-teller who died years ago, and who now possesses the body of a village man. The women of the village perceive this man as a woman since his body is possessed by a woman’s spirit, and pay furtive visits to her when their husbands are at work in the fields. The Sheikha tells Samya that to conceive a child, she must follow a ritual that involves burning three bags of different-colored substances.
Samya does not follow this advice, but at age twenty-two, she becomes pregnant and has a daughter, Mia. Her husband’s family is disappointed that she has had a daughter instead of a son, but Samya is delighted. She knows that a son would have belonged to her husband. Her daughter, on the other hand, belongs to her. Her daughter seems to rejuvenate her, bringing back energy and happiness to her life.
But her joy does not last. When Mia is six years old, she becomes ill. Samya refuses to leave Mia’s side and even insists that other family members stay away. She wants to tend to Mia by herself. Despite her efforts, Mia dies.
After Mia’s death, Samya goes into a deep depression. She distances herself from everyone around her, nearly catatonic in her grief. Her sorrow leaves her paralyzed, unable to walk. Boutros’s sister becomes Samya’s caretaker as she mourns.
Finally, however, Samya emerges from her grief. By now, she is a different person. And she is angry: she is no longer “asleep,” no longer docile, no longer willing to submit to her husband and her marriage. She blames him for all that has happened.
Samya shoots Boutros with a gun and kills him. In doing so, she escapes from the suffocating restrictions of her life and marriage. There will be consequences, but she is past caring.
Chedid uses From Sleep Unbound
to present a model for resistance and rebellion against the restrictions of the patriarchy. Critics praised the book as a “deceptively lyrical” portrait “of a woman searching for herself in a world of...male supremacy.” From Sleep Unbound
is one of Chedid’s earlier works; over the course of her career, she was the recipient of many important literary awards, including the Prix Louise Labbé for Poetry and the Prix de l’Afrique méditerranéenne.