How ‘A Thousand and One Nights’ disregards morals in its focus on citizens fulfilling the roles they are given, all through the exploration of four women in particular.
In this essay, I will start by exploring the stories of the four girls and how they are viewed by the book and King Shahrayar. Once that is established, I will go into the particulars of the story and just what the message of this story is, as well as my interpretations and understandings. But first, here are the basics of the story.
From the beginning of A Thousand and One Nights, we are introduced to the character Shahrazad. She is the central figure of this story as she decides to marry King Shahrayar, risking her life for the benefit of others. Previously, the King had been betrayed by his Queen and concubines, leading to him deciding to marry a woman each night and kill her soon after in a perpetual cycle. This story follows her as she tells a story each of the A thousand and One Nights she spends with him, pushing off her own execution for three years. In these stories, we are introduced to various men and women. Many of the women mentioned are driven by their desires: three in particular use different methods to achieve their goals, but through this they come to be objectified by the men around them. King Shahrayar’s first Queen uses deceit to cheat on her husband, the girl locked in a demon’s chest uses lust, and the girl transformed into a deer relies on an evil nature. Shahrazad stands as the antithesis to these three women as she makes her choices based on the benefit of others around her.
Driven by Deceit: King Shahrayar’s First Queen
The story of the deceitful and cheating Queen is the very reason for the entire plot of the story; for why King Shahrayar decides to marry one woman each night and kill her thereafter in a vicious cycle. While King Shahrayar was on a hunting trip, his brother Shahzaman happened to see the deceitful actions of his brother’s Queen. He watched as the Queen led twenty slaves into the garden; as ten of them turned out to be males who then slept with the other ten slave girls. Then, he saw as the Queen slept with a black slave named Mas’ud. Afterwards, Shahzaman remarks “‘This is our common lot. Even though my brother is king and master of the whole world, he cannot protect what is his, his wife and his concubines, and suffers misfortune in his very home’”(Heller-Roazen, 7). When King Shahrayar finally finds out, he is distraught. Not that his wife betrayed him and his trust, but more that she ignored her role and was so methodical in her plan to betray her King. In this time, the Queen’s role was to be obedient to her husband and provide him with children so that the Royal Bloodline could continue. King Shahrayar’s revelation about his own Queen’s adultery is shocking as it brings into question the legitimacy of any children she would have and could even lead to the destruction of the kingdom. Furthermore, it’s not just his wife cheating on him, but also his concubines- many of whom can also bring his heirs into this world. Upon returning home later on, he decides to have his Vizier execute his wife- as her deceit has been revealed and her role disgraced, she is of no more use to him. She is no longer a queen; but is now an object that needs to be disposed of. Next, King Shahrayar himself goes and kills all of his slave girls, replacing them with other women as they too have become useless objects. Notice here that he is blaming and executing the women, not the male slaves or Mas’ud for their actions. He sees the women as the ones in the wrong- the ones who abandoned and betrayed their role in society and punishes them for that. In this, he is objectifying them by only seeing them as a manifestation of their roles- as shown by the fact that none of them are spoken of by name, only Mas’ud is.
Driven by Lust: The Girl Locked in a Demon’s Chest
This story is a deciding factor in King Shahrayar deciding to create his plan: to marry a woman one night and then kill her the next morning. While King Shahrayar and Shahzaman are out traveling around, they reach the seashore and decide to rest. After this, a demon steps out of the sea carrying “a large glass chest with four steel locks”(Heller-Roazen, 10). In the chest was a woman who was to sit quietly as the demon slept. Seeing the two kings hiding up in the tree, the lust-driven woman demands that they sleep with her or she will have the demon kill them. After conceding to her demand, the woman tells them that this demon had kidnapped her to keep her chaste and virtuous, but that despite his best efforts(keeping her is a chest with four steel locks under the sea), she was able to sleep with now 100 men. She states “that nothing can prevent or alter what is predestined and that when a woman desires something, no one can stop her”(Heller-Roazen, 11). This woman’s lust is such a part of her that not even the powerful actions of a demon can stop her from fulfilling her desires. She sees her objectification- a chaste little doll kept in the chest -and uses it to her advantage, but she is still trapped in that chest no matter what; she can only make the best of her life in that chest. Even more, her actions here trap her even further- all the two kings can see her as is a lust-driven woman, shown when King Shahrayar concludes that “‘There is not a single chaste woman anywhere on the entire face of the earth’”(Heller-Roazen, 12). This leads him to create his plan; the plan that brings Shahrazad into the story as, to stop him from killing the many girls in the kingdom, she decides to marry him and risk her own death.
