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Journal of Language and Literature, ISSN: 2078-0303, February, 2010


Dr. Ahmad M.S. Abu Baker Department of English, Al al-Bayt University (JORDAN) e-mail:

ABSTRACT This paper examines different layers of identity in William Beckfords Vathek. It explores Vatheks different identities (religious, artistic, and colonial) and proves the presence of the substance of a Shakespearean tragedy in Vathek. It focuses upon Beckfords use of myths and highlights the association between physical space and identity. Key words: William Beckfords Vathek, identity, gothic oriental romance

MULTI-LAYERS OF IDENTITY IN WILLIAM BECKFORDS VATHEK William Beckfords Vathek is an 18 Century gothic oriental romance. It tells the story of Vathek, an Abasside commander of the faithful, who is tempted by an afrit to renounce Islam and get absolute knowledge, power and treasure in return. Vathek has a destructive ambition and a destructive desire for knowledge that motivate him to journey to the Subterranean Palace of Fire where his heart is set on fire as a punishment for worshipping Eblis. The question of identity permeates Beckfords novel for several possible reasons. In this paper, I will discuss these reasons by examining the problematic identity of the novel and focusing on how similar it is to a Shakespearean tragedy. I will also observe the different layers of Vatheks identity especially the artistic and colonial identity and highlight the association between physical space and identity and Beckfords use of myth within the context of the novel. To begin with, the novels linguistic/national identity is problematic. Dennis Kratz maintains that Beckford originally wrote Vathek in French because the Oriental tale was regarded in the eighteenth century as a French genre (Kratz). This fact might explain why Vathek appeared in English first against Beckfords desire. George Sherburn claims that Reverend Samuel Henley, who, contrary to Beckfords injunctions, published his English version before the French had appeared (Sherburn, P.1030). Possibly, Beckford wanted the novel to appear in French as a reaction to the English society who banished him following his homosexual scandal which Malcolm Jack refers to as the Powderham scandal (Jack, p.158). Bearing this in mind, would Vathek belong to English literature or to French literature because it was written in French and was intended to be published in French first? It seems that Beckford wrote Vathek while suffering in exile a matter that explains the reference to Philomel in the novel (p.150), the myth that stands for creativity through suffering. The novels identity is amorphous. Gill claims that Vathek has been considered as both Gothic and non-Gothic, satiric and non-satiric, realistic and fantastic, neo-classic and romantic, socially conventional and anti-bourgeois (Gill, p.242). Vathek is also regarded as metaphysical and messageless moral and immoral, amoral, and anti-moral (ibid, p.242). An important issue of genre so far missing from critical discussion is the novels resemblance to a Shakespearean tragedy. According to A. C. Bradley, a Shakespearean tragedy can be defined as a story of exceptional calamity leading to the death of a man in high state (Bradley, p.6). Vathek, a man of high state (the Caliph), experiences a metaphorical and physical death in the Subterranean Palace of Fire. Like the hero in Shakespearean tragedies, Vathek is capable of both good and evil as is the case in a Classical tragedy in which a tragic hero is, according to Aristotle, a man not pre-eminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgement and is of the number of those in the enjoyment of great reputation and prosperity (Aristotle quoted in Daiches, p.34). When Vathek becomes evil, Byronic to some extent, he remains similar to a Shakespearean tragic hero who, unlike the Classical one, need not be good (Bradley, p.15).


