Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Oriental Tales and Great Expectations

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Oriental Tales and Great Expectations

Article excerpt

Since the first decade of the eighteenth century when Antoine Galland's translation of The Arabian Nights appeared in France, soon to be translated in turn into English, the Nights has been a synonym for the fabulous. Wordsworth records that when, as a boy, he learned that his book of Arabian tales was but a thin slice of four volumes, his vision of this "mighty quarry" of literary wealth was "scarcely earthly." (1) Such was the collection's renown that even the hard-headed and unromantic James Mill, whose patron Jeremy Bentham deemed the French Declaration of the Rights of Man as nonsensical "as if it had been an oriental tale" (cited in Dinwiddy 40), obtained an edition for his eldest son. As if the sort of enchantment theoretically discredited by the Enlightenment (2) came back to life in the Nights, Leigh Hunt wrote in 1834, "To us, the Arabian Nights are one of the most beautiful books in the world.... The pauper touches a ring, and spirits wait upon him. You ride in the air; you are rich in solitude. ... You have this world, and you have another. Fairies are in your moonlight" (cited in al-Musawi 47). It bears remembering that readers in those years encountered the Nights not through the medium of Richard Burton's pseudo-archaic diction, which came later, but through one or another version based ultimately on the more felicitous Galland translation itself. (3)

Anyone who dips into this collection of oriental tales knows exactly where the amazed delight it inspired came from. And yet the equation of the Nights with the utterly fantastic may blind us to the collection's actual content, for the fact is that it ranges miscellaneously from romance down to beast fables and tales of trickery, and that some of the core tales (that is, those of the fourteenth-century Syrian manuscript that served as one of Galland's sources and has recently been re-translated by Husain Haddawy) are devoid of marvels except insofar as the extravagance of human delusions is marvelous in itself. Such tales dispute or even invert the image of the Nights as a world "in which you are invited to step from the labour and discord of the street into a paradise where everything is given to you and nothing claimed," as George Eliot put it in chapter 36 of Middlemarch. Characters in the Nights may imagine themselves in such a magical realm only to discover otherwise. Their stories are of interest to students of Dickens, whose greatest works, while "romantic," are nevertheless in the tradition of Don Quixote and its ridicule of romance itself.

As an example of a Nights tale mocking enchantment, consider that of the Barmecide feast--a tale that so captured the imagination of its first readers in England that the phrase had already entered the English language by 1713 (OED). A certain beggar, applying for food at the house of one of the Barmaki clan--that is, the clan of Harun al-Rashid's vizier--is welcomed by the owner. "How can you be hungry while I live in this city? I cannot endure this.... You must eat with me," he says, an invitation eagerly accepted by the hungry beggar.

Then the man cried out, "Boy, bring the ewer and the basin, so that we may wash our hands," and said to [the guest], "Go ahead and wash your hands." But [the guest] saw neither ewer nor anything else, yet the man gestured as if he was washing his hands. Then he cried out, "Bring the table," and motioned with his hand. Again [the guest] saw nothing, but the host said to him, "By my life, eat and don't be bashful," and, gesturing with his hand as if he was eating, kept saying to [the guest], "By my life, have more, for I know how famished you are." [The guest] began to gesture as if he was eating something, while the host kept saying to him, "By my life, have some more. Look how white and delicious this bread is!" Again [the guest] could see nothing and, saying to himself, "This man likes to have fun with people and play tricks on them," replied, "My lord, never in my life have I seen whiter or better-tasting bread. …

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