The Monkey's Paw

The Monkey's Paw The Thousand and One Nights

At one point in “The Monkey’s Paw” Mrs. White says that she is reminded of Arabian Nights. This is a fair comparison given the similarities in terms of wishes and fate, but it is also an important allusion because that great work was beloved by English writers at the turn of the century.

The volume, officially entitled The Thousand and One Nights, is a collection of tales from Persian, Indian, and Arabian sources compiled during the Islamic Golden Age, although some of the tales date to far earlier oral traditions. Scholar Jay Ruud writes of the origins: “During the ninth and 10th centuries, Persian texts of all kinds were translated into Arabic, and like many other texts, The Thousand and One Nights was probably translated at the court of the caliph in Baghdad. The inclusion of a number of tales set in the Baghdad of the caliph Haroun al-Rashid (763–809) indicates how translators and scribes felt perfectly free to add new tales to the Nights even as they sought to transmit the text—a practice that stemmed, most likely, from an impulse to try to fill the fanciful ‘thousand and one’ tales of the title. From Baghdad the core of tales spread through the Islamic world, apparently becoming particularly popular in Syria and in Egypt, where two different branches of the Nights developed. The earliest extant manuscript of the Nights was produced in Syria in the 14th century. Manuscripts related to this one are more conservative, consisting of a core of tales most of which came, ultimately, from the original Arabic translation.”

The Arabic edition was published in 1450 in Egypt, and it was introduced to Europe through Antoine Galland’s 12-volume French translation. Galland’s is the oldest extant manuscript and is housed in the National Library in Paris. Edward Lane was the first to translate it into English in 1838-1841, but his work omitted many parts of the original tale. Sir Richard Burton’s 1885 translation is more renowned, but he mixed in other tales.

The basic structure of the stories is that the sultan Schariah decides to take a new wife every night and have her put to death in the morning in order to rail against the unfaithfulness of women. When he marries Scheherazade, the vizier’s daughter, he finds himself enthralled by the stories she ends up telling him for one thousand and one nights. At the end of this time he decides to let her live, having fallen in love with her.

In a companion to the work, scholar Robert Irwin identifies the tales as “long heroic epics, wisdom literature, fables, cosmological fantasy, pornography, scatological jokes, mystical devotional tales, chronicles of low life, rhetorical debates and masses of poetry." Dawn B. Sova writes of Burton’s translation, “[he] wrote in his foreword that he translated the tales into language 'as the Arab would have written in English.' Thus, they are exuberant, earthy, and unembarrassed tales of lust, lesbianism, sodomy, bestiality, male transvestism, pederasty, incest, and sexual mutilation. His sexually willing slave girls, nubile virgins, omnipresent eunuchs, lecherous old women, and wine-induced lust entice the reader. Although most of the descriptions of sexual behavior are tastefully presented with euphemisms, the sexual nature of the actions is clear." Many of the tales have become famous, such as “Aladdin or the Wonderful Lamp,” “Sinbad the Sailor,” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.”

Many Arabic scholars derided the work, with Egypt even banning it as immoral in 1989. It is not considered a serious work or part of the Arabic canon. However, numerous Western writers have been quite influenced by the work; such illustrious figures include William Shakespeare and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. It is also similar to Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.