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Literature / The Sheik

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Values Dissonance to the max.

The Sheik is a (by modern standards) rather horrifying novel written in 1919 by a woman named Edith Maude "E.M." Hull. A rather less horrifying movie was made in 1921, starring Rudolph Valentino and Agnes Ayres, directed by George Melford.

Diana Mayo, an independent, strong-willed young English noblewoman, undertakes a solo exploratory trip through the desert, only to be captured by Ahmed Ben Hassan, an Arab Sheik. Said Sheik proceeds to rape her on a more or less daily basis for around a month, giving her a (somewhat) accurate case of PTSD.

She finally manages to escape, only to get caught and brought back to the camp, and while she's alone in the desert she abruptly realizes she's fallen in love with her captor, which also cures her of her "unnatural" coldness and lack of femininity.

Eventually, after she's been kidnapped and rescued, the Sheik realizes he's in love with her too, which makes him want to send her away so he won't hurt her anymore. The only thing that convinces him to allow her to stay is the fact that she tries to shoot herself in the head.

The Valentino movie, his follow-up to his Star-Making Role in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, was another hit, confirming his status as a star. It's probably the role he's best remembered for today. In 1926 it spawned a Sequel, The Son of the Sheik, in which Valentino played both an older Ahmed and Ahmed's grown son. That was Valentino's last film before his premature death from a perforated ulcer.

The book is in the public domain and can be read here.

Not related to Sheik at all, or to The (original) Sheik or The Iron Sheik.


