"[Scheherazade] possessed courage, wit, and penetration. She had read much, and had so admirable a memory, that she never forgot any thing she had read. She had successfully applied herself to philosophy, medicine, history, and the liberal arts; and her poetry excelled the compositions of the best writers of her time. Besides this, she was a perfect beauty, and all her accomplishments were crowned by solid virtue."
The depiction of women in The Arabian Nights veers wildly. Most often, women simply serve as prizes for the male protagonists to win. At other times, they cause trouble through frivolity. However, there are some notable instances where a woman is touted as superior to almost anyone else around her. The best example of this is Scheherazade, as this quote reveals. Her high level of education and remarkable wit not only qualify her as a great talent, but also explain her centrality to the entire collection. Further, these values help to frame the entire collection (which is all derived from her stories). This description of Scheherazade also describes the tales overall, their variety and didactic purpose.
Though this simple quote does not signify much in its language, it is a notable part of The Arabian Nights, having seeped into our society at a notable rate. Children will shout "open sesame!" when they play magicians and try to open doors with "magic," yet most of us do not recognize the origin of this phrase. These tales have been hugely influential throughout the centuries, reminding us that the great stories are often judged as great for having stood the test of time.
"Aladdin had won the hearts of the people by his gentle bearing. He was made captain of the Sultan's armies, and won several battles for him, but remained as courteous as before, and lived thus in peace and content for several years."
This passage describes Aladdin's life after his initial fortune, when the genie builds a great palace for him and the princess. Though Aladdin is certainly a greedy man, he has nevertheless kept that vice from defining him. Instead, he maintains the same humility and courtesy he learned from growing up poor. In other words, the story does not didactically punish Aladdin for his greed. Overall, the passage illustrates the collection's complex relationship with greed. In general, it suggests that greed in pursuit of creating a better life (rather than just amassing wealth for its own sake) is an acceptable vice.
"He told his son the secret of the cave, which his son handed down in his turn, so the children and grandchildren of Ali Baba were rich to the end of their lives."
This story ends with an emphasis on Ali Baba's grandchildren and future descendants. By doing so, it reflects the collection's overall perception of greed - which can be acceptable if one is pursuing wealth for the sake of a better life. Part of the reason to amass wealth is to safeguard for the future. Thus, Ali Baba is presented as having succeeded, not only because he defeated the thieves, but also because he has provided for his descendants. This stands in contrast to the Captain of the Thieves, who amasses wealth solely for its own sake, and is punished as a result.
"So I conjure thee, by the honor of thine ancestors, make haste to kill me and do her justice upon me, as there is no living for me after her!"
This quote illustrates just how desperate the young man is to die as punishment for killing his wife. Once he discovers his mistake, he considers death the only way to repent. It offers an interesting contradiction - while women in this story are inferior enough that his wife dies for infidelity, they are also worth pining over. Ultimately, the young man is spared specifically because he expresses this desire to repent. While the story thus approves of virtues like guilt, it does ignore the true severity of his action, thereby presenting a strange and complex illustration of justice.
"Rich and happy as I was after my third voyage, I could not make up my mind to stay at home altogether. My love of trading, and the pleasure I took in anything that was new and strange, made me set my affairs in order, and begin my journey through some of the Persian provinces."
All of Sinbad's voyage stories begin with a line somewhat like this, and each reveals the sailor's nature as a restless, adventure-seeking man. This constant desire to risk death in pursuit not only of wealth but also of excitement is part of what makes him an epic hero. He epitomizes his culture's desire for success, and has a roving curiosity that is not satiated until he sees everything he wants in the world. It is important to realize that it is not solely greed which brings him back out; in fact, he has plenty of wealth from his previous voyages. Instead, it is a feeling that there is more to see and do, more challenges to conquer. In his mind, the risks are worth the rewards, a mentality that resonates with the epic heroes of most cultures.
"Sindbad then gave him a hundred sequins, and henceforward counted him among his friends; also he caused him to give up his profession as a porter, and to eat daily at his table that he might all his life remember Sindbad the Sailor."
Even after all he has faced to earn his wealth, Sinbad the sailor remains a generous man. In fact, the catalyst for the stories is the impoverished porter's resentment of the sailor's wealth. This passage speaks to both the philanthropic and didactic quality of Sinbad's stories. He tells the porter about his travels not only to brag, but also to teach the latter about the world, and how it rewards hard work and perseverance. The fact that he pays the porter each night after the story reinforces the idea that the stories are told from a positive place. Sinbad's generosity is one of the staples of his character, and this quote effectively reminds us of this before ending the seventh and final tale.
"'Since I must die,' he said, 'before I choose the manner of my death, I conjure you on your honour to tell me if you really were in that vase?'"
In this passage, the fisherman plots to outsmart the jinni who has threatened to kill him. It is an inspiring moment for readers, because who does not want to believe that even a humble man like this fisherman can use his wits to outsmart the most powerful of creatures? This fisherman does not have much going for him, but he is clever, which ultimately saves his life. When the jinni re-emerges from the pot later on, it is on the fisherman's terms. The moment is both exciting in the story and indicative of a common theme in The Arabian Nights, that of a poor man who capitalizes on a situation in order to succeed.
“Spare me and Allah will spare thee; slay me not or Allah shall slay thee.”
This passage serves as a warning to King Yunan; if he wrongfully kills the sage Duban, who saved his life, he will suffer at the hands of the Islamic god, Allah. In effect, this warning is a restatement of the 'golden rule': "treat others the way you want to be treated." It also summarizes the story's message. Yunan does indeed pay the ultimate price for allowing his vizier to mislead him, hence confirming the idea that what goes around comes around.
"It is true, Prince Ahmed, the princess my niece is obliged to your artificial apple for her cure, but let me ask you, whether you could have been so serviceable to her if you had not known by Prince Ali's tube the danger she was in, and if Prince Houssain's carpet had not brought you to her so soon?"
With these words, the Grand Sultan not only mediates between his sons, but also summarizes the story's message. For most of the story, the prince frantically compete for Nouronnihar's hand. However, they only save her life because they cooperate, suggesting that we are stronger together than apart. As a result of their cooperation, the sultan effectively negates the competition, a strong symbol of the way people can work together to achieve a greater end than they ever could alone.
The Arabian Nights: One Thousand and One Nights Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Arabian Nights: One Thousand and One Nights is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.