For a novel that’s discussed as a foundation of the genre, The Sheik must be full of common romance tropes, right? Of course it is — just as this post is full of plot spoilers. Read on and let’s take a look at ten of the romance tropes in The Sheik.
1. She doesn’t even want to get married.
Look, our heroine is named Diana. And she likes to hunt. Get it? She’s never known love, never been tempted by that soft emotion. Men make good pals when sportsing, but you wouldn’t want to hold their hands or anything. In the novel’s opening, she turns down a would-be husband quite definitively.
“Please stop. I am sorry. We have been good friends, and it has never occurred to me that there could be anything beyond that. I never thought that you might love me. I never thought of you in that way at all, I don’t understand it. When God made me He omitted to give me a heart. I have never loved any one in my life. …. Marriage for a woman means the end of independence, that is, marriage with a man who is a man, in spite of all that the most modern woman may say. I have never obeyed any one in my life; I do not wish to try the experiment. …. A man to me is just a companion with whom I ride or shoot or fish; a pal, a comrade, and that’s just all there is to it.”
Later, seeing some Arab women, she reflects on womanhood and the institution of marriage.
The idea of marriage—even in its highest form, based on mutual consideration and mutual forbearance—was repugnant to her. She thought of it with a shiver of absolute repulsion.
2. No one’s ever told him ‘No’ before.
He’s the Sheik, after all. He’s in charge of his tribe (who all worship him). He breaks and rides the most wild and vicious horses. This is part of the setup for why he’s the man for Diana: she’s gone a bit wild and needs to be broken.
He demanded implicit obedience to his lightest whim with the unconscious tyranny of one who had always been accustomed to command. He ruled his unruly followers despotically, and it was obvious that while they loved him they feared him equally.
And, by the way, he doesn’t bother with the French colonial officials either.
“The French Government has no jurisdiction over me. I am not subject to it. I am an independent chief, my own master. I recognise no government. My tribe obey me and only me.”
3. He is so rich. So incredibly rich.
Sheik Ahmed may live in a tent, but it is the most sumptuous, half-barbarian, half-European furnished tent ever. In tasteful black and neutral shades.
Though the furniture was scanty and made the tent seem even more spacious than it really was, the whole room had an air of barbaric splendour.
Also he owns the best horses, as his French valet explains to Diana.
“The horses are magnificent, but they are bigger than any Arabs I have seen before.”
“They are a special breed, Madame,” replied the Frenchman. “The tribe has been famous for them for generations. Monseigneur’s horses are known through all the Barbary States, and as far as France,” he added, with a little accent of pride creeping into his voice.
4. He’s not ready to marry…until he meets her.
Sheik Ahmed has already tossed countless women aside once he’s grown bored with them, or broken them, or something. He’s only going to keep Diana until he’s weary of her.
“You didn’t suppose you were the first, did you?” he asked with brutal candour. “Don’t look at me like that. They were not like you, they came to me willingly enough—too willingly. Allah! How they bored me! I tired of them before they tired of me.”
But eventually, he realizes she is…different.
He trusted her. …. He had never trusted a woman before, but this woman had been different. The others who had come and gone so lightly had not even left a recollection behind them; they had faded into one concrete cause of utter boredom. There had never been any reason to trust or mistrust them, or to care if they came or went. Satiety had come with possession and with it indifference. But the emotion that this girl’s uncommon beauty and slender boyishness had aroused in him had not diminished during the months she had been living in his camp. Her varying moods, her antagonism, her fits of furious rage, and, lastly, her unexpected surrender, had kept his interest alive.
She must be desirable, after all, because every man who meets her is instantly in love with her, including Sheik Ahmed’s French bromance, Raoul.
5. Danger is the catalyst to realizing love.
Diana steals a horse, runs away, panics when she thinks she’s about the captured by different Arabs, and when she’s actually re-captured by Sheik Ahmed, suddenly she realizes that it’s not so bad because she’s in love with him.
With a start of recollection she realised fully whose arm was round her, and whose breast her head was resting on. Her heart beat with sudden violence. What was the matter with her? Why did she not shrink from the pressure of his arm and the contact of his warm, strong body? What had happened to her? Quite suddenly she knew—knew that she loved him, that she had loved him for a long time, even when she thought she hated him and when she had fled from him.
(This is the moment when I, and probably most 21st century readers, cry out ‘What the actual fuck, Edith Maud!?’ and throw the book across the room.)
Later, when Diana is actually captured by a rival sheik, and is in danger of being treated by another man in exactly the way he treated her, Sheik Ahmed also has an emotional revelation.
The longing to hold her in his arms, to kiss the tears from her eyes and the colour into her pale lips, was almost unbearable. He would give his life to keep even a shadow from her path, and she was in the hands of Ibraheim Omair!
And then there’s some more near-death before they both confess and believe each other.
6. I Can Control My Heart
Neither Diana nor Sheik Ahmed have any intention of falling in love. Diana just wants to lead her independent adventurous life, and she has no intention of giving her heart to anyone, least of all the rapist holding her captive. Sheik Ahmed, for his part, has seen a pretty object and acquired said object.
Because one day in Biskra, four weeks ago, I saw you for a few moments, long enough to know that I wanted you. And what I want I take.
And who loses their heart to an object? As he tells her near the end of the novel,
I didn’t love you when I took you, I only wanted you to satisfy the beast in me.
7. The Dark and Brooding/Tortured Hero
Part of Sheik Ahmed’s reasoning for kidnapping and raping Diana is that she’s English and he hates the English. That’s because his father (who was English) was drunken and cruel to his mother (who was Spanish). This is somehow justification for being sober and cruel to English women.
You say she is cowed; I say she is content—content to give me everything I ask of her…. For four months she has fought me. Why does it give me no pleasure to have broken her at last? Why do I want her still? She is English and I have made her pay for my hatred of her cursed race. I have tortured her to keep my vow, and still I want her….
8. She’s never known love…until he wakes the passion within her.
The opening of the book is all about how Diana feels no deep emotion or affection for fellow humans, not even her brother.
Love did not exist for her; from even the thought of passion she shrank instinctively with the same fastidiousness as she did from actual physical uncleanliness.
But by the time we’re halfway through the novel…
And for the first time she surrendered to him wholly, clinging to him passionately, and giving him kiss for kiss with an absolute abandon of all resistance.
9. The Grovel
Very belatedly realizing that he’s been a first class asshole, Sheik Ahmed makes all the arrangements to return Diana to European society, apologizes, and promises he’ll never bother her again.
“I—I will not trouble you any more. You need never be afraid that I will come into your life again. You can forget these months in the desert and the uncivilised Arab who crossed your path. To keep out of your way is the only amends I can make.”
At this point, however, all Diana wants is his love, so she attempts to shoot herself and he has to grovel all over again…
A hard sob broke from him and he kissed her trembling lips fiercely. “Never!” he said sternly. “I will never let you go now. My God! If you knew how I wanted you. If you knew what it cost me to send you away. Pray God I keep you happy. You know the worst of me, poor child—you will have a devil for a husband.”
10. You’re better off without me.
An important part of the grovel! Sheik Ahmed tells Diana,
I still think that your greater chance of happiness lies away from me rather than with me, and for your ultimate happiness I am content to sacrifice everything.
As with all the readings I’ve done so far, I’m sure I’m missing lots of subtleties and I welcome your additions in the comments!