Driven by an Evil Nature: The Wife Transformed Into a Deer
In one of Shahrazad’s stories we are introduced to the man who marries his cousin. The cousin continues through life with her husband, but is unable to have children. Despite this, her husband still “continued to be kind to her, to care for her, and to treat her generously”(Heller-Roazen, 23). Reality still existed though and the man knew he needed a child so he took a mistress who gave him a son. His wife couldn’t live with this fact and so she set out to learn magic- all she cared about was herself rather than what her husband wanted and so she saw the mistress and her son as obstacles in her way. Using magic, she turned the mistress into a cow and the son into a bull even though she was entrusted with their safety and had a duty to uphold that for her husband. Upon the return of her husband from his journey, she simply stated that the mistress had died and the son had run away- this could’ve been all she did, but she went much further than that. Through her cleverness, she made it so that her husband killed his mistress and even wanted him to kill his son, the young bull- to rid him of his posterity by his own hand. He didn’t concede and soon found out the truth. Finding another female magician, she returned his son to normal and cursed his wife. Due to her evil nature and trickery, the wife became objectified- her husband no longer cared for her as his wife and allowed her to become an animal as karma for what she did to his mistress and son. She had failed in her duties as his wife and so was now no longer a human in any way; just a deer made to follow her husband in all that he does.
Shahrazad: A Selfless, Chaste, and Kind Woman
All three of the previous women were driven by their own desires to be deceitful, lust-driven, and evil in their nature and choices. As we read of these women as well as others from different stories, we are shown Shahrazad in the frame story and we learn who she is. Shahrazad is the completely opposite of these women. King Shahrayar’s first Queen was deceitful in her actions to reach her own desires, she ignored the duties of her role and instead followed her own wishes; Shahrazad is truthful in her approach to King Shahrayar. She spends each night with him telling him story after story and bears three children for him. She never tricks him and is instead very open about herself to him. The girl who was locked in a chest was driven by her lust and manipulated people with fear and death to fulfill that desire; Shahrazad herself never attempted that as King Shahrayar himself admitted at the end of the book when he says “‘By Allah, O Shahrazad, I pardoned thee before the coming of these children, for that I found thee chaste, pure ingenuous and pious!’”(Burton, 54). From early on in the book, Shahrazad has been chaste unlike the girl who had been locked in the chest- enough that her chastity was noticed by a King who had gained such a dire and stubborn view of women previously from his first Queen and the girl in the chest. Through her simple and pure actions, Shahrazad overturns that. As for the wife who was turned into a deer, she had a naturally evil nature and only cared about her own wishes and desires- going so far as to use magic on her husband’s mistress and son and then bring about their deaths. Shahrazad’s kindness and good nature is shown at the end of the story. She has lived with the King for three years- she could’ve used her connection to him to her advantage so she could live; but instead she worries about their sons and what will happen to them if she is gone. She does not beg for her life; only worries for their well-being. This fact sets her apart from the woman who was turned into a deer; her selflessness and kindness. Even more, all three of the women mentioned are objectified due to their own actions. The Queen abandons her role as does the wife; the girl in the chest also abandons her role as a chaste and virtuous woman. This leads to a degradation of their worth, individuality, and humanity for the men around them. Shahrazad avoids this, as she does not decide things for herself, but for others. She steps forward to marry the king to try to save any future ‘wives’ from death; she tells the King stories and does not force him to change his mind, allowing him to decide for himself; she follows the role she holds as a Queen well; then in the end, she worries about their children rather than herself. In this, she focused on the people around her. These choices set her apart from other women mentioned in the book and slowly increase her worth and individuality to the people around her. This is shown by that fact that she is given and referred to by her name unlike the other women. She is seen as a person by those around her, especially King Shahrayar who loves her deeply and praises her beauty and virtues at the end of the book.
Throughout this book, we meet many different women. Three in particular are driven by their own desires and focused on themselves, using lust, deceit, and evil motives to succeed. Through these views and actions, the three women become objects to the people around them and are trapped there, losing their worth and individuality. Shahrazad, though, is selfless in all of her actions, focusing on others and their well-being. Due to this, she stands out against all these women and doesn’t become part of the mold of ‘unchaste women that dot the earth’. Instead, King Shahrayar grows to love and care for her, to see her as a true and kind person worthy of the roles she had been given. This truth is shown in one simple fact: the three women from the stories have no names, yet Shahrazad herself does- she is a true and chaste woman in the view of the book.
The perspective this old classic takes is a shocking one at heart, as it explores various women and the roles and choices that they have made in their lives. It has such a negative view of women solely due to the focus being on King Shahrayar. This narration follows the King through his own viewpoints and realizations, acting as the very mind of this character. As the man runs into betrayal and deceit caused by the women around him(first his own Queen and Concubines, then to the woman in the chest, and then to the wife that uses magic for her own selfish goals), leading to him seeing all women as evil and conniving. Unfortunately, people have a pattern throughout history of making blanket punishments based on their own experiences. If one runs into members from a certain group that all act in one way, they assume that that is the very nature of every member of that group- when that is never true. What is interesting about this story is how it explores roles- the men in these stories are committing the same acts that the women are, yet it is the women that are blamed. This is due to the roles that each was given: as King, Shahrayar is to find a queen and create a harem of women. His role is to rule his country and seek to continue the royal line. In such royal systems throughout history, that has been the way of things.
