Rebec­ca Kan­ners sec­ond nov­el, Esther, is an adap­ta­tion of the sto­ry of the Megillah. With Purim on the hori­zon, Rebec­ca will be blog­ging here all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series on The ProsenPeo­ple.

The book of Esther tells the sto­ry of a Jew­ish girl who becomes queen of Per­sia and thwarts the geno­cide of her peo­ple. Though it’s read aloud in syn­a­gogue each year, the read­ing is accom­pa­nied by so much rau­cous cel­e­bra­tion that I nev­er paid close atten­tion to the details. I lis­tened for Esther’s and her cousin Mordechai’s names so I could cheer, and I lis­tened for the evil Haman’s name so I could shake my noise­mak­er and boo. The cos­tumes, treats, drunk­en­ness — the expe­ri­ence of the Purim hol­i­day cel­e­bra­tion — dis­tract­ed me from the intri­ca­cies of the story.

I thought the sto­ry was a sim­ple one: a beau­ti­ful Jew­ish girl wins the king and saves her peo­ple with the encour­age­ment of her cousin. I couldn’t under­stand why it took so long to read. Each year, about a quar­ter of the way through the read­ing, my thoughts had already sped ahead to hamen­tashen, wine and dancing.

To see what was delay­ing the final phase of the par­ty, I start­ed to read along. Lat­er, I read it again on my own. I was con­fused. Esther didn’t seem like a true hero­ine. She seemed to be an inde­ci­sive girl who would have allowed the geno­cide of her peo­ple if not for Mordeachai’s harsh prod­ding. Beau­ty and obe­di­ence are the only assets men­tioned. In fact, the king’s choice of Esther from among all the vir­gins is summed up, The king loved Esther more than all the oth­er women, and she won his grace and favor more than all the vir­gins,” leav­ing us to look for the descrip­tion of her up to this point that may have made her attrac­tive to him. The most telling descrip­tion of her seems to be that she was shape­ly and beau­ti­ful.” Beyond that, we have only her def­er­ence to the wis­dom of Hegai, She did not ask for any­thing but what Hegai, the king’s eunuch and guardian of the women, advised. Yet Esther won the admi­ra­tion of all who saw her…” and her def­er­ence to More­dechai, But Esther still did not reveal her kin­dred or her peo­ple, as Morde­cai had instruct­ed her; for Esther obeyed Mordecai’s bid­ding, as she had done when she was under his tutelage.”

When she final­ly does dis­obey a man, it’s not due to a new strength and inde­pen­dence. It’s due to cow­ardice. Morde­cai instructs her to go to the king to reveal that she’s a Jew and ask for her people’s lives. She responds that going before the king with­out being invit­ed is an offense that is pun­ish­able by death. Mordechai, upon learn­ing that sav­ing her peo­ple is not enough of a reward for risk­ing her life, tells her, Do not imag­ine that you, or all the Jews, will escape with your life… if you keep silent… you and your father’s house will per­ish.” It is only then that she decides that she will go to the king, and issues the most famous quote from the sto­ry, “…if I am to per­ish, I shall perish!”

What sort of hero­ine is Esther?

To answer this ques­tion, I dove more deeply into the sto­ry. What I dis­cov­ered was that on the face of them, a num­ber of Esther’s choic­es don’t make sense. Beneath the sur­face, how­ev­er, is an Esther who is strate­gic and cunning.

Stay tuned for my next post, in which we’ll dig deep­er into what I believe is Esther’s true role in the sto­ry: that of an intel­li­gent and coura­geous girl who learned to think for herself.

Rebec­ca Kan­ner is the author of Esther: A Nov­el and Sin­ners and the Sea: The Untold Sto­ry of Noah’s Wife. You can learn more about her and find links to select­ed sto­ries, essays, and videos at www​.rebec​ca​kan​ner​.com.

Relat­ed Content:

Rebec­ca Kan­ner holds an MFA from Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in St. Louis. Her writ­ing has won an Asso­ci­at­ed Writ­ing Pro­grams Award and a Loft Award. Her sto­ries have been pub­lished in numer­ous jour­nals includ­ing The Keny­on Review and The Cincin­nati Review. Her per­son­al essay, Safe­ty,” is list­ed as a Notable Essay in Best Amer­i­can Essays 2011. She teach­es writ­ing in Minneapolis.