THE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS QUESTIONS
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Assigned: from The Thousand and One Nights (1566-1618).
From The Thousand and One Nights
"The Story of King Shahrayar and Shahrazad, His Vizier's Daughter" (1569-76)
1. The Thousand and One Nights is, of course, related to the folktale tradition. Discuss the text's way of representing how people gain insight or knowledge into "the way of the world. " In this section, how do the two kings learn of their wives' promiscuity? What role do coincidence and magic, respectively, play in the process of gaining knowledge?
2. The first question asks about how characters find out about "the way of the world. " What is that way: what distinction does the text almost immediately make between everyday and public routine and private reality? Perhaps this selection's dark portrayal of female virtue stems from male paranoia about women's supposed insatiability and duplicity, but how might it be read as a broader statement about human nature?
3. What is the logic behind Shahrayar's decision to set out on a journey when he sees for himself that his wife is unfaithful? Why doesn't he just kill her on the spot, as his brother Shahzaman did to his faithless wife: why, in other words, should it matter whether there's someone else out there whose lot is even worse?
"The Tale of the Ox and the Donkey" / "The Tale of the Merchant and His Wife" (1576-79)
4. The Vizier tells his daughter Shahrazad a few tales: what is the point of these stories, in his view? How is the Vizier's brief tenure as a storyteller a setup for the better performance of his daughter? What is worthwhile about his stories, and what is limited about them?
"The Story of the Merchant and the Demon"; "The First, Second, and Third Old Man's Tales" (1580-90)
5. Shahrazad begins to tell her stories, with the assistance of her sister Dinarzad. If you find a consistent moral in the tales so far, what is it? On what principle and by what means are the "evildoers" in these tales punished? Also, what besides wickedness is responsible for suffering in some of the tales? (Consider, for example, why the Merchant is in trouble with the Demon, and why he is finally released from his sentence of death. )
6. Beyond its obvious role in staving off King Shahrayar's intention to kill his new wife, how does delay function as an important device within Shahrazad's stories? How, that is, do her internal narrators (the Merchant and the Three Old Men) employ it? What significance does the art of storytelling take on in relation to the supposed "real-life" dilemmas that the various characters face?
"The Story of the Fisherman and the Demon," etc. (1590-1618)
7. Concentrate on the ways Shahrazad begins and ends her stories: what are the main devices she uses to keep her narrative thread spinning? What expectations about narrative is she exploiting in her husband, King Shahrayar (and readers more generally)?
8. How does the Fisherman's story about Duban the Sage and the Persian King Yunan (1595-1603) indirectly characterize the kind of political power wielded by King Shahrayar? Does the story in any way reflect upon Shahrazad's own situation with respect to her husband the King? If so, how?
9. On 1604-18, Shahrazad tells the rest of the story about the Fisherman and the Demon. How does the Demon keep his pledge to serve the Fisherman? As with the previous part of the Fisherman's story, does this one offer any instruction (at least indirectly) to Shahrayar, who condemns all women and who has sworn to murder each of his wives before they become unfaithful to him? Explain.
Edition: Lawall, Sarah, ed. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. 2nd edition. Volumes 1ABC. New York: Norton, 2002. ISBN A = 0-393-97755-2, B = 0-393-97756-0, C = 0-393-97757-9.