It is tradition and King Shahrayar is determined to fulfill his role. That is why he feels so betrayed by the Queen- in her turning away from her role and responsibilities to create an heir with him and only him, she is also damaging his ability to fulfill his role. What if her deceit was never realized and she had an heir with someone else, yet proclaimed it as the King’s child? What if that child was made heir? He would not have the blood of royals and so, in truth, the royal bloodline would end with King Shahrayar. Even more, the King’s concubines have forgotten and ignored their own role too. If the queen has been unfaithful, that is one thing- the bloodline can still continue due to the harem. But the harem has been doomed as well. All of their roles have been disregarded by their own hands, leaving no one to carry on the royal bloodline without doubt or suspicion falling onto the situation.
With the young women in the chest, she has been given a role by a supernatural force: to stay chaste and virtuous. Hers, of course, is more literal a role as she is to stay inside the chest as a pure doll. Instead of being obedient to her role, she consistently twists it and uses it to her own advantage. She threatens the men she comes across as the demon is not looking, fast asleep. She uses their fear of death against them so that she can fulfill her desires and go against the role she has been given. So, even though the men agree and participate in her plan, the fault falls to her orchestrations. It’s a dark role to fill, really, and one can see why she would push against such a situation. And yet, she is not really trying to escape: not once in that situation did she ask the men to help her escape and leave the demon. From this, it gives the idea that she is content in her role and in fact is using it to her advantage. Through being in this box and traveling with this demon, she is able to easily accomplish her goals and desires. In truth, she is much like the previous Queen, using her role and power to her advantage to fulfill the goals and desires that she has and, through that, they have both brought dishonor to the very roles they were given.
With the wife that was unable to have her own children, hers is a dark tale. At first, one can understand her pain and betrayal. Here is this women, married with a husband who cares dearly for her. Yet, due to fate, she is not able to have children. Due to this, her husband cannot fulfill his role to continue his family line and so he must, like the King, find someone else to sire a child. One can understand the wife’s pain here, but it is how she responds that seals her fate. It is one thing to be hurt by the situation, it is another to wish harm on this mistress and her child. For the wife’s role has evolved now to include both the mistress and the son. It is her duty to take care of and protect the two as well as her husband- in her machinations, she completely perverts this role by using magic to turn the two into animals and deceive her husband. She doesn’t stop here, though, instead she goes further and makes it so that her husband kills his own mistress and almost kills his own son. Her own desires have crossed onto a dark path where she is now, singlehandedly, destroying the very role of both herself and her husband.
At first, when reading this story, one can’t help but see the morals at hand and how differently the two genders are treated. Yet, after studying this story, it is clear that this story’s focus is not on morals. There is no discussion on what is right or wrong, or who has sinned the most. That is not what is at stake here: this is not a religious tale, instead it is a political tale. This is a time when everyone is defined by the roles they are given. Men are to preside and continue on their family line and women are to care for and bear children for their husband. This is at the core of everything and is of the utmost importance; nothing else truly matters to this narration. People are free to do whatever they wish as long as this role is fulfilled. King Shahrayar, the demon, and the husband have kept this in mind and tried to fulfill their own roles: it is their partners that have sought to destroy this. The women are not looked down on because they have listened to their desires, they are disregarded and seen as evil because they have turned against their own roles. This tale gives the idea that we are free to desire many things, as long as those desires do not impede the roles we have been given. If they do, then one has failed and no longer serves any purpose as a part of society. For that is at the center of this story: the perpetuation of society. That is why Shahrazad is seen as a virtuous women; not because she tosses aside her desires(for this whole story started because she wished to save the women around her), but because she accepted her role and filled it perfectly. She was a wonderful queen, full of honor and obedience. She was respectful to her husband and bore three children(3 sons at that) and in the end accepted whatever decisions her husband had, caring for her children and husband throughout it all. Even more, in her determination to fulfill her role, she places the King back on the path to fulfill his own role. Through the events of his life, he had begun to see all women as unfaithful and unable to fulfill their roles. His decision to marry a woman each night and kill her shortly after meant that he had no true way to continue the royal line, thereby not fulfilling his own role. Shahrazad’s actions make is so that he wakes up and is finally able to fulfill his role. That is what all women should strive towards in society and it is why Shahrazad is seen as such a wonderful woman, the book posits. While I myself see her as incredible due to her intelligence, selflessness, and wisdom(who in the world could stand up to such terrible odds and last through it for three years through crafting story after story every night, never knowing that they had succeeded in their goal until they ran out of stories and submitted themselves to their husband’s will???) that is not what the story is holding up. It is all centered on the roles we are given in society and how we are to fulfill them, that is the true message of this tale.
Burton, Richard F. The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night: Volume X. United States: The Burton Club, 1885.
Heller-Roazen, Daniel. The Arabian Nights. Translated by Husain Haddawy. Edited by Muhsin Mahdi. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.