Journal of Language and Literature, ISSN: 2078-0303, February, 2010

Further, Vathek is concerned with the perdition of one character after whom the novel is named just as in a Shakespearean tragedy in which the source of convulsion is never good but is rather in almost every case, evil in the fullest sense plain moral evil (Bradley, p.25). Similarly, in Vathek the source of convulsion is the Giaour, the emissary of Eblis who is a moral evil. Shakespeare introduces the supernatural into some of his tragedies; he introduces ghosts, and witches who have supernatural knowledge (Bradley, p.8) and such elements are found in Beckfords Vathek as in the Giaour, the magical sabers, Vatheks angry look, Carathis witchcraft, etc. which Timo Klein fully covers in his article (Klein). Indeed, Vathek has several echoes of Shakespearean tragedies. For instance, the narcotic powder given to Nouronihar and Gulchenrouz by Emir Fakreddin (p.162) has a similar effect to that given to Juliet; for no pulse/Shall keep his native progress but surcease,/No warmth, no breath shall testify thou livest, and Juliets body shall become stiff and stark, and cold appear like death (Romeo and Juliet, 4. i. 111). Further, before Gulchenrouz blacks out, he tells Nouronihar, let me, at least, breathe forth my soul on thy lips! (p.163) His words are, to some extent, similar to those of Othello: killing myself, to die upon a kiss (Othello, 5.ii.253) and to those of Romeo Thus with a kiss I die (Romeo and Juliet, 5.iii.131). In addition, Vathek is similar to Macbeth in his destructive quest for power, and the witches who cook Macbeths destiny (Macbeth, 1.i.25) are replaced by Carathis and her negresses who dance around the fire in the tower during the human sacrifice ritual as if cooking Vatheks fate (p.132). More to the point, Vathek wonders if the Simurgh is going to pluck out his eyes, as a punishment for undertaking this impious enterprise (p.144) an echo of the tragedy of Oedipus Rex who blinded himself in the end because he ate the forbidden fruit (making love to his mother). The Monstropedia claims that the Simurgh protects the Tree of Knowledge while the Silent Mobius Zeta maintains that the simurgh is an immortal bird that nests in the branches of the Tree of Knowledge. The Simurgh, then, is associated with the Tree of Knowledge. Hence, Vathek ate the forbidden fruit (the impious project) and expects a similar punishment to that of Oedipus. Such echoes serve to give the novel the semblance of a tragedy. In a similar way to a Classical and a Shakespearean tragedy, Vathek begins the novel having everything, and the novel ends with him having lost everything including his life because of his error of judgement which takes place when the Giaour tempts him to devote his life to him and abjure Mahomet (p.124) and get in return absolute power, knowledge and treasure a choice that could constitute his tragic fall. The Giaour, however, expects in advance the blood of fifty children before opening the door of the Subterranean Palace of Fire. To Gaston Bachelard, the door is a primal image and the very origin of a daydream that accumulates desires and temptations: the temptation to open up the ultimate depths of being, and the desire to conquer all reticent beings (Bachelard, p.222). The tempted Vathek journeys towards primitivity and daydreams about controlling all creatures; he falls victim to his desire and struggles to re-define his identity as a Commander of the Faithful, a Vicegerent of the Prophet, a Muslim, or a worshipper of the Devil, and a holder of the talismans of power. His curiosity pushes him, like Dr. Faustus, to choose the path of the Devil. Vatheks tragic flaws include curiosity, recklessness, pride and heterosexuality. In this respect, Vathek is similar to a Shakespearean tragic hero who shows some marked imperfection or defect such as pride and excessive susceptibility to sexual emotions (Bradley, p.25) that make his fall eminent. Pride deprives Vathek of his last chance of repentance when he wished to fall prostrate to the Shepherd (p.183). This scene is a re-enactment of the one in which Eblis refused to fall prostrate to Adam out of pride. In the Holy Quran, Allah asks the angels to Bow down to Adam and they obey except Eblis who 1 refused and was haughty (Cow Sura: Verse 34) . Allah asks Eblis why he refuses to obey His command, Eblis says, I am better than he: Thou didst create me from fire, and him from clay (The Heights Sura: Verse 12). Thus, all characters in the novel that follow the example of Eblis and are blinded by pride such as Vathek, the four princes and a princess, and the Solimans are doomed to meet Eblis fate. Being an Oriental tale rich with stereotypes intensifies the novels preoccupation with identity. Edward Said defines Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient (Said, pp.2-3) and argues that it creates misrepresentations of the East in an attempt to understand it as a colonised object and to justify the dominance and superiority of the coloniser. It is a process that transforms the Orient from a very far distant and often threatening Otherness into familiar and artificial figures (ibid., p. 21). The discourse of Orientalism imposes the image of the East as seen through Western eyes, along with their concomitant prejudices, cultural arrogance, and racism. Said writes that the Orient seems still to suggest not only fecundity (fruitfulness) but sexual promise (and threat), untiring sensuality, unlimited desire, deep generative energies (Said, p.188). Further, in his article The Discourse of the Orient, he claims that [t]he Orient was almost a European invention, and has been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences (Said in Walder, p.234). Similarly, Clarke maintains that Asia is a cipher for the Western unconscious, the

All citations from the Holy Quran are from Yusuf Alis translation of the meanings of the Holy Quran.


