On the surface, "The Canebrake" by Mohammed Mrabet and "Night Woman" by Edwidge Danticat are two completely different stories. The former is about a disgruntled housewife; the latter is about a prostitute. However, there is a fundamental theme that ties these two stories together. That is, each story explores how female sexuality can be exploited to gain power and control. It is the purpose of this paper to discuss how the female protagonist in both stories use sex to get what they want.
In "The Canebrake," Kacem's wife is not very pleased with her husband. He drinks too much and he shows little interest in her. Moreover, he won't even let her leave the house. She is a prisoner of sorts, "No matter how much she entreated him and argued with him, he would not even let her go to the hammam to bathe." Her inability to do as she pleases creates the central drama for the story. The reader wonders, how will she overcome her suppressive living situation?
Similarly in "Night Woman" the female protagonist is in a bind, so to speak. She is a working girl, a lady of the nigh, a prostitute. Her homestead is dilapidated; her roof has holes in it, "I watch his shadow resting still on the curtain, my eyes are drawn to him, like the stars peeking through the small holes in the roof that none of my suitors will fix for me, because they like to watch a scrap of the sky while lying on their naked backs of my mat." As with Kacem's wife, the reader wonders what this prostitute will do to improve her situation.
Kacem's wife has a plan, albeit a rather gross and disgusting plan; but a plan nonetheless. She is going to cheat on Kacem with his best friend, Stito, in the canebrake and show him "dripping" evidence of the affair. In a way, she wants to show Kacem that despite his efforts to keep her away from other men, she can and will find a way. The moment in which she shows her husband the evidence has a sobering effect on him, "She reached out her hand, opened it, and let what she had been holding drip onto the taifor beside Kacem's glass… Kacem stared. He had been drunk a moment before, and now he was no longer drunk." Kacem is duly shocked by his wife's resolve and gumption. He realizes, in that moment, that she too has power and control over her life. In short, her plan worked.
The female prostitute also has a plan. However, her plan isn't one that involves a scheme or a sudden, vengeful plot; rather, her plan involves taking care of her bastard son. She finds hope in his budding existence. She dreams that he will one day transcend his meager upbringing. He is the vehicle for her spiritual salvation, "I tell him of the deadly snakes lying at one end of a rainbow and the hat full of gold lying at the other end. I tell him that if I cross a stream of glass-clear hibiscus, I can make myself a goddess. I blow on his long eyelashes on his nose. I want him to forget that we live in a place where nothing lasts." She has a desire to keep her son insulated from the hardship she faces. She lies to him about why she gets gussied up, why she has visitors. She wants to instill in him the notion that there's two worlds, one of snakes and one of rainbows (she mentions this duality earlier on, "I watch as he stretches from a little boy into the broom-size of a man, his height mounting the innocent fabric that splits our one-room house into two spaces, two mats, two worlds"). She would like to believe that his world, his future, is one absent of snakes and filled with rainbows. Her plan is based on hope and faith.
As mentioned in the thesis statement and as implied elsewhere, the tool that these women use achieve their goals is sex. Kacem's wife uses sex to take control of her life. One could argue that given her lowly station, her relatively abusive situation, and her limited means, sex is one of the only tools she has to fight back against her alcoholic husband. She also knows that she can use her sexiness to manipulate Stito into participating. And, of course, it works; by having an affair she shows Kacem that he cannot hold her back. The result of her stunt is the freedom she desired so much, "In the morning when he went out to work, Kacem left the door of his house wide open. All day he thought about his wife. When he had finished work, he went to the cafe to meet Stito." The door was open the next day; she was free to go to the hammam to bathe.
Much like Kacem's wife, the prostitute finds herself in a position where her body may be exploited to gain power and influence over men as well as to provide a source of income. While this latter point is redundant (prostitutes have sex for money), the former point, the fact that she has power and influence over men is interesting and noteworthy for discussion. Unlike a stereotypical American prostitute, she isn't objectified and demeaned. She commands respect from her clients. They treat her well (although, they don't fix her roof) and she doesn't hesitate to put them in their place, "Emmanuel will come tonight. He is a doctor who likes big buttocks on women, but my small one will do. He comes on Tuesday and Saturdays. He arrives bearing flowers as though he's come to court me. Tonight he brings me bougainvillea. It is always a surprise. 'How is your wife' I asked 'Not as beautiful as you.'" Her question to Emmanuel is telling. That is, she's not afraid to call him out on his extramarital transgressions. Her services (the exploitation of her body) give her power over men.
In the conclusion of "The Canebrake," the narrator says, "She kissed him and they went to bed. It was the first time in many nights that Kacem was not too drunk to play games with his wife. They made one another very happy, and finally they fell into a perfect sleep." The reader is led to believe that the "dripping" stunt put Kacem and his wife on an equal playing field. That is, Kacem realized that keeping someone under lock and key is not the way to achieve a healthy relationship. In a sense, he learned that love is at its best when it is willfully reciprocated. A person who is free, free to choose, free to leave, free to do what ever it is he/she wants to do, is a happy person. By contrast, a person who is, in effect, a slave is not. The key then is to give one's lover freedom, not keep him/her in bondage. And Kacem's wife had to use the one tool she had to impart this lesson to her husband. In the end, it worked (but one would think in reality she'd be stoned to death).
Where "The Canebrake" ended quire resolutely, "Night Woman" does not. While it's clear the prostitute will continue to use her body as a means to provide for her son, what is to become of her son is not clear. The reality is that her exploiting her body for money, and for control and influence over men, will have an effect on her son. She is keenly aware of the fact that one day he will come to realize the truth, "Should my son wake up. I have prepared…