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The representation of the article vathek

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 983 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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William Beckford’s ‘Vathek’ is a European narration of the Orient where there seems to exist a deliberate stress on qualities that make the East different from the West. In Said’s words, Orientalism is “ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promotes the difference between the familiar, that is the West (“us”), and the strange, which is the Orient, the East ( “them”). There is an ‘insistent claim’, according to Rana Kabani, in the European narration of the Orient, that the East was a place of ‘lascivious sensuality’ and ‘inherent violence’, and this claim is very appropriate and significant when analyzing ‘Vathek’.

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In this gothic tale, Beckford presents to his readers an Orient which is predominantly evil, mythical, exotic, mysterious and irrational. The story opens with emphasis on Vathek’s pride and sensuality. He is a caliph who constantly seeks to gratify his senses. The British author describes exotic, sensuously breathtaking gardens and luxurious palaces. Vathek’s palaces, which are each one described with dazzling details, are dedicated to the five senses. One of his palaces represents his lust, with its reference to the Houris. Reference is also made in the text to his numerous wives. Like Vathek, his subjects are also sensualists; “the subjects of the Caliph, like their sovereign, being great admirers of women and apricots from Kirmith, felt their mouths water at these promises”. The culture of the Orient is presented by Beckford as a culture of sensuality, voluptuousness, decadence and indolence. Through the narrative, the people in ‘Vathek’ are inherently ridiculed by the lengthy, detailed description of their ignorance, superstition and gross exaggerations. Edward Said’s general statement about the Western vision of Orientals as one which is much given to ‘fulsome flattery’, ‘intrigues’, cunning, unkindness, mystery, the unknown and the sensual can be very well applied to an analysis of ‘Vathek’ .

Just like Oriental writings of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ‘Vathek’ features exotic settings, supernatural happenings, character, behavior, emotion, and, deliberate extravagance of event, even to the extent of buffoonery. The Orientalism in ‘Vathek’ does the work of fiction more generally–providing imaginary characters, situations, and stories as an escape from the reader’s everyday reality. But according to Muna Al- Awan, “they operate more sensationally than other types of fiction. Pleasurable terror and pleasurable exoticism are kindred experiences, with unreality and strangeness at the root of both”. There is also a kind of satirical play on the names of the characters, so as to reinforce the otherness of the East, and so as to make the distinction between the simple, straightforward ways of the West, and the complicated, exaggerated and superficial ways of the East. This false representation of the Orient in Beckford’s writing echoes Said’s argument that the Eastern world presented in Orientalist literature is an “imaginative and imaginary world culled from the Arabian Nights and preconceived and prejudiced attitudes. It is a ‘discourse’ used to ‘produce’ the Orient-for various purposes, political and otherwise, particularly during the post-enlightenment period”.

Upon a first reading, this story might appear to be an entertaining Arabian tale, having nothing wrong in terms of problematic representation, but with Said’s ‘Orientalism’ in mind, the distortion of the reality of the East is very obvious. ‘Vathek’ clearly transforms the Oriental world into a nightmare by infusing it with wickedness and evil, and by painting a hell at its conclusion. The utter subservience of the caliph’s servants towards him, the knowledgeable people who come to his palace to solve his quests and gratify his thirst for knowledge, who are portrayed as naïve, easily manipulated and unquestionably faithful to the Caliph in spite of his cruelties and injustices, reinforces Said’s vision of the Orientalist’s well-orchestrated designs to “demonize” and “dehumanize” the East, and thus pave the way for the imperialist powers to step in and rule. The caliph for example announces that those who fail to decode the meaning of the words on the sword given to him by the mysterious ‘monster’ man will be executed. His irrational decision is then reduced to a more ‘reasonable’ one, that of burning off participants’ beard, which, in the eyes of readers is still an irrational and exaggerated demand. In addition, the tale seems to prove what Said describes as “one of the important developments in nineteenth-century Orientalism- the distillation of essential ideas about the Orient–its sensuality, its tendency to despotism, its aberrant mentality, its habits of inaccuracy, its backwardness”.

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The characters are all the familiar Oriental Gothic stereotypes. They are portrayed both to dazzle the imagination with their magnificently luxurious sensual life, and to arouse one’s derision because of their barbaric excesses and violence. A kind of ‘fixity’ as pointed out both by Said and Bhabha, in the orientalist discourse can be noted in the story. The negative portrayal of the East in ‘Vathek’ therefore creates and contributes to the myths of Otherness, which creates division and conflict between the East and the West. Using Said’s words then, the “Orient was orientalized- made Oriental” so as to serve imperial ends.


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