Journal of Language and Literature, ISSN: 2078-0303, February, 2010

repository of all that is dark, unacknowledged, feminine, sensual, repressed and liable to eruption (Clarke, p.4). Beckfords Orientalism, as George Sherburn claims, is derived largely from the Arabian Nights and its train of imitations (Sherburn, p. 1031) whereas Julia Wright states that Beckford creates a fantastic orient with supernatural machinery and excessive passions (Wright, p. 263) which generate a binary opposition of both Orientalism and the Gothic that makes the orient insensible and unable to cohere as a community or adhere to the English colonial settlers (ibid., p. 268). This insensibility becomes monstrous thus generating an excess of feeling in the English, driving east and west further and further apart (ibid., p.268). Likewise, Aidan Day claims Vathek presents what is exceptional rather than the conformable (Day, p.50), and Ismail Patel maintains that Vathek depicts the East as uncivilized and as a place where a backward system of government operates and tyrants rule, where morality is nonexistent and where superstition is allowed to reign (Patel). To him, Vathek, at various levels, is attempting to present a true image of the East it is presented as a true picture of Eastern practice (Patel). Vathek, does not deviate from the stereotypical image of the Orient as a land of sexual promise in which rewards are women as those in the The Retreat of Mirth palace (p.110). It is also a land of magic and witchcraft as exemplified by Carathis witchcraft (p.132) and the Giaours magical sabers (p.112), a land of the bizarre such as the Giaours extraordinary ability that enables him to break free from prison (p.114), and a land of darkness that is to be feared such as the scary experience of Nouronihar with the globe of fire (p.158). In addition, the novel promotes the stereotypical image of the Orientals. To Patel, Vathek, and his world, [are] both violent and possessed with luxury, sex and sensuality (Patel). Indeed, Vathek appears as a man of extremes who loves, hates, eats, and has sex too much. He has so many wives for he delighted in variety (p.142) and is much addicted to women (p.109). Usually, colonized races are stereotyped in the aforementioned way to justify colonization. Homi Bhabha states that the moment of colonial discourse occurs when epithets racial or sexual come to be seen as modes of differentiation (Bhabha, p.19) and explains that colonisers construe the colonised as a population of degenerate types on the basis of racial origin, in order to justify conquest and to establish systems of administration and instruction (Bhabha, p.23). The degeneration of non-Europeans or of colonised races is, according to Jean-Paul Sartre, due to the fact that an elite of usurpers who are aware of their mediocrity would establish their privileges by debasing the colonized to exalt themselves, denying the title of humanity to the natives, and defining them as simply absences of qualities animals, not humans (Memmi, p.xxvi, my italics). Stephen Muecke observes that social conditions, or whatever is going on, are seen as the effect of peoples genes, their essential racial difference (Botsman, p.107, my italics). Similarly, Benedict Anderson maintains that Colonial racism generalised a principle of innate, inherited superiority which gave Englishmen superiority over subjected natives (Anderson, p.150). Moreover, Michael Parenti notes that the myth of cultural backwardness goes back to ancient times, used by conquerors to justify the enslavement of indigenous peoples, and that the savagery and lower level of cultural evolution were emblematic of their inferior genetic evolution (Parenti, p.8.). Terry Eagleton warns that pure difference merely collapses back into pure identity, united as they are in their utter indeterminacy (Eagleton, p.36). In effect, the world becomes divided into an Us/Them binary in which the Us has all the positive qualities and genetic superiority and the Themhas all the negative qualities and the genetic inferiority. The association between difference and identity justifies how, under the cover of objective science, genetic differences were deployed to render the colonised races inferior to the colonisers. Aboriginal people, for instance, were stereotyped by White Australians not by first-hand contact but by the symbols created by their predecessors (Langton, pp.33-34). Sturmer describes how many Aborigines, even today, do not live according to civilised notions of society, refinement, propriety, group welfare or personal wellbeing. They also fight too much, they drink too much, fuck too much, they are too demanding, they waste their money and destroy property (Langton, p.39, my italics). The focus on the plural they reveals, according to Memmi, how the colonised is never dealt with as an individual in his/her own right but rather as an anonymous collectivity (Memmi, P.85). The stereotypical image of the Aboriginal people is a general one that is applied almost to all colonized races. Although Vathek appears as a colonizer as shall be discussed later, he, nevertheless, has the characteristics of the colonized. Despite Vatheks addiction to women, critics argue that his sexual identity appears to be homosexual when he strips naked for the fifty children in the human sacrifice scene. Such a problematic sexual identity is caused, according to Max Fincher, by Beckfords failure to accommodate his homoerotic desire within a model of romantic love that nourished the Gothic vision of Vathek (Fincher, p.229). In addition, Firdous Azim claims that the sexuality drawn in this novel is connected with Beckfords mode of life: Beckford himself had been accused of homosexuality and pederasty (Azim, p.185). Fincher associates Beckfords conception of hell as being peopled by isolated, miserable individuals with their hearts literally on fire with Beckfords own guilt and fear of damnation over his desire for young men


