21 February 2012
Important Themes in The Thousand and One Nights
The folklore of The Thousand and One Nights holds an undefined but stable place in
Western Literature. While some scholars recognize only the juvenile literary appeal of the tales,
others support that the work is a staple of early literature and recommend an honored place for
Nights in the genre of folklore. Though there are many concerns over the validity of various
translations in preserving the integrity of the ancient work, one thing is certainly clear: many
themes shared by the frame story and nested stories are prevalent throughout the work. Betrayal,
life altering changes and mercy are just a few of the common themes presented repeatedly
Betrayal in intimate relationships is the basis for the plot of the frame story and supported
repeatedly in the nested stories. The most common type of intimate betrayal in Nights is that of
a wife to her husband. For example, in the frame story prologue King Shahrayar, King
Shahzaman and a powerful, black demon are all cuckolded, multiple times, by their wives. More
examples of wives’ betrayals are also presented in the nested stories. “The First Old Man’s
Tale” for one, tells of a jealous wife who turns her husband’s mistress and son into animals,
attempting to get them slaughtered. Another instance is “The Tale of the Husband and the
Parrot” where a husband is informed by his pet parrot of his wife’s infidelity. The betrayal of a
wife to her husband is the most common presentation of this theme in the Nights.
Many other stories serve the theme of betrayal as well. Through the course of “The
Second Old Man’s Tale,” for example, a merchant is almost killed by the brothers he supports
when they become jealous of his happiness. Also, in a triangle of betrayal, a King is duped by a
jealous vizier who falsely accuses the innocent Sage Dubon of treachery in “The Tale of King
Yunan and the Sage Dubon.” Furthermore, in the resolution to this story the King betrays Dubon
by ordering the sage’s death, refusing to trust his innocence, and Dubon, in turn, tricks the King
he had originally saved into licking poisoned book pages, thereby sealing their mutual deaths.
While marital infidelity is the primary focus of the betrayals in Nights; various other examples
also support the theme.
Starting with the prologue and continuing in the nested stories demons are presented in a
variety of situations which herald a major change in the perspective or life of the main character
in the stories. In the prologue, for example, witnessing the demon with the unfaithful wife
convinces Kings Shahrayar and Shahzaman that they will have to go home and find a way to
deal with their wives’ infidelities and restore their honor. (quote of their dialogue and reaction).
Also in the nested story of “The Second Old Man’s Tale,” the merchant unwittingly marries a
benevolent demon who saves him from his brothers’ deadly treachery. The demon here changes
the course of the man’s fate directly. In addition to these, the Fisherman, in “The Story of the
Fisherman and the Demon,” accidentally releases an angry demon intent on killing him. Here
the fisherman must face possible imminent death and depend on his own wits to escape the
situation. Moreover, “The Story of the Merchant and the Demon” features a kindly merchant
who unwittingly kills the demon’s son. The demon is then honor bound to kill the merchant for
his offence but grants the merchant time to go home and put his affairs in order. So the merchant,
in the prime of his life, must suddenly change course and prepare for his imminent death. The
theme of life altering changes is consistently supported by a demon character.
Two important aspects of mercy are presented throughout the stories of Nights. First,
several stories feature a sympathetic main character who come under the threat of death and must
depend on the mercy of others. For example, the merchant who kills the demon’s son in “The
Story of the Merchant and the Demon,” can not do anything the demon will accept as atonement;
however, three strangers to the merchant take it upon themselves to bargain with the demon to
earn the merchant’s freedom. The merchant is dependant on the mercy of these men who take an
interest in his welfare and also on the agreement of the demon to accept the men’s stories in lieu
of his life.
Also, “The Story of the Fisherman and the Demon” reverses the mercy role when the
fisherman tricks the demon back into his box. The demon was unwilling to show mercy before
but now the fisherman is in control and the demon’s fate is in his hands. The fisherman relents
after some time and grants the demon mercy; in return, the demon also shows mercy by choosing
to reward the fisherman rather than kill him. The main characters in these stories are innocent of
intentional trespassing and depend on the granting of mercy to keep their lives.
The second aspect of mercy communicated in the tales is mercy granted to those who did
intentionally do wrong. These instances of mercy provide the frame story with the repetition of
the message Shehrazade is presenting to King Shahryar through her tales. For example, in “The
Third Old Man’s Tale,” a wronged husband grants mercy by sparing the life of his wicked wife
and only punishing her. Likewise in “The Second Old Man’s Tale” the husband of the
benevolent demon grants mercy to his brothers by asking his wife only to transform them for a
time, rather than kill them. In both of these stories the victims receive retribution by punishing
their trespassers but grant mercy by sparing their lives, thus proving themselves to be doubly
honorable than those who wronged them. By showing mercy in two important aspects
Shahrazad supports her message that mercy is important to the giver as well as the receiver. ?