Chapter 1 Summary of Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero

Chapter 1 of Woman at Point Zero follows the narrator, who is also the author, as she describes her experiences as a psychiatrist in Egypt.

Woman at Point Zero
Woman at Point Zero

Woman at Point Zero is a novel by Nawal El Saadawi written in 1977. The novel is based on Saadawi’s meeting with a female prisoner in Qanatir Prison and is the first-person account of Firdaus, a murderess who has agreed to tell her life story before her execution. The novel explores the themes of women and their traditional place within a patriarchal African society.

The novel is divided into three parts. Chapter 1 of Woman at Point Zero follows the narrator, who is also the author, as she describes her experiences as a psychiatrist in Egypt. She gives insights into the psychological effects of prison on female prisoners. Chapter 2 is about Firdaus’s life story. She begins to tell her life story, from her childhood to her current situation. In Chapter 3, after Firdaus finishes her story, the police come to her cell and take her away to be executed. The psychiatrist, who now is the narrator, leaves the cell and is ashamed of the world.

In this post, I am going to summarise Chapter 1 of Woman at Point Zero.


Chapter 1 Summary of Woman at Point Zero

The novel opens with a psychiatrist explaining that this is the story of a real woman. The psychiatrist found out about the subject while conducting research on female prisoners and detainees. According to the prisoner doctor, the subject is unlike any other of the prison inmates. For example, she refuses to file an appeal with the president of Egypt to get her sentence commuted to life imprisonment instead of death. The psychiatrist is intrigued and asks for a meeting to be arranged. The subject refuses. It is finally revealed that the subject’s name is Firdaus. The psychiatrist was supposed to meet with other women prisoners, but she decides not to. She returns home and attempts to work on her latest book, but she cannot focus. Her mind is focused on Firdaus, who is scheduled to die in 10 days’ time.

The next day, she returns to the prison and asks the prison warder to see Firdaus, but the warder says that Firdaus will never see her. The warder seems upset that the psychiatrist continues to push to see Firdaus. She glares at the psychiatrist as if she will be one to hang Firdaus in a few days. The warder accuses the psychiatrist of working with “them,” an unspecified group of people who wish to harm Firdaus. In the warder’s eyes, although Firdaus murdered a man, she’s still an innocent woman who doesn’t deserve her death sentence. She walks away and leaves the psychiatrist at the gate.

The psychiatrist returns to the prison multiple times trying to meet with Firdaus, to no avail. At this point, she feels that her research and her life are in limbo. Firdaus’s rejection impacts the psychiatrist’s self-confidence, and she compares herself to a lowly insect. She begins to wonder if the refusal means that Firdaus is a better person than she, or even a better person than the Egyptian president.

One day, she begins to wonder if Firdaus knew who she was and rejected meeting her, or if Firdaus rejected her without knowing. The following day, she goes back to the prison to find out. She asks the warder, who claims that although Firdaus didn’t say if she knew the psychiatrist, she (the warder) knows Firdaus does because she can sense Firdaus’s moods. This crushes the psychiatrist. She feels as if the whole world was pressing down on her, a feeling she only remembers from a previous unrequited love.

The psychiatrist returns to her car and starts to rationalize her feelings of self-derision. She realizes that Firdaus didn’t reject her personally, but rather the whole world and everyone in it. The psychiatrist rallies and her usual amount of self-confidence and pride return to her. She starts her car and gets ready to leave, but then hears the voice of the warder over the roar of the car engine. The warder is out of breath, having run after the psychiatrist to tell her that Firdaus finally wants to see her. The news makes takes the psychiatrist’s breath away. She feels elated, happy, and proud—she compares the feeling to that of meeting the first man she loved for the first time. She quickly enters the prison and approaches Firdaus’s cell. She attempts to compose herself outside the door, telling herself that she is a psychiatrist and shouldn’t feel cowed by a prisoner like Firdaus. Suddenly, however, the door opens and the women are face-to-face.

Woman at Point Zero
Woman at Point Zero

The psychiatrist is paralyzed and cannot even hear the door of the cell closing behind her. She looks into Firdaus’s eyes and feels as if she dies the moment she does—that’s how piercing her eyes are. Suddenly, Firdaus’s voice cuts through the air, and she tells the psychiatrist to close the window and to sit on the floor. The floor is freezing because it’s January, but the psychiatrist cannot feel its chill. All her senses feel muted, as if she were swimming through the sea. The only thing that reaches her is the sound of Firdaus’s voice, as she opens her mouth and begins her story.

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