The conflict that begins the action of the novel revolves around the importance of stories in a person’s life. Both of the people that Rashid Khalifa loves, his son and his wife, both turn on him and tell him that his stories are not real and do not matter. Without his stories, Rashid finds that he has no way to support himself or to justify his life. Haroun’s quest is not just an adventure to return Rashid’s stories to him, but it is also a son’s journey to give meaning to his father’s life. In this way, Rushdie suggests that a person’s stories compose their identity and dignity.
The idea of censorship is a sustained motif in the novel. This is largely a reflection on Rushdie’s own experience of censorship when the Ayatollah placed a fatwa upon him for his depiction of Islam in The Satanic Verses. Chupwala and its dictator Khattam-Shud represent this censorship. Khattam-Shud wishes not only to poison the Sea of Stories, but he also wishes to silence the stories completely. Chup, therefore, is not only a land of darkness, but also a land of complete silence and censorship. The Land of Gup, on the other hand, is a land of complete Freedom of Speech, even to those that would criticize the land’s leaders in what might be considered anarchy. On the surface, Rushdie would seem to favor the Guppees’ freedom over the strict authoritarian censorship of the Chupwala’s, though later passages in the novel blur these lines of distinction.
The Balance between Silence and Speech
A cursory reading would seem to suggest that Rushdie favors the Land of Gup and the light that creates its ever present stories and freedom of speech. However, Rushdie indicates that both Gup and Chup are two sides of a whole. Each must exist in balance with the other to create a median existence. This is evident in the Guppees’ own contradictory behavior; though they favor complete freedom, their own Eggheads at P2C2E House create an imbalance in light that leaves the Chupwalas in perpetual darkness against their will. This suggests that all societies have some propensity to censor others. Likewise, the Guppees risk defeat and incompetence from their inability to censor their criticisms and gossip. This speech is unproductive speech. Though Rushdie clearly opposes censorship, his novel deftly explores the balance needed in a society between the control and expression of speech.
The Playfulness of Language
Rushdie originally wrote Haroun and the Sea of Stories for his children. As a young adult novel, Rushdie creates the strange alternate world of Kahani through a strange and playful use of language. Characters in the novel embody literary devices such as alliteration, rhyme, and orality. The rhythms and eccentricities of the language represent that particular character and illuminates their particular traits. On another level, Rushdie is also commenting on the elusiveness of language. He creates words and phrases to highlight the fact that the reader can never quite grasp the true meaning of a text or an author’s intention. The reader is confounded by the language and patterns of usage so that the moon of Kahani feels foreign.
The Foolishness of War
The final battle between the Guppees and the Chupwala’s is Rushdie’s commentary on war fought for political, religious, or personal reasons. Rushdie creates two armies that go to war for foolish reasons: their inability to communicate. This war makes them literally look foolish. In order to protect their noses from freezing over, each soldier puts on a small nose-warmer that looks like a clown nose. The armies look like clowns as they fight. This is an embodiment of the idiocy of their war. The foolishness comes to light when it is learned that the Chupwalas fight only because they are afraid not to do so. This war, therefore, has nothing to do with bravery, courage, or honor.
Control through Language
The Cultmaster Khattam-Shud tells Haroun that the world is not made for Fun but is, instead, made for controlling. The way that the Cultmaster attempts to assert this control is by controlling the way people speak. He has gained control over the Chupwalas by polluting the stories they tell and the language they use. Without a use for language, the people become silent and are then able to be controlled. This is a commentary on authoritarian regimes, especially in the Middle East, that silence their people through political, social, and religious means. Without the tradition of story, people lose their freedom.
The Beauty of Darkness
In a brief passage, Haroun watches Mudra the Shadow Warrior in a martial dance with his shadow. This dance shows Haroun that darkness, and the evil that Haroun believes it represents, is not always meant to oppose light or goodness even if it is its opposite. In this sense, darkness and light do not cancel each other out but, instead, complement each other. Night becomes as valuable as day, and darkness contains its own intrinsic value. What represents true evil in the novel is the hatred that Khattam-Shud has towards the Land of Gup and the Stories of the Sea.
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