Journal of Language and Literature, ISSN: 2078-0303, February, 2010

(Fincher, p.229). Beckford, himself, maintains that he wrote Vathek in response to his voluptuous festival (Carso, p.33). More to the point, Beckfords own problem with identity is, according to Gill, reflected [a]cross the pages of Vathek and, indeed, of Beckfords whole life pass and mingle the successive actors of his disjointed identity (Gill, p. 241). Dennis Kratz claims that Vathek has a strong autobiographical element and that [t]he caliph himself reflects several aspects of Beckfords complicated personality (Kratz). If such claims are valid, then the authors own sexual identity is in a crisis just like Vatheks. More to the point of the autobiographical element in the novel, Kratz claims that Carathis is based on Beckfords domineering and strong-willed mother (Kratz). Carathis, Vatheks mother, adds to this problem of identity since she had induced him, being a Greek herself, to adopt the sciences and systems of her country, which all good Mussulmans hold in such thorough abhorrence (p.114) and Vathek holds her responsible for his perdition (p.192). Gill, however, warns that critics and even Beckford himself who failed to find a centre or authorial identity have created a number of identities to satisfy their own perceptions of the needs of the novel (Gill, p.242). Thus, the aforementioned critics have highlighted the question of identity in the novel by trying to prove it autobiographical or not. There is, however, another aspect of identity which critics have overlooked and that is space. The novel begins with Vatheks dissatisfaction with his fathers palace which he considers far too scanty (p.109) for his greatness. So, he adds to it five wings, or rather, other palaces which he destined for the particular gratification of each of the senses (p.109). Bachelard explains that the house shelters daydreaming and protects the dreamer. To him, [t]he values that belong to day dreaming mark humanity in its depths. Daydreaming even has a privilege of autovalorization (Bachelard, p.6). Vatheks house/palace thus draws a link between space, sensuous identity and pride. It protects him against the angry viziers when he kills their children (p.129) and protects his daydreams of achieving absolute power and knowledge. Bachelard claims that space is everything, for time ceases to quicken memory (Bachelard, p.9). Interestingly, one of the palaces that Vathek adds to his fathers palace is called the Support of Memory which includes many rarities (p.110); it is space (palace) that contains time (memory/rarities) just as Motassems palace which represents the past is now contained in Vatheks other palaces. Vathek also builds a tower in order to get closer to the stars (p.111) Vatheks ego is inflated when he ascends the 1500 steps and sees from the top of his tower people looking so tiny and cities looking like bee-hives (p. 111). Bachelard explains that [t]his valorization of a center of concentrated solitude is so strong, so primitive, and so unquestioned (Bachelard, p.32). It is on top of his tower that Vathek, in a state of solitude, dreams of the fantastic adventure that he reads in the stars, and commits the sacrifice for the subterranean Genii which makes him sink into primitivity and leads to his doom. Vatheks palace and his tower are connected with a secret subterranean passage (p.129). The tower contains secret stairs that lead to the mysterious recesses in which were deposited the mummies that had been wrested from the catacombs of the ancient Pharaohs (P.130). The space of the tower and palaces as well as that of the secret passages resemble Carl Jungs description of the mental structure as: a building the upper story of which was erected in the nineteenth century; the ground-floor dates from the sixteenth century, and a careful examination of the masonry discloses the fact that it was reconstructed from a dwelling-tower of the eleventh century. In the cellar we discover Roman foundation walls, and under the cellar a filled-in cave, in the floor of which stone tools are found and remnants of glacial fauna in the layers below. That would be a sort of picture of our mental structure (Quoted in Bachelard, p.xxxvii) The tower and palaces contain the very distant past (Pharaohs), the near past (Motassems palace) and the present (Vatheks palaces and upper part of the tower).

Vathek feels curios when he reads the promise of the stars about the great adventure (p.112) and becomes restless after the Giaour disappears without answering any of his questions about the rare objects; he becomes tormented with insatiable thirst (p.117), a symptom of his insatiable thirst for knowledge. The Giaour gives him a phial of red and yellow mixture (p.119), which Vathek drinks. These colours foreshadow Vatheks destiny as red represents blood, sacrifice, violent passion; disorder (Guerin, p.158) and yellow is the negative connotation of green which means death and decay (ibid., p.158). Hence, Vathek will commit an act of bloodshed, a sacrifice that will lead to his moral decay and death. The human sacrifice is also foreshadowed in the reference to the sky [that] appeared streaked over with streams of blood, which reached from the valley even to the city of Samarah (p.124) thus connecting the locale from which the sacrifice is to be obtained (Samarah) and the sacrificial location (the valley). Vatheks curiosity drives him to sacrifice fifty children (p.127) a symbolic act of sacrificing his innocence, an act of Diabolical baptism, a sort of devilish initiation. The number of the children is symbolic because fifty stands


Journal of Language and Literature, ISSN: 2078-0303, February, 2010

for the 50 gates of intelligence which would be all the possible objects of the knowledge as if one child is sacrificed per gate. It is also considered the holiest and the most natural of numbers and has spiritual significance in Judaism, Christianity and Islam according to Riding the Beast website. Vathek undresses before the sacrifice (p.127), a symbolic act of casting away civilization and sinking into primitivity as befits a human sacrifice ritual. The children, however, are saved by a genius and taken to nests higher than the clouds which are inviolable asylums that are defended against the dives and the afrits by waving streamers (p.178). The nest offers security and is also a hiding-place (Bachelard, p.94). [T]he world is a nest, and an immense power holds the inhabitants of the world in this nest (ibid., p.104). Gulchenrouz is also saved by the genius and lives there in eternal happiness because the genius has conferred upon them [children] the boon of perpetual childhood (p.178). Another possible reason for this happiness is, according to Bachelard, because a nest takes us back to our childhood or, rather, to a childhood; to the childhoods we should have had (Bachelard, p.93). He explains that [i]n a sort of nave way, we relive the instinct of the bird, taking pleasure in accentuating features of the green nest in green leaves (ibid., p.103). Carathis makes a human sacrifice in the tower (p.133) to finish what her son has started. Her sacrifice contains mummies and the bodies of many of Vatheks faithful subjects. It also contains oil of the most venomous serpents, rhinoceros horns, and woods of a subtile and penetrating odourtogether with a thousand other horrible rarities (p.130). Vatheks identity begins to change after he falls in a trance and wakes up at the sight of the burning fire of the oblation (p.132); he has experienced a metaphorical death and wakes up a different man. Hence, he stops going to the mosque to pray or going to the divan to administer justice (p.136). In effect, Vathek stops caring about his social image and identity as the Commander of the Faithful and insults the embassy that returned from Mecca by throwing the precious besom in their faces (p.136-37) an action that symbolizes a rejection of Islam and what it stands for, though the besom issue is a misconception about Islam since Muslims do not deem such objects sacred even if they are used to clean the Caaba. Then he embarks on a journey from Samarah to Istakhar or from civilization to primitivity since Istakhar represents darkness, unconscious, unknown, to be feared, primitivity and the realm of the devil whereas Samarah represents civilization, light, the conscious, and the realm of God. The components of the sacrifice are symbolic of the process of artistic creativity that links both tradition and individual talent; they are the ingredients of a literary work of fiction; old traditional characters coupled with innovative ones which proves T. S. Eliots claim that the artist is more primitive as well as more civilized than his contemporaries (Wellek, p.84) and reflects the way Vathek is enriched with texts from the past such as myths. The sacrifice includes the oil of serpents. Any Freudian critic would interprets all images whose length exceed their diameter (towers, mountain peaks, snakes, knives, lances, and swords) as male or phallic symbols (Guerin, p. 128) whereas Carl Jung regards a snake a symbol of energy and pure force (cf. libido) evil, corruption, sensuality; destruction; mystery; wisdom; the unconscious (Guerin, p.160). A snake is also associated with the seduction and the Great Fall of Adam and Eve. The reference to the serpent adds a touch of temptation and evil which is a necessary ingredient of a literary work and foreshadows Vatheks corruption and destruction. The elements of the sacrifice are burnt/fused together through some crazy ritual that resembles the artistic creativity of mad artists as the Greeks referred to them. According to Wellek and Austin, [t]he nature of literary genius has always attracted speculation, and it was, as early as the Greeks, conceived of as related to madness (Wellek, p.81). According Weisberg, the madness of the poet was the result of divine madness (Weisberg, 1994 quoted in Laurent). William Frosch also claims that Socrates and Plato spoke of the divine mania or inspiration of poets, but it was clearly distinguished from clinical insanity (Frosch). Hence, the different elements of the sacrifice are the input that generates a piece of writing, a parchment in the filigree urn (p.134) which represents the artistic output. Such an interpretation of the tower sacrifice leads to a discussion of Vatheks artistic identity. Vathek feels the pressure and rivalry of Gulchenrouz not only as lover of Nouronihar but more importantly as an artist. Gulchenrouz is a painter, a musician, a dancer, and a poet. He, therefore, is a challenging artist for Vathek especially because Gulchenrouz voice can make him win the heart of any female and the women all doted upon him (p.155). Hence, Vathek does not try to protect Gulchenrouz when Carathis wants to sacrifice him to the Giaour (p.176) though he promised Nouronihar not to harm him an incident that reveals the anxiety of the artist towards what is new since Gulchenrouz represents the new comprehensive innovative artist (he is just over thirteen years old) in contrast to Vathek who represents the traditional artist. The Shepherd is another rival artist for Vathek that will be discussed right after discussing Nouronihars identity which changes following her experience with the globe of fire. When the globe of fire descends everybody runs away but Nouronihar [goes] back alone because of her curiosity (p.158) which is similar to Vatheks. The globe of fire is a round object which, according to Bachelard, is a sign of primitivity (Bachelard, p.233). Round objects give us a lesson in solitude. For a


Journal of Language and Literature, ISSN: 2078-0303, February, 2010

brief instance, we must take them for ourselves alone (ibid., p.233) a matter that fits the loneliness of Nouronihar during the experience in which she is tempted like Vathek and strengthens the previous claim that the journey to Istakhar is one towards primitivity. Bachelard maintains that when a metaphysician tells us the being is round, he displaces all psychological determinations at one time and rids us of a past of dreams and thoughts, at the same time that he invites us to actuality of being (ibid., p.236). Consequently, Nouronihars dream of marrying Gulchenrouz is replaced with the dream of marrying Vathek and ruling the world with him. Nouronihar walks into a cave which is a symbol of the female womb since Freud considers concave images and water surfaces as female or womb symbols (Guerin, p.128). Thus, Nouronihar returns to the womb and experiences death-and-rebirth. She falls almost lifeless and remains in a state of trance during the experience (p.159) -a metaphorical state of death also suggested by the reference to the dirges which are sung over tombs and to the funeral screams of the birds (p.158). She sees a large cistern of gold, filled with water, the vapour of which distilled on her face a dew the essence of roses (p.159). Water in Jungian psychology, as explained before, is also a symbol of death and rebirth. The vapour on Nouronihars face becomes a symbolic act of Baptism. Bachelard explains that the house of wind and voice is a value that hovers on the frontier between reality and unreality (Bachelard, p.60) a description that fits Nouronihars cave experience. Nouronihar hears the voices announcing Vatheks love for her and informing her of the promise of absolute treasure and power (p.159). She does not know whether her experience in the grot (p.158-59) was real or imaginary because she was unconscious and woke up to find herself in her fathers harem. Indeed, Nouronihars experience hangs between reality and imagination in a similar way to that of Hawthornes Young Goodman Brown or to the narrator of Poes The House of Usher. Nevertheless, she acts as if it happened for real; she experiences spiritual transformation and realizes she has another identity, the wife of Vathek the sovereign of the world. She reveals her pride and love of control when she looks at Shaban indignantly and asks him to learn to reverence her who is born to give laws, and subject all to her power (p.160); the way she talks to Shaban and her refusal to be treated in the old way by being locked in the dark room (p.160) reveals that she has assumed a new identity. Similarly, Vatheks identity also changes. It evolves into that of a colonizer who gives himself the right to annul the arranged marriage of Nouronihar and Gulchenrouz and to usurp Nouronihar. Vathek protests to Emir Fakreddin as follows: would you surrender this divine beauty to a husband more womanish than herself? and can you imagine that I will suffer her charms to decay in hands so inefficient and nerveless? (p.161) Vatheks action is similar to what First World countries do to Third World Countries because the woman, Nouronihar in this case, has always been associated with the land. For example, one says the woman is raped and the land is raped, the woman is fertile and so is the land. Michael Parenti states that [t]he process of expropriating the natural resources of the Third World began centuries ago and continues to this day (Parenti, p.7). Hence, in Vatheks discourse, Nouronihar becomes, for instance, similar to Iraqi oil and Vathek becomes similar to the U.S. government which usurps it by force simply because might is right, and Emir Fakreddin becomes similar to a Third World client-state (ibid., p.17), to use Michael Parentis expression. In this sense, Wealth is transferred from Third World peoples to the economic elites of Europe and North America (and more recently Japan) by direct plunder, by the expropriation of natural resources (ibid., p.11). Let us not forget that Vatheks quest is for knowledge, power, and treasure which form the foundation of capitalist imperialism. Parenti explains that the pursuit of profit becomes a pursuit of evil (ibid., p. 13) which perfectly characterizes Vatheks quest. Imperial capitalism exploits children, and wastes lives of people. Imperialism forces millions of children around the world to live nightmarish lives, their mental and physical health severely damaged by endless exploitation (Parenti, p.12). Vathek exploits the fifty children whom he sacrifices for the Giaour just like he wastes the lives of many of his subjects during his quest for ultimate power. Such deaths are equivalent to what is nowadays referred to as collateral damage, not to mention that ultimate power is the dream of every colonizing nation. Michael Parenti argues that Superior firepower, not superior culture, has brought the Europeans and Euro-North Americans to positions of supremacy (ibid., p.8). Hence, Vathek gives himself the right to colonize and exploit the resources of others as for instance when he wonders, I forsooth must not enter any ones habitation! Be it so; but what one can I enter that is not my own? (p.146). He also gives himself the colonial power to destroy the property of others as when he orders his soldiers to level every oratory (p.180). After expropriating Nouronihar, Vathek continues his journey towards Istakhar but has to confront the Shepherd first. When the Shepherd plays the flute, Vatheks cafila is drawn involuntarily to him (p.182). The scene includes two lakes that became of a colour like blood (p.182) probably because of Vathek and Nouronihars bad deeds or their diabolical initiation. Water surfaces are symbols of the female womb because it is in a symbol of birth-death-resurrection as well as purification and redemption (Guerin, pp.157-58). Hence, the lakes represent another chance for Vathek and Nouronihar for death-and-


Journal of Language and Literature, ISSN: 2078-0303, February, 2010

rebirth. Again it is space (the lake), which defines Vatheks fate. The Shepherds music subdued the very soul and had the effect of awakening remorse and reminding each person of the evil he had done (p.182). They all approach the Shepherd [w]ith down cast eyes (p.182) a reference that brings to mind T. S. Eliots The Hollow Men especially the lines: Those who have crossed/With direct eyes, to deaths other Kingdom (Ll.13,14 in Kermode, p.1999) and Eyes I dare not meet in dreams (L.19 ibid., p.1999). Vathek and his followers are similar to the hollow men who are afraid to meet the eyes of God thus their eyes are downcast unlike spiritual people who have direct eyes. The Shepherd asks Vathek who feels overawed (p.183) to return Nouronihar to her father (p.183). Apparently, Beckford is applying the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice here and fusing it with the myth of Persephone and Hades. Orpheus power when he plays the pipe had no limit; no one and nothing could resist him and [e]verything animate and inanimate followed him (Hamilton, p.103). Orpheus tries to use his artistic ability to rescue Eurydice from the hands of Hades which is similar to what the Shepherd is trying to do to Nouronihar/Persphone by rescuing her from the hands of Vathek/Hades using the same artistic method. When Vathek meets Nouronihar his identity is transformed into that of Hades. Vathek, becomes a prince of darkness and is united with Nouronihar. After Nouronihars departure with Vathek, her fathers territory spiritually dies, it no longer becomes charitable and everything has the appearance of death. [T]he whole of its inhabitants exhibited only faces of half a cubit long, and uttered groans that accorded with their forlorn situation (p.170) as if Nouronihar was their Eros or as if she is Persephone the Maiden of Spring. The reference to the pomegranates (p.144) which the dwarfs bring to Vathek connects the novel to the myth of Hades and Persephone. To Payam Narbaraz, [t]he Pomegranate is the tree of knowledge in some myths and this supports the aforementioned connection between Vathek and Oedipus. In addition, the Pomegranate is also linked with the underworld as seen in the Greek story of Persephone in which Persephone is kidnapped by Hades and taken to the realm of the dead to be his queen. Persephone willingly eats a seed of pomegranate thus she is forced to spend every winter with her husband in the land of the dead, symbolising the decay and revival of vegetation (Narbaraz). Such use of myth becomes more valid if examined in relation to the tower sacrifice as a symbolic act of creative writing that combines tradition and innovation as explained before. When Vathek reaches the Subterranean Palace of Fire, the doors at once flew open and as suddenly recoiled the moment they had entered (p.186) thus suggesting entrapment. Bachelard explains that Outside and inside form a dialectic of division . It has the sharpness of the dialectics of yes and no, which decides everything (Bachelard, p.211). He adds that Mans being is confronted with the worlds being, as though primitivity could be easily arrived at (ibid., p.212). Vathek at this stage is trapped and will be alienated in this underworld of primitivity which became accessible after several human sacrifices, so much bloodshed that was needed for this diabolical initiation. He sees multitudes of people running, screaming and each has their right hand on their hearts (p.186). These sinners were incessantly passing without once regarding anything around them (p.186). Their hearts, including Vatheks, are all set on fire