Monday, November 28, 2011

Vathek Secondary Lit Review - Sam Bakall

            The article “Life After Pseudodeath” discusses the shift in Vathek’s attitude after he realizes that his love Nouronihar is actually alive. The author begins the essay with a short discussion on other Gothic novels that play to the interest of the Orient, Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas and Frances Sheridan’s Nourjahad, and how they “thinly disguise[] Western and even Christian concepts and attitudes in Middle Eastern Islamic attire” (pg. 171).

            But, unlike the other novels that the author discusses, Vathek doesn’t try to justify the actions or veil Christian beliefs in Islam, it actually “embraces and confirms hedonism as the valid lifestyle selection of its main character,” which is something that pretty much all of the novels we have read this semester have not done (pg. 171).

            The scene in Vathek where he realizes his love isn’t dead is a bit of a Hollywood moment. The emir of the dwarves Fakreddin realizes Vathek’s interest in his daughter, Nouronihar, even though she is slated to be married to Gulchenrouz. Nouronihar and Gulchenrouz are both drugged by the emir and are sent to a secluded area, so that when they awake, they will believe that they have died and are in Paradise. But, they soon begin to realize that they are not in fact dead and ‘escape,’ for lack of a better term, and run into Vathek.

            Vathek, who’s life is based on decadence and sin, mourns her death and seems to be making more moralistic choices in what could be shown as a more pious life. But, when he sees Nouronihar, he is overtaken by lust and goes right back to how he was before, not following Islam and accepting a hedonistic lifestyle. Because he enjoyed the “splendors of life” before he met Nouronihar, it “contributes less to his damnation than does his search for supernatural power through the agency of the Giaour, a pursuit that explicitly ends in Vathek’s perdition,” (pg. 171-172).

            This acceptance of a hedonistic lifestyle and lack of moral repositioning is what sets Vathek apart from its contemporaries. In the other novels that were discussed, the main characters in them confessed their sins or rejected the things they once partook in. Vathek on the other hand, fully embraces them and never has that moral moment that we have seen in previous novels (Robinson Crusoe definitely). He never regrets what he has done to get where he has gotten himself, just that he doesn’t like the punishment he has to live with.

            The only moral realization in Vathek is when “The narrator states that Vathek deserves the loss of all hope in ‘a receptacle of eternal fire’ for the ‘unrestrained passions and atrocious deeds’ he has committed (119, 120),” (pg. 172). Otherwise, the novel mentions very little about remorse or salvation.

            I found this to be very interesting and true. While reading Vathek I think I was looking for that moral realization sometime in the novel, but never found it. Vathek just kept indulging and kept continuing on the path of damnation without a regret. The decadent lifestyle that he lived was so over the top that I also couldn’t help wondering if the reason there is no moral compass in this novel is because the entire book is a moral compass. Almost all of the other books that we’ve read this semester mention praising God in some form, whether it’s converting others, being virtuous or just mention of it in regular conversation, but none have employed potential reverse psychology.

            I would definitely agree with the author completely. Vathek was nