The definition of a lawsuit is a civil action brought in court in which a plaintiff demands another person, known as the defendant, pay this person equitable resolve (dictionary.com). In other words they want payment for being wronged in the past. If the case is found to be legitimate and proven justifiable, the defendant pays the plaintiff the awarded compensation. This brings us to the story, The Lawsuit, by Naguib Mahfouz. This tale is about a son being sued by his father’s widow demanding maintenance be paid to her some twenty years after the father’s death. Several of the individuals in this story serve very little purpose.
These characters, known as flat characters, are used in a fictional role, in which they do not experience considerable change or growth throughout the course of the story (Wiehardt). Other characters, called round characters, supply the story with an individual who encounters controversy and is changed by it in some way (Wiehardt). They tend to play a larger role and are more fully described in the creative writing helping the story take shape. The round characters justify their roles to the reader by being complex and showing change throughout the course of the story. They help the story tell its tale, offering details.
One of the flat or static characters in this short story is the sisters, only briefly mentioned during the announcement of the new marriage and again when the father died. They did not seem to serve as main characters and were not affected much in this story, possibly because they had moved into their own homes and did not live with the other family members. The mother, another of the flat characters, seemed content about the current new arrangement. She appears to be wise about how the new young bride will devastate the rest of the family by stating, “We’ll end up without a bean”. The mother is mentioned to have taken “refuge in silent anxiety” (Mahfouz, 91). She is not mentioned again until she dies, but there are no details. The remaining characters are all round characters and had more influential and changing roles.
The father was an old-fashioned contractor, who did not believe in putting his money in banks, so he stored it in a cupboard in his bedroom. He was a thorough accountant, despite being semiliterate. The mother and father had separated but still lived in the same house together with several of their children. The family seemed happy and content with this arrangement as long as they remained a single family. The father met a young woman and things changed quickly. His actions when being around this younger woman were described as “struck dumb by her youth and beauty” (Mahfouz, 91). He was mesmerized and over powered by her youth and attractiveness. The father bought valuable gifts for his new bride. The youngest son watched as his father changed before his very eyes. Once a simple man, now his father was swaggering around with new clothes, clipping his beard and trimming his mustache every week, going to the Turkish baths twice a month, dyeing his hair, and using a chauffeur to drive him around town. These changes were the hardest on the eldest son, who was illiterate and mentally retarded.
The eldest son was outraged by this new arrangement. He was unemployed, but considered himself a landowner. He and the father argued over his share of the inheritance. He declared that he would fight until his death. The eldest son pleaded with his father, “I am the firstborn, uneducated as you can see, and without means of support, so give me my share” (Mahfouz, 91). The father did not like the fact that the eldest son wanted to inherit from him while he was still alive. Denying his request, this made the eldest son angrier, and lead to a very serious altercation between the two men. During the final fight between the two men, the father spit in the face of his eldest son. In a volatile eruption, the son threw a table lamp at his father, drawing blood. The police were called and the eldest son went to
prison, where he died a year later.
One of the main round characters is the widow, the father’s new young bride. She was in her twenties, where as the father was in his fifties. She might even be portrayed as a gold-digger. Dictionary.com defines this as a woman who associates with or marries a many chiefly for material gain. This was definitely the case with this story. The widow was described as a ravishing beauty when in her twenties. The family sat and watched as the father purchased lavishing presents for his new wife. When the father died from a stroke, the family asked about the key to his cupboard, where the father hoarded his money. The widow claimed not to know anything about such a key or cupboard.
The family finally found the key and opened it. They found a few notes and only five thousand pounds, which the widow inherited. They wondered what had happened to the fortune. As the mother had predicted, the young bride would leave them all “without a bean” (Mahfouz, 92). Now with no education and little money left, the widow went to live with her parents. The youngest son, who was the person being sued for maintenance, wondered if his father’s young bride’s youthfulness and beauty had “withstood the passage of time” (Mahfouz, 90)? At the time of the lawsuit, now in her forties, the widow was over-weight and over time had lost her sense of beauty. The lawyer stated that she never had children of her own and had married and divorced several times. The lawsuit came into play because she was now economically challenged and desperate for money or maintenance because “she fell in love with a student, who, in his turn, robbed her and went off” (Mahfouz, 93).
The lawyer was arguing the case, for both the widow and the youngest son, trying to remain objectively. He emphasized to the son to look at all of the facts and circumstances and try to be reasonable. He defended the lawsuit by saying the widow depended on others to sustain and care for her throughout her entire life. Was there no sympathy for this woman, once young and beautiful, who was now fat and unattractive? He stated to the son to look at his own current situation. The youngest son was educated, earning a decent wage and able to provide for his own family. The lawyer wanted the son “to settle on a reasonable sum for maintenance” to be paid to the widow (Mahfouz, 92). He stated to the son that they were both the victims in this situation. The truth was that the widow did not have the resources to care for herself, but the son did have the means to take care of his own family and the widow too.
The youngest son, also the narrator, seems to be the character that changed the most throughout this story. Although he claims when the father announced that he was marrying this younger woman, he “was the one least affected by the disaster, partly because of my youth and partly because I was the only one in the family who wanted to study, hoping to enter the engineering college” (Mahfouz, 91). The son is the only one that appears to be not dependent on the father’s inheritance, by wanting to go to school and get a good job. All through the youngest son’s narration, he emerges as mindful and observant of the situation. He takes notice of his father changing, but continues to have confidence that his father will not wrong his own family.
He also observes as his mother remains silent, but fearful, watching as the circumstances unfold. In the beginning of the tale, the son appears angry because he is being sued by his father’s widow. He exclaims “this woman robbed us and deprived us of our legal rights” (Mahfouz, 90). The son could not understand how this woman could even think of suing him after everything she had put his family through. It is only after the lawyer convinces him to take notice of the entire situation and look at both sides, before judging the widow’s actions of suing him for maintenance. Eventually after speaking to his father’s widow, who was apologetic for wronging his family, the youngest son had a change of heart. He decided to go ahead and settle on maintenance for the widow.
While flat characters do not serve much purpose in a story, the round characters play the largest roles. They are the back bone of the story, providing details and particulars of the change the main characters are enduring. The round characters demonstrate the most change all through the course of the story. Irony, in literature, is defined as a technique of indicating, as through character or plot development, an intention or attitude opposite to that which is actually or ostensibly stated (dictionary.com). Eventually, at the conclusion of this story, the youngest
son so bitter and angry in the beginning, finally has a change of heart and decides to pay maintenance to his father’s widow. Making him the most changed round character throughout this ironic story.
Wiehardt, Ginny. About.com, Fiction Writing. Web. 22 Feb. 2011.
Dictionary.com. 2011. Web. 22 Feb. 2011.
Kennedy, X.J. and Dana Gioia, eds. Literature: An Introduction to fiction, Poetry, Drama, and
Writing. Eleventh Edition. New York: Longman, 2010. Print.
Mahfouz, Naguib. The Lawsuit. Eds. X.J. Kennedy, Dana Gioia. Print.