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Orientalism as a Tool in Gothic Literature

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Introduction

Britain’s colonial involvement, which reached its zenith during the Romantic period, is directly responsible for introducing the idea of the Exotic or the Other to the minds of the British people. Thus, it is unsurprising that tales pertaining to the Middle East would capture the public’s fascination, as the Empire itself was engrossed in claiming territories within that region. During this time, two genres of literature depicting the Exotic were in fashion: those of an Oriental nature, influenced by the popularity of translations of the Arabian Nights, and those of a Gothic persuasion, similar to the precedent set by The Castle of Otranto.

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Undoubtedly both styles of writing are complimentary to each other as they deal with similar atmospheric, architectural and archetypal motifs relating to the unknown, the supernatural and the pleasurably terrifying. William Beckford’s Vathek, published in 1782 as An Arabian Tale from an Unpublished Manuscript, is considered the first Romantic prose to depict Orientalism. Primarily presented as an Arabian tale, due to its setting and characters, it also shows signs of belonging to the Gothic genre. The purpose of this essay is to explore the extent to which ‘Orientalism’, by Edward Said’s definition, has been used to sensationalise in Vathek as a Gothic novel.

Orientalism and Western Authority

Orientalism explores the origin and purpose of the idea of the Oriental Other as it ‘helped to define Europe… as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience.'[1] He posits that constructing an idea of the East and imposing beliefs of splendour, mystery, cruelty and sensuality, establishes more about the West than it does about any reality of the East. Furthermore, he stresses how inequality in power allows for the origin and continued perpetuation of Orientalist ideas. Perhaps it is this sense of Western authority that allows a man such as William Beckford, who has never travelled to the Middle East, to believe that he can write and publish a tale about an Arabian Caliph.

No Specification of a Setting

It should be noted that while carrying the mystique and suspense of a tale from a faraway land, Beckford’s novel never specifies an Arabian country or land the story is set in. The fact that Vathek is inspired from the actual Abbasid Caliph al-Wathiq whose tribe was mainly based around Cairo could hint at a location but this would be mere speculation. This is problematic because it relies on the assumption that the story and thus the character’s experience would be universal to any person, from any area in the Middle East. Furthermore, it also relies on how this question wouldn’t arise to a prospective reader; an escapist exotic setting seems enough without much effort to elaborate.

Religious and Occult

Adding to the exoticism in Vathek, are the intermingling of religious and occult influences. Said mentions in his essay about the tendency for writers to orientalise Islam and Muslims and states that ‘… Islam (came) to symbolise terror, devastation, the demonic…'[2]. Beckford adds to Vathek’s unfamiliar Arab/Muslim identity by making him a character who denounces Islam and succumbs to unorthodox pleasures and vices. What is crucial here is the idea that the choice to live a life of excess and pleasure is presented as almost instinctual to Vathek’s character, furthering the trope of an Oriental who is unrestrained by the rules and conventions of moral society.

Supernatural

Furthermore, the story is filled with supernatural and magical elements that are described in such vivid detail. There is the Giaour who leads Vathek on his quest with his trickery and magic swords, Nouronihar pursues a strange light up a mountain and hears mysterious voices, the sacrificial rituals performed by Carathis and the climactic deal-with-the-devil trope as Vathek attempts to reason with Eblis. The use of the name Eblis itself is notable, as this is the name given to the archdevil in Islam. Perhaps it is that Beckford never breaks from adhering to the idea of an Arabian tale, or perhaps the idea of an unfamiliar Devil with a strange name, who holds ‘the iron sceptre that causes the monster Ouranabad, the Afrits and all the powers of the abyss to tremble'[3] is much more terrifying to his intended audience.

Conclusion

Vathek sets out to exploit the imaginative terror, suspense and psychological shock tactics which were entering the English novel at the time and successfully does so through the clever use of Orientalist settings and characters. There is perhaps very little that would give away its inauthenticity to a British reader which is perhaps why Beckford’s critics described Vathek as ‘an admirable imitation of the genuine Arabian tale'[4]. However, it still remains an imitation.

References

  • Edward W. Said, ‘Orientalism’, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. by Vincent B. Leitch (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001), pp. 1866-1888 (p.1866)
  • Edward W. Said, Orientalism, (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2003), p. 59
  • William Beckford, ‘From Vathek’, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume D: The Romantic Period, ed. by Stephen Greenblatt (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012) pp. 594-598 (p. 596)
  • Roger Lonsdale, ‘Introduction’, in Vathek, by William Beckford (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) pp. 7-31 (p.25)

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