Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Dinah is consumed by the weight of her memories—the memories of her mothers, her childhood, and the loss of her husband, which render her unable to move on with her life. What compels Dinah to narrate her story is the fear that her memories will not live on, that people will not remember her and that her tragedy will mean nothing. She would seem to have good cause to worry: her story is practically a footnote in the Bible, while the stories of Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel live on, although the Bible does not represent these women as Dinah knew them. She holds on so tightly throughout the novel to her memories that when faced with a fresh start and a new life, she is barely able to experience it, as she is still living in her past. As the narrator, she relays her ancient story to a modern reader, giving us her version of the past in order to release herself from the burden of her memories. According to Dinah, and contrary to the Bible, her mother Leah was beautiful, Jacob did love Leah, and, mostly important, Dinah’s marriage to Shalem was truly a union of love, not a rape.
With four central characters acting as midwives—Inna, Rachel, Dinah, and Meryt—childbearing is highlighted throughout the novel as a woman’s unavoidable battle with life and death. The Red Tent vividly describes the frightening and painful conditions of childbirth in ancient times. Many of Dinah’s would-be sisters and brothers die, and as a midwife she loses many children and their mothers. By narrating graphic scenes of women in labor, being clutched at by their sisters as they tear and bleed in the process of giving birth, Diamant portrays a world where women must fear for their lives at every moment during delivery. Dinah might have lost her own life in childbirth had she not the experience and presence of mind to ask for a knife and mirror. During many of the births described, either the baby or the mother almost dies at least once. The assistance of a midwife was a luxury to women, and even this assistance offered no assurance that woman or child would live out the day. Dinah’s narrative as a midwife offers a startling portrayal of the real and bloody experience of childbirth in ancient times.
In The Red Tent, the moon provides more than just a way of marking months and seasons to Dinah’s family: it also denotes the harmony between the women themselves and the women with the Earth. Diamant’s descriptions of the monthly celebrations in the red tent illustrate the close relationship with land and nature cultivated by seminomadic women in ancient times. The women in Dinah’s family menstruate at the same time, attributing their cycles to that of the moon, and thus allowing them to celebrate the lunar cycle together each month. Their dependence on the land for food, exposure to the elements, and close observations of the cycles of the sun and moon to mark time forged strong bonds between people and nature—bond much stronger than those generally possessed by people today. The women’s worship of the moon’s power also signified the renewal of their bodies and the gifts of health and fertility they received from the goddess Innana.