  • Adaptational Heroism: In the movie, Ahmed doesn't go through with raping Diana. Also, in the movie she is special to him from the start (the serving girl, for instance, refers to her as Ahmed's bride), while in the book, she is explicitly stated to be just one of many mistresses and he says it outright he'll only keep her until he gets tired of her (and he remains of that opinion until the climax).
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: This trope is fully at play in both the film and the book. The book in particular does not gloss over how bad the bad boy is at any time. Instead, it does the exact opposite: the book provides a complete breakdown of exactly what his ceaseless brutality does to her psyche over time.
  • As You Know: The story opens with some expository dialogue between two disapproving old ladies establishing that Diana is going to take a tour of the desert without any men escorting her.
  • Author Vocabulary Calendar: Take a shot every time you run across the words "boyish", "savage", "slim", "brutal", and "mutinous".
  • Beauty Is Bad: The Sheik is repeatedly described as handsome, and he's definitely a bastard.
  • Best Her to Bed Her: Diana only falls for the Sheik after he's "tamed" her and basically proved she'll never be as strong as him so she might as well not try. In the book, it plays out more along the lines of "Bed her to best her."
  • Bloodless Carnage: In the movie, Ahmed's servant is shot in the chest, but is still alive when Ahmed arrives, and able to tell Ahmed that Omair took Diana. Not a drop of blood is visible.
  • Break the Cutie: The original point behind the Sheik's abduction and rape of Diana.
  • Brownface: All of the Arabs in the film are played by American actors.
  • Damsel in Distress: Diana turns into one of these.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Diana eventually warms up to the Sheik, although in the book he has to rape her to make it happen.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Due to being raised as a boy by Aubrey, Diana's morals and ideals are in direct contrast to the women and men around her. Her ideals contrast even more against the Sheik's, until she learns to yield.
  • Exposition Bomb: The first two paragraphs of the story.
  • Faux Action Girl: Diana, who can supposedly ride and shoot and otherwise hold her own in a brawl, appears to only actually be able to ride a horse. (She does take part in a shootout at the end of the film.) This contrasts the book, in which she demonstrates all of the skills she's said to have.
  • Faux Interracial Relationship: Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan isn't Arab after all.
  • First Father Wins/Thicker Than Water: Averted with the Sheik's biological father, who was horrible to his wife to the point where she fled from him and eventually died after giving birth to Ahmed. This is one of the few cases in the literature of the time where the abusive husband's eventual change-of-heart does not result in reconciliation; he has to live with the consequences of his actions, including the fact that his son wishes to have nothing to do with him. On being told of his heritage, Ahmed developed a complete hatred for all the English to the point where he refuses to even speak the language, showing reverence only towards his adoptive Arab father. This plot point is dropped in the movie, in which it is revealed that both of Ahmed's parents died after their guide abandoned them in the desert, leaving little Ahmed to be raised by the Arab tribe that found him.
  • Forceful Kiss: Ahmed does this to Diana multiple times.
  • Girliness Upgrade: This trope is forced on Diana by the Sheik.
    "You make a very charming boy, " he said lightly, with a faint smile, "but it was not a boy that I saw in Biskra. You understand?"
  • Going Native: The Sheik isn't an Arab by birth. Also, Diana chooses to stay in the desert with Ahmed.
  • Gossipy Hens: The older British women at the start of The Sheik who do not approve of Diana's "madcap" plan to travel alone in the desert are portrayed this way. As it turns out, they were right to be concerned.
  • Gratuitous Foreign Language: Though the book was written in English, most of the characters are speaking French throughout the book, including Diana, the Sheik, and his friend/manservant Gaston. French words tend to randomly pepper the text.
  • Happily Adopted: The Sheik.
  • Happily Married: The aged Sheik and Diana in the sequel.
  • Heel Realization: The Sheik eventually comes to regret what he has done to Diana.
  • Hollywood Genetics: A white English man and a Spanish noblewoman with very distant Moorish ancestry produce a son who can pass for 100% Arab. Since he was raised from birth in a hard life entirely in the open desert, this actually makes sense: he would be very tanned, and his body would have been injured and healed so many times that his English ancestry would be pretty hard to identify from just a look.
  • I Have You Now, My Pretty: "You are so pretty, and, if I choose, I can make you love me". He's right.
  • Interrupted Suicide: When the Sheik tells Diana he is sending her away to make sure he can't hurt her again, she tries to shoot herself in the head with his pistol. This is what convinces him to let her stay with him, though he warns her she might come to regret it.
  • Karma Houdini: The Sheik never pays for what he does for Diana: the worst that happens to him is being called out by his best friend over it, and being injured in a fight with his hereditary enemy. This is likely due to the fact that, from the writer's perspective, the Sheik is not the villain: Diana's upbringing is. According to the writer, the Sheik simply has nothing to pay for.
  • Large Ham: Even by the standards of silent film acting, the wide-eyed, carnivorous gazes that Valentino directs at Agnes Ayres stand out. This is a huge contrast to his portrayal in the book, which portrays him as a Soft-Spoken Sadist until he goes into an insufferable rage at the drop of a hat. A more accurate-to-the-book portrayal would have been a Cold Ham.
  • Lighter and Softer: Many of the more disturbing aspects of the novel (namely the rape) are left out of the film. The sequel doesn't leave them out.
  • Lima Syndrome: The Sheik winds up with this for Diana. After he's tortured her for around four months, he starts wondering why her pain gives him no satisfaction. "Guilt" isn't a word that figures into his vocabulary until much later.
  • Lock-and-Load Montage: Valentino is shown loading up guns for the attack on Omair's fortress.
  • Love Martyr: Diana becomes this, enduring all the Sheik's physical and emotional abuse yet not wanting to imagine a life without him, and she means it, too.
