Aladdin is a truant child, living with his mother in poverty in a Chinese town. His father is dead.
One day, an African magician approaches Aladdin while the boy plays in the streets. Claiming to be the boy's uncle, he recruits Aladdin to work with him, insisting he will be able to turn the boy into a wealthy merchant afterwards. Aladdin's mother also believes the lie, and gives her permission.
Aladdin agrees, and the magician leads him to a booby-trapped cave. There, he instructs Aladdin to fetch an oil lamp from within, not explaining that the cave's spells require the magician to receive the lamp from another. He grants the boys one of his magic rings as protection.
However, after finding the lamp, Aladdin refuses to send it to him before he leaves the cave. In a fit of rage, the magician traps Aladdin inside, still holding the lamp. After two days miserable and alone, Aladdin accidentally rubs the ring the magician gave him, and a jinn (or genie) appears. At the boy's mercy, the ring jinn asks what Aladdin wants, and the boy asks to be brought home. The spirit complies.
Back home, Aladdin's mother attempts to clean the lamp so they can sell it. When she rubs it, an even more powerful jinn appears, promising to do their bidding. They request something to eat, and the lamp jinn brings them an amazing feast. Though Aladdin's mother fears they are cavorting with devils, Aladdin insists they take advantage of their good fortune.
They live in prosperity for years in this way, until one day Aladdin catches sight of the sultan's daughter, and decides he must marry her. He sends his mother to the sultan's palace with some jewels conjured by the lamp jinn, to impress the sultan into approving the marriage with the beautiful princess. Amazed by the display of wealth, the sultan agrees, though the sultan's greedy vizier convinces him to wait three months, hoping his own son can woo the princess with an even greater gift during that time.
Two months later, Aladdin learns the the vizier's son has indeed won the princess for his bride. Outraged, he demands the jinn transport the bride and groom to him on the night of their wedding. The couple is transported in their bed, and the jinn sends the vizier's son outside while Aladdin spends the night with the princess. The next morning, the bed is transported back and the son returned. The process is repeated for a few nights, terrifying the married couple. Believing themselves cursed, they tell the sultan what has happened, and decide to separate.
One month later (at the end of the original three month period), Aladdin's mother reminds the sultan of his promise, and he marries his daughter to Aladdin, who has the lamp jinn create a magnificent palace for their home.
From his home in Africa, the magician hears of this story, and realizes that Aladdin must have survived and kept the lamp. So one day, when Aladdin is away, he travels to the palace disguised as a merchant who is trading new, polished lamps for old ones. The sultan's daughter falls for the ruse, and gives him the magic lamp. The magician immediately uses the lamp jinn to transport the palace and princess to Africa.
Shocked, the sultan threatens to kill Aladdin if he does not bring the princess back within forty days. Aladdin still has the magic ring, so he uses its jinn to transport him to Africa. There, he and the princess prepare a plan. She dresses alluringly one night and swears she has forgotten Aladdin. Excited, the magician pours some fine wine, which she then drugs to kill him. The couple then steals the lamp and returns home to China with the palace.
All is not well yet, though; the magician has a brother, who is even more wicked. Bent on revenge, the magician's brother disguises himself as a holy woman and visits the palace. There, he convinces the princess that the place would benefit from having a hanging roc's egg. She begs Aladdin to request this from the jinn, which he does.
However, this request angers the jinn, since the roc is his master. He threatens to destroy the palace, but quickly surmises that Aladdin has been tricked by the magician's brother. He warns them of the danger, and Aladdin kills the impostor once and for all. They live happily ever after, and Aladdin eventually becomes sultan himself.
The story of Aladdin and his magic lamp is one of the most famous of all the Arabian Nights stories, and was incorporated into the collection by Antoine Galland, the French translator who heard it from a Syrian storyteller.
The setting is a bit inconsistent. Though this tale is Middle Eastern, it is set in China, and Aladdin is Chinese; however, most of the people in the story are Muslims, and everyone has an Arabic name. It is possible that the storyteller knew little of China when writing this story, and therefore assumed it to be more Muslim than it actually was, but this is unclear. The strange, exotic setting could have been deliberate, to evoke a more distant, mystical land for its original listeners. Certainly, this story employs more direct magic than most others.
The genie's power is accentuated through the feats he is able to accomplish; in those days, the distance from Northwest Africa to China was considered the greatest distance possible to travel, so being able to transport a palace and people from one to the other is a sign of the genie's ultimate might.
Further, he can transform a poor boy into a man of riches and prosperity, which manifests the common rags-to-riches motif that runs throughout The Arabian Nights. In fact, this story offers perhaps one of the clearest examples of it. However, many of the other stories with this motif feature a variety of reversals, in which the title character loses his wealth before again regaining it. Here, Aladdin almost never falls from fortune - his brief challenge from the magician is easily bested when he relies on the genie once more.
This story is structurally complex, despite being short. It falls well into the common components of a story arc, whereas many of the other popular tales in The Arabian Nights are more episodic in nature. The introduction spans the beginning section up until Aladdin begins to use the lamp. In the introduction, we learn of his poverty and meet the mysterious stranger claiming to be his uncle and promising him a wealthy future. The rising action begins as soon as Aladdin returns home from the cave; he and his mother grow rich thanks to the genie, their good fortune culminating in his marriage to the sultan's daughter. The climax occurs when the magician steals the lamp and takes the princess and the palace to Africa, and the falling action occurs quickly after that, as Aladdin defeats the magician and eventually faces his wicked brother as well. Finally, the story reaches its resolution as they live happily ever after in prosperity. This is a great story to use as an illustration of the typical story arc, and goes to show that conflict and resolution can be crafted even in a short text. This is also a notably Western story arc, suggesting perhaps that Galland shaped the story somewhat after hearing it.
Aladdin as a character has his vices and virtues. To begin with, he seems to be a low-life who lacks ambition, but he discovers drive once good fortune comes his way. In other words, though he is certainly lucky, he also capitalizes on his luck. He is also witty and cunning. However, his greatest vice is his undeniable greed. He is never satisfied by what the genie gives him; he constantly seeks more and more. He also feels the need to flaunt his riches, particularly through his building of a massive palace. Had he not flaunted his riches this way, the magician might never have heard of him and returned to China. And perhaps worst of all, he refuses to accept that the sultan's daughter is married to another, crafting a rather insidious plan to get what he wants. (This offers another example of the way The Arabian Nights typically uses women: as objects to be desired.) Aladdin's young greed and naiveté is quite typical of a character like this, making it surprising that he eventually keeps his fortune. Stories of this type often punish the character for his greed (or only reward him when he uses a greater virtue for success).