The Sev­enth Handmaiden

Judith Pran­sky

  • Review
By – August 23, 2021

The Book of Esther in the Bible tells that Queen Esther, liv­ing in the women’s quar­ters of the Per­sian king, had sev­en hand­maid­ens to serve her. Based on this brief but impor­tant part of the bib­li­cal text, as well as on var­i­ous rab­binic and his­tor­i­cal sources, Judith Pran­sky has cre­at­ed a full char­ac­ter in The Sev­enth Hand­maid­en. In the nov­el, Darya, the sev­enth hand­maid­en of the title, is the cen­ter of a com­plex and com­pelling sto­ry about hid­den iden­ti­ty, Jew­ish sur­vival, and female sol­i­dar­i­ty. There have been many lit­er­ary retellings and new inter­pre­ta­tions of Esther’s sto­ry, but Pransky’s ver­sion for young adults adds new dimen­sions to this rich nar­ra­tive source. Read­ers will be engrossed in Darya’s devel­op­ment from a pow­er­less, enslaved child to a strong and intro­spec­tive young woman, and they will meet a Queen Esther not pre­vi­ous­ly depict­ed in fiction.

The Per­sian Empire of the ancient world was plu­ral­is­tic and rel­a­tive­ly tol­er­ant of reli­gious and eth­nic dif­fer­ences, but social and eco­nom­ic class was still rigid­ly defined. In Pransky’s nov­el, women may lack pow­er over their own lives, but their inter­ac­tions with one anoth­er leads to the for­ma­tion of loy­al rela­tion­ships. As an enslaved per­son, Darya is com­plete­ly under the con­trol of oth­ers, but when the nov­el opens, her own­er is an army cap­tain with enlight­ened ideas about the edu­ca­tion of women; he has pur­chased Darya as a com­pan­ion to his young daugh­ter, and he allows both girls to be edu­cat­ed. His ser­vant Jaleh and her young daugh­ter Par­vaneh become like a moth­er and sis­ter to Darya, who has no mem­o­ries of her own fam­i­ly. Pran­sky pro­vides accu­rate details about dai­ly life in this metic­u­lous­ly researched work, and she avoids anachro­nisms. Darya, Jaleh, Par­vaneh, and oth­er key fig­ures are not vehi­cles for mod­ern ideals, but rather human beings with believ­able inner lives defined by their era and place.

Esther empha­sizes to Darya that, in spite of a roy­al mar­riage she did not choose, she rejects any sense of vic­tim­iza­tion. Her hus­band is Xerx­es, the Greek name for the Per­sian king tra­di­tion­al­ly asso­ci­at­ed with Aha­suerus. In the nov­el, he is not an exag­ger­at­ed buf­foon nor is he a cru­el despot, but rather he is errat­ic and self-cen­tered, caus­ing Esther con­stant ten­sion in her rela­tion­ship with him. Pran­sky also choos­es to remove the roman­ti­cized aspect of his devo­tion to Esther; his once-favorite wife is aware that his feel­ings for her have inevitably fad­ed. In con­trast, both Darya and Par­vaneh hope for the pos­si­bil­i­ty of mar­riage with a man who will treat them with dig­ni­ty as well as love.

Darya and Esther fol­low par­al­lel paths, each search­ing in dif­fer­ent ways for their iden­ti­ties and their pur­pos­es in life. The book con­tains a mys­tery about Darya’s ori­gins before her enslave­ment and also fol­lows Esther’s progress towards ful­fill­ing her des­tiny. Although the well-known facts of the Purim sto­ry empha­size the king’s rever­sal of Haman’s plot against the Jews, here his inter­ven­tion is much more pas­sive. The Judeans through­out the empire need to fight a civ­il war against Haman and his allies, and Queen Esther becomes a leader, not only a wife who coura­geous­ly tests her husband’s devo­tion. Even her famous moment of dar­ing to plead with him is framed as the act of a self-assured woman: Esther remained per­fect­ly still, return­ing his gaze, not explain­ing, not plead­ing, sim­ply look­ing at him steadi­ly and allow­ing him what­ev­er time he need­ed.” Through­out this nov­el of female strength, women watch and lis­ten, but they are also seen and heard.

This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed sto­ry includes author’s notes that pro­vide his­tor­i­cal con­text and explain which char­ac­ters are whol­ly fictional.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions