“What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?”
This quote frames the central crisis of the novel: what role does story play in culture and society and what happens when it no longer has power. While the book is written for young adults, the theme of story is nuanced and complicated. Rushdie presents a land in which story is being destroyed, a symbol for the way that narrative is often destroyed in the quest for power. Haroun’s journey through the novel is an answer to the question of the importance of story. The ultimate answer is that story gives meaning.
“...in the Land of Chup, a Shadow very often has a stronger personality than the Person, or Self, or Substance to whom or to which it is joined! So often the Shadow leads, and it is the Person or Self or Substance that follows. And of course there can be quarrels between the Shadow and the Substance or Self or Person; they can pull in opposite directions...but just as often there is a true partnership, and mutual respect.”
This quote is spoken by Mudra, the Shadow Warrior, in an attempt to explain the unrest and evil in the Land of Chup. The shadow and the self are meant to represent two sides of a coin: the self symbolizes the personhood and autonomy of the individual. The shadow represents the forces of culture and society, such as politics or religion, with which the self is engaged. Rushdie proposes that these two sides can often conflict with each other, such as when religion causes a person to undertake unjust acts. However, there is beauty in these social and cultural forces when they work towards the freedom of the self.
“To give a thing a name, a label, a handle; to rescue it from anonymity, to pluck it out of the Place of Namelessness, in short to identify it -- well, that’s a way of bringing the said thing into being.”
This quote is spoken by Iff the Water Genie as he tries to explain to Haroun the power and reason behind the fantastical and magical events happening to him. This quote demonstrates the power of language in creating story and creating meaning. Throughout the novel, Rushdie uses imaginative language to create and veil the novel’s magical world. By creating fantastical language, Rushdie is also creating something that went without a name before. This, he argues, is the power of story. It is able to bring meaning where, before, there was none.
“‘But but but what is the point of giving persons Freedom of Speech,’ declaimed Butt the Hoopoe, ‘if you then say they must not utilize same? And is not the Power of Speech the greatest Power of all? Then surely it must be exercised to the full?”
The tension between freedom of speech and censorship is at the heart of the war between the Land of Gup and the Land of Chup. This tension comes out of Rushdie’s own biography. As a novelist, a fatwa was issued against him for his characterization of Muslims in one of his novels. This attempt at silencing a free, artistic voice provides background for the meaning of Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Rushdie does want to explore the limits of freedom of speech, however. In this passage, the army of Gup borders on mutinous behavior by questioning authority. In the end, the freedom that Gup has proves to be the key to their victory over the Chupwala army.
“The Chupwalas...turned out to be a disunited rabble. Just as Mudra the Shadow Warrior had predicted, many of them actually had to fight their own, treacherous shadows! And as for the rest, well, their vows of silence and their habits of secrecy had made them suspicious and distrustful of one another...The upshot was that the Chupwalas did not stand shoulder to shoulder, but betrayed one another, stabbed on another in the back, mutinied, hid deserted....”
This description of the end of the Chupwala army illustrates Rushdie’s point that a political society of censorship and authoritarian control can never stand when truly challenged. Because the people of Chup had been silenced by Khattam-Shud and because they had abandoned the narrative of their past and present, they proved to be no match for the free and talkative Guppees. The Chupwalas are meant to symbolize the destructive authoritarian regimes of the Middle East and Asia. Rushdie criticizes this rule as being nothing more than a shadow that will turn against its owner during difficult times.
“‘Really, this is beginning to look like a war between buffoons,’ thought Rashid the storyteller as he put on his false red nose.”
This line represents Rushdie’s view of war as an errand of foolishness. Though the Guppee army goes to fight for what seems to be noble causes, the result of war is ultimately a sad and destructive path. By wearing clown noses, Rushdie compares the armaments of battle to the disguise of the fool. In a previous passage, Rashid notes that war creates crudeness out of what seemed refined. It is important to note that these thoughts all come from Rashid the storyteller. Rashid, in this instance, represents the need for story to communicate the real meaning of war.
“Outside, in the living room, his mother had begun to sing.”
Song plays an integral role in the novel. This alludes to the fact that, in ancient times, story was communicated orally through song. Orality, therefore, is important for the communication of ideas and personality. In this final line of the novel, Haroun’s mother closes the story with a song. This represents the fact that there is never truly an ending to any story. The story of life, even the life of the story itself, continues in the collective imaginations of those that hear it and embody its meaning.
“‘Happy endings must come at the end of something,’ the Walrus pointed out. ‘If they happen in the middle of a story, or an adventure, or the like, all they do is cheer things up for a while.’”
This quote continues to expand on the idea of a story’s end by questioning the value of the happy ending. It could be argued that Haroun and the Sea of Stories does not end with a traditional happy ending, though the conflict of the novel has been made right in the final pages. There is still a measure of melancholy in Haroun as he doubts the realness of his own happy ending. Rushdie is attempting to explain that no story ever truly has a happy ending, especially when it is a continuing story such as life. The resolution of conflict is only a temporary happiness in the journey of the story.
“‘Thanks to the genius of the Eggheads at P2C2E House,’ Butt began, taking pity on Haroun, ‘the rotation of Kahani has been brought under control. As a result the Land of Gup is bathed in Endless Sunshines, while over in Chup it’s always the middle of the night.”
It is clear by the end of the novel that Rushdie is firmly on the side of the open society, free speech, and cultural advancement represented by the Land of Gup. However, he does not endorse this without criticism. This quote illustrates how it is the very technology, advancement, and enlightenment of the Guppee society that created the darkness of the Land of Chup, which they now oppose. This process represents the way in which advanced Western societies, through their endorsement of cultures of control in other parts of the world, have brought about many of the ills that they now must fight. The issue of terrorism is briefly alluded to in the novel and is an example of an evil that Western nations directly or indirectly caused and that they now fight.
“This is an affair of the heart.”
The overarching narrative of the novel is a love story. It is a story between the love between a father and a son and between a husband and a wife. Other stories appear in the narrative -- princess rescue stories, friendship stories, and heroic adventures -- but over all them is the motivation of a son to care for his father and reunite his family. The end of the novel and the return of Haroun’s mother confirm this. The happy ending, in as far as there is one, is the recovery of love in a broken situation. The greatest motivation of any narrative or story, Rushdie suggests, is love.
Haroun and the Sea of Stories Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Haroun and the Sea of Stories is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Rushdie's rich mind pictures of an exotic world of water where living stories endlessly flow, blend, and mix have a deeper meaning He embeds commentary on censorship and pornography in the context of an ecological crisis. The villain admits he is...
"To give a thing a name, a label, a handle; to rescue it from anonymity, to pluck it out of the Place of Namelessness, in short to identify it -- well, that’s a way of bringing the said thing into being.” pg 63