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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.


  • 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 Ahmedís bride), while in the book, she is explicitly stated to be just one of many mistresses and he says it outright heíll only keep her until he gets tired of her (and he remains of that opinion until the climax).
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Even more so in the book.
  • 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 white men as escorts.
  • Author Vocabulary Calendar: Take a shot every time you run across the words "boyish", "savage", "slim", "brutal", and "mutinous".
  • Bastard Boyfriend: The eponymous Sheik.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.)
  • 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. 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, and he has to forever live with the consequences of his actions. Including that his son wishes to have nothing to do with him, and develops a complete hatred for all the English, 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.
  • Going Native: The Sheik.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Heroes Want Redheads: For a given value of hero, anyway.
  • Hollywood Genetics: A white English man and a Spanish noblewoman with very distant Moorish ancestry produce a son who can pass for 100% Arab.
  • I Have You Now, My Pretty: "You are so pretty, and, if I choose, I can make you love me", says Valentino, who is playing the good guy by the way.
  • 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.
  • Large Ham: Even by the standards of silent film acting, the wide-eyed, carnivorous gazes that Valentino directs at Agnes Ayres stand out.
  • Lighter and Softer: The Movie. Many of the more disturbing aspects, namely the rape, are left out of the film (though not in the sequel).
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Rape Portrayed as Redemption: Strongly implied in the novel.
  • Romanticized Abuse: YOU DON'T SAY?
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Stockholm Syndrome: In the movie it has definitely kicked in by the time Diana is doodling "Ahmed I love you" in the sand.
  • 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.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Aubrey.
  • 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.