The 1001 nights
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The 1001 Nights
Can we connect Shahrazád to characters like Achilles, Hector, Gilgamesh, Enkidu, et al through the idea of conflict?
What other factors can we use to compare and contrast these characters across World Lit?
These men want glory, recognition, idealization, be remembered in songs and celebrated–as great leaders, warriors, etc. They want others to fear them.
What makes Shahrazád different? She’s an intellectual warrior–they often use brute force while she is tactical, a thinker, a planner–she’s using her education, her wit, her tactics to amplify her manipulation of the king to get what she wants. She uses her position as a woman as a weapon–the King doesn’t respect or fear her at all.
She’s the most human–she isn’t physically strong, but she uses her place and her intellect to change that apparent weakness, her femininity, into an unexpected strength and powerful lever for change. But there is a sense of cunning with her and women in general in the text–her femininity is seen as weakness, but she turns it into her power–she moves the King.
And because her descriptions are so open-ended, anyone can be Shahrazád if they are smart enough.
Women in 1001 Nights
One of the most difficult issues in all of world literature, and one of the most compelling, is the role accorded, afforded, subscribed, or otherwise forced, onto women. The 1001 Nights is no different from Gilgamesh and The Iliad is having fairly limited roles for women in the stories.
Except for Shahrazád. She is the smartest, most educated and learned character in the tales. She is in control of all the tales and the telling of the tales not only keeps her alive, but keeps other women from suffering the fate of a one day marriage and then death. And so Shahrazád the character forces us to evaluate the place of women in the 1001 Nights. How does her place in the center of these stories impact your understanding of the stories, and what can we say about images of femininity in the text?
Make a case that she is a feminist or not in the comments if you can. Likewise, think about the roles for women in the stories that she tells–is she trying to show the King (and us by extension) something about the terrible treatment of women in Persian society?
Narrative Framing in the Tales
The most extraordinary feature of The 1001 Nights is how deeply embedded the role of story-telling and the very nature of story-telling can be in stories that, on the surface, can seem simple. The concept of framing tales within other tales likely originated in India and came to Persia and into Arabic literature with travelers and trade. We especially see the Arabian language and cultural influence in the references to ‘Allah,’ the Arabic word for the God of Abraham, and the Prophet Muhamad.
However, the framing of the tales, from Shahrazád telling stories to the King and her sister to characters within her stories telling stories about story-tellers, can get quite complex. In fact, within the selections of text that we have in our textbook, there is at one point are four stories being told at once, as, e.g., the djinn/jinnee/Efreet’s story in ‘The Story of the Fisherman’ which then leads to the fisherman telling the djinn the ‘The Story of King Yoonán and the Sage of Doobán,’ which then has the sage telling the story of ‘The Husband and the Parrot,’ all of which are being told inside the main frame tale of Shahrazád, her sister, and the king. And then, each of the stories concludes and we go ‘back’ to the previous story.
It can get quite confusing knowing who is telling what story, but ultimately, it’s usually Shahrazád telling multiple stories at once. Imagine trying to keep all these stories straight in your head while trying to stay alive! I think we can say that the creators of these stories love Shahrazád and give her almost super-human creativity and cunning.
One way to visualize these stories is as Russian ‘nesting dolls’ seen here (Links to an external site.).
Or, if you have seen it, the overall structure is similar to–and The 1001 Nights is a huge influence on–the film Inception by Christopher Nolan though there, instead of storytellers and tales, we have dreamers and dreams–at one point in the film, there are four seperate dreams happening at once–maybe five if Cobb is dreaming everything himself (his top keeps spinning at the end of the movie, after all). Other contemporary writers who’ve been greatly influenced by 1001 Nights are the American writer John Barth and the great Anglo-Persian writer Salman Rushdie.
Each ‘level’ is unique but contained within the levels above it while (perhaps) containing levels below it–this view of looking at story creation comes from the American literary critic Brian McHale, and his book Postmodern Fiction, and he explores the Shahrazád impact in other essays and books.
In the comments, you might discuss how the stories’ structures help you understand the nature of story-telling better or how they confuse you with all these levels/story-tellers.
Themes and Features in 1001 Nights:
- Morals/lessons–many of the stories are didactic or meant to convey a lesson such as in the Fisherman’s story where pride and boastfulness are beaten by cleverness and keeping a calm head in a crisis.
- Repetition–many of the tales connect to the larger themes of being a good leader, king, husband, wife, or otherwise connect to the King and Shahrazád’s relationship–because her goal is to save herself, the other women of the country, and, in the end, return the king to his previous state of being a good ruler and man. So there are repeated themes, images, plots, and character types. The demons or djinns appear in several tales (and many in other tales in The 1001 Nights that we don’t have)
- Treachery–especially of the nature of ‘if you do bad to me, God will do bad to you’ — we see this in “The Fisherman’s Story,” e.g., among other tales. There is a great play with the nature of doing good and doing evil, punishment and the meeting out of justice, and a larger issue of how the smart characters, Shahrazád in particular, will outwit the King and live another day and escape his treachery. Treachery also connects to the much larger issue of women and men and sexual betrayal in the larger frame tale.
- Foreshadowing/Forecasting–as with repetition, this is a key feature of many of the stories we have and ones we don’t have in our selection. Many of the tales told by Shahrazád foreshadow or forecast the next story or a story to come.
- Minor themes:praising rulers or rulers who are undone by bad rulings; praising God; mercy and forgiveness; advice, warnings, and solutions; bad advice or bad luck and wishing for a chance at a ‘do-over;’ riddles and mental challenges; self-criticizing or criticizing society, rulers, etc.
In the comments, discuss your favorite or at least interesting examples of these themes in the tales we have from 1001 Nights.
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