  • A Match Made in Stockholm: The entire story is this trope Played for Drama.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: The Sheik after Raoul has talked some sense into him regarding his abuse of Diana.
  • Near-Rape Experience: In the movie, the Sheik catches Diana crying and praying in the tent and realizes he can't go through with it. This is averted in the book.
  • Noble Savage: The Sheik, both figuratively and literally. He's an English noble, and happens to be slightly more civil that his Arabian neighbors.
  • Not Like Other Girls: Being that Diana was raised as a boy by her older brother, this was bound to happen. The difference between her and other women is also what wins over the Sheik in the book; he found his previous women boring once they'd stopped resisting, while Diana was much more determined and resourceful than they had been.
  • Nurture over Nature: Diana grows to love the Sheik more than her former life. In addition, Ahmed Ben Hassan is an English noble by birth. His brutish behavior and his complexion from spending almost his entire life in the desert make it impossible to know this without being told. Diana herself can't imagine him as English, either.
    "She could not think of him as an Englishman. The mere accident of his parentage was a factor that weighed nothing. He was and always would be an Arab of the wilderness."
  • Parental Abandonment: The Sheik's mother leaves his father because he's an abusive drunk, then dies when he's two years old, leaving him the adopted heir to the former Sheik.
  • Pass Fail: Sort of. The Reveal is that the Sheik isn't actually Arab at all, but is so disgusted by his English heritage he'd rather pretend he was an Arab.
  • The Power of Lust: The Sheik's motivation to kidnap Diana was entirely sexual, and it was powerful enough for him to plan very far ahead to do so, arranging each meticulous detail that led to her capture.
  • Promotion to Parent: Diana's older brother Aubrey became her guardian after her mother died in childbirth and her father committed suicide. The fact that he raised her as he would a boy is said to contribute to her "unnatural coldness" and lack of feminine feeling.
  • Purple Prose: Especially towards the second half of the book.
  • Raised as the Opposite Gender: The book is explicitly clear that Diana was raised as a boy.
  • Rape Portrayed as Redemption: This trope is strongly implied in the novel.
  • Reluctant Fanservice Girl: The Sheik has a way of getting Diana out of her clothes.
  • Romanticized Abuse: YOU DON'T SAY!?
  • Scenery Porn: The book is utterly filled with lengthy, flowery descriptions of the various environments.
    "(...) This camp was many miles to the south of the one to which she had first been brought, and which had been broken up a few days after her capture. The setting was wonderful, the far-off hills dusky in the afternoon light, the clustering palms behind the tents, (...)"
  • Sex Slave: In the novel, Diana becomes this to the Sheik. The relationship is eventually upgraded.
  • Sexy Discretion Shot: Though Diana is raped in the book, none of the details are shown to the reader.
  • Shameful Strip: In the book, the Sheik tells Diana to Slip into Something More Comfortable shortly after her capture. When she fails to do so in a timely fashion, he does this to her off page.
    With his hands on her shoulders he forced her to her feet. His eyes were fierce, his stern mouth parted in a cruel smile, his deep, slow voice half angry, half impatiently amused. "Must I be valet, as well as lover?"
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Diana feels this way at the beginning of the story; considering nearly every man in the book was in love with her and she regularly had to give Better as Friends speeches to her unlucky childhood friends, it's not surprising in the least. In the movie she explicitly says that beauty forces women to be the targets of men.
  • Spirited Young Lady: Diana Mayo is this trope, exactly. She thrives on excitement and adventure, and travels the world whenever and however she wants to without a care in the world for the socially accepted limits of femininity. On one such venture, she goes into the Arabian desert alone with only hired locals as her protection; it's this event that causes her to encounter the Sheik, who after capturing her, quickly molds her into another trope altogether through his brutality.
  • Stalker with a Crush: The Sheik's entire motivation for kidnapping Diana was the fact that he'd seen her for about five minutes in the nearby city and thought she was hot. He sneaks into her room at night to replace the bullets in her gun with blanks, then pays her guides to lead her right to him, following her caravan the entire time.
  • Stalking is Love: Ahmed breaks into Diana's hotel room in town before he winds up kidnapping her. Theirs is the big romance.
  • Tomboy with a Girly Streak: Diana Mayo loves adventure, horseback riding, fox hunting, and camping. She also appreciates a pretty dress.
  • Translation Convention: The characters are actually speaking French in the majority of the story, and some French expressions ("Bon dieu!") are peppered in the dialog. The Sheik can actually speak perfect English, but refuses to do so due to his hatred of his biological father.
  • Unequal Pairing: In spades. The Sheik controls everything basically everything in the relationship except for the thoughts in Diana's head.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Aubrey.
  • Villain Protagonist: He's a rapist with a devilish temper who kidnaps Diana and subjects her to ongoing physical and psychological abuse, but he's not the antagonist. The antagonist is Diana herself - more specifically, the ideas instilled into her through her upbringing as a boy and subsequent freewheeling adult life.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: The Sheik's French friend Raoul, when he comes to visit the camp, is quite appalled and calls the Sheik out on this, literally saying "This is unworthy of you, Ahmed." Not that this stops him.
  • Where da White Women At?: Omair the evil (well, more evil) sheik makes no bones about wanting Diana because she's a white girl.
  • Wicked Cultured/Cultured Warrior: Diana's initial impression of the Sheik after her abduction and rape. She sees that he is multilingual and has an extensive library of French literature in his home.
  • Women Are Delicate: A bilateral example. Diana is shown to be tough even compared to many of the men in the book, but the Sheik and his servants show her just how wide the power divide between the sexes can get.
  • Women Prefer Strong Men: Diana does, at the very least.