The Arabian Nights is, perhaps, the best-known element of the Arabian folklore. However, reading the stories and especially the introduction to the book remains a thrilling adventure because of the emotional nature of the stories and the unique way of teaching moral lessons that each story offers. Still, the characters, particularly, the shah (Shahrayar) and Scheherazade are what makes the story unique and memorable. Although the book serves the purpose of reinforcing traditional gender roles and, therefore, feels somewhat out of place in the modern world, it also teaches wisdom and kindness with its stories told by Scheherazade.
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Arguably, the cruelty that almost seems nonsensical in the plot of The Prologue is expected to remind of quite dark elements in most folk tales. At first glance, the scenario that The Prologue incorporates represents the epitome of a narrative created for the shock value. However, on closer analysis, one will notice that a range of details pertaining to the plot and the characters serve to perpetuate the gender roles that were traditionally accepted at the time (Duggan et al. 401).
While representing a combination of comedy and macabre that clearly contrast the objective reality, The Prologue is a clear representation of the traditional values, such as chastity, and the notion of a repercussion for overstepping the set social boundaries. However, the whimsical tone and the elements of fantasy that separate the world of The Arabian Nights from the reality immediately do not allow establishing the described concepts clearly and, instead, only imply them. As a result, the novel establishes the importance of literacy as one of the main tools for living in a society where one has to face many threats and meet people with possibly negative intentions.
The intelligence, courage, and resourcefulness of Scheherazade is another point worth addressing. Facing likely death, she manages to find a way to survive and uses her skill of storytelling to find her way out of the terrible fate that awaits her. The idea of cunning as one of the main characteristics of a woman is stated early in the story, as Shahrayar and his brother face a horrifying demon: “O God, O God! There is no power and no strength, save in God the Almighty, the Magnificent. Great is women’s cunning” (The Arabian Nights 10).
Thus, the story promotes the stereotype of gender relationships within the specified society. However, when considering the character of Scheherazade, one will realize that her arc goes beyond the idea of using cunning as a survival strategy. She has not only cunning but also compassion, which allows her to empathize with the women that may be killed by Shahrayar, as well as wisdom, which helps her to understand the human nature.
Although the nearly comedic grimness of the story is at the foreground of the narrative, the introduction to The Arabian Nights also sets the relationships between the characters, their philosophies, and key characteristics clearly. Shahrayar is described as a grieving yet angry man quite vividly at the beginning of the story. The Tale of the Ox and the Donkey and the Tale of the Merchant and His Wife, in turn, serve as the character introduction to Scheherazade.
Both characters are quite relatable, even though the shah’s revenge dopes seem unnecessary evil. The reason for Shahrayar to act in the specified way is described very clearly. The shah feels betrayed, and, while exacting revenge on innocent people does not make him appealing, he remains an intriguing character. Scheherazade, in turn, incorporates the qualities that make her survival possible, which creates tension and makes the story exciting even despite most readers already know the ending.
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The Endless Tale
Being the continuation of Scheherazade’s endless story, The Merchant’s Tale and the other tales that she tells the shah during the first several nights leave a rather peculiar impression. The masterful way in which each story ends on a cliffhanger makes the reader invested and encourages one to keep reading. The plots of the stories introduce new characters organically, without leaving the audience confused, yet also changing the focus from one to another with each story.
Similarly to the first part of the book, with which the narration opens, the stories that Scheherazade tells Shahrayar focus on people’s resourcefulness and cunning as the prime means of survival. Thus, the fate of Scheherazade is paralleled to the lead characters of her every narrative, with the ability to think straight and the attention of details being more important than the power of money or any evil forces (Ibrahim 141). Thus, even when the characters in Scheherazade’s story are desperate and seemingly trapped, there is still a gleam of hope in it.
For example, in The Merchant’s Tale, the demon stops at the sight of the merchant’s tears, being unable to strike him: “The merchant began to weep and mourn his family and his wife and children. Again, the demon raised his sword to strike” (The Arabian Nights 18).
The lack of actual violence is another thing that strikes the reader when exploring The Arabian Nights. There are numerous threats of dreadful punishments and deaths, yet none of the characters dies in a gruesome way. Thus, the stories told during Scheherazade’s first several nights at Shahraytar’s palace strike hope in the reader. The optimistic air around every narrative in the first of the one hundred and one tale is truly uplifting for readers.
One could claim that the novel includes a range of hints at quite terrible deaths and possible harm caused to side characters. Indeed, the leading and side characters often face threats to their lives. Nevertheless, despite bordering very dark themes and often involving the situations in which lead characters face the threat of death, the stories that Scheherazade tells never incorporate any actual violence or graphic portrayals of death.
The theme of mercy and forgiveness parallels the situation in which Scheherazade has found herself and, therefore, set the tone for the development of her story. For instance, the notion of justice and the idea of responding in kind is expressed clearly in The Story of the Fisherman and the Demon. As the old man frees the evil spirit, it immediately wants to kill him, yet the man claims that it would be unfair: “’Tell me how you wish to die, and what manner of death you wish me to choose’. The fisherman asked: ‘What is my crime? Is this my reward from you for having delivered you?’” (The Arabian Nights 33). The idea of justice is repeated throughout the novel, with every story restating the importance of being fair.
By using well-developed characters, Arabian Nights shows how literacy art affects culture. Each of the short stores provides an important life lesson, teaching the reader a crucial value and providing examples of relationships within society. The art of literacy is shown as one of the main tools for survival, not only for Scheherazade but also for the Arabian culture, in general. Thus, each story offers a unique experience and shapes the reader’s sense of right and wrong.
The Arabian Nights. Translated by Husain Haddaway. W. W. Norton & Company, 2009.
Duggan, Anne E., et al. Folktales and Fairy Tales: Traditions and Texts from Around the World. 3rd ed., ABC-CLIO, 2016.
Ibrahim, Gehan S. A. Virtues in Muslim Culture: An Interpretation from Islamic Literature, Art and Architecture. New Generation Publishing, 2015.