which, according to Brian Stableford, is a metaphysical flame that leaves all the yearnings of the flesh intact while mocking all ambition, emotion, and enlightenment (Stableford). The description of this land of torment is similar to that of a wasteland. The sinners are unheedful of the rest, as if alone on a desert which no foot had trodden (p.186). The desert in which they roam infinitely reflects their spiritual death and brings to mind the following lines from T. S. Eliots The Hollow Men: In this last of meeting places/We grope together/And avoid speech (Ll.57-59 in Kermode, p.1999). Eventually, Vathek realizes he is trapped in Eblis Palace of Fire and is doped by the Giaour. He asks, O Mahomet! remains there no mercy? (p.190). Such a question leads to another problematic identity in the novel which is that of prophet Mohamed Peace Be Upon Him. Notice that whenever Vathek is in trouble, he remembers prophet Mohamed and asks for his forgiveness (p.144 and p.190, for example). Also, in the beginning of the novel, the prophet threatens to chastise Vathek for his transgressions (p.111). Beckford projects the image of Jesus Christ as the son of God or as God himself upon prophet Mohamed. Muslims believe that prophet Mohamed is mortal not divine, and that one needs to pray to and ask the forgiveness of Allah not to the prophet. This projection is a misconception of Islam like many others such as the sacred besom (p.136) which is discussed earlier. Other misconceptions about Islam include the claim that certain animals will be admitted into the paradise of Mahomet (p.134), and that Nimrod is a great warrior who wanted to build a tower to escape being drowned (p.111) when in fact he was an arrogant tyrant who tried to burn prophet Abraham in a great fire because he destroyed the idols, but Allah said to the fire O Fire! be thou cool, and (a means of) safety for Abraham! (Prophets Sura: Verse 69). Another misconception is the reference to a verse from Holy Quran (p.145) which does not actually exist in it. Further, Soliman Ben Daoud suffers in the Palace of Eblis whereas in the Holy Quran Allah praises him by saying To David We gave Solomon (for a son),- How excellent in Our service! Ever did he turn (to Us)! (Sad Sura: Verse 30), and Allah declares that Soliman enjoyed, indeed, a Near Approach to Us, and a beautiful Place of (Final) Return (Sad Sura: Verse 40).


Journal of Language and Literature, ISSN: 2078-0303, February, 2010

To Conclude, Beckfords Vathek is quite problematic and resists labeling. The novel shares many aspects of a Shakespearean tragedy and promotes the Oriental stereotypes and, thus, contains a colonial discourse especially in the depiction of Vathek as a mad and uncontrolled colonial power that is willing to do anything to achieve its imperial capitalistic purposes as it is guided by the principle of End Justifies the Means. The analysis targeted the archetypal journeys of self-discovery for both Vathek and Nouronihar while simultaneously analysing the interpretation of certain objects in the novel. An examination of Vatheks problematic identity proves that it is possibly related to Beckfords own life. The analysis also deals with the question of artistic creativity and establishes a connection between the novel and certain myths. Finally, some misconceptions of Islam are highlighted. Nonetheless, Beckfords Vathek still contains many hidden secrets that remain hidden in the caskets of the Subterranean Palace waiting for critics to unveil them.


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Journal of Language and Literature, ISSN: 2078-0303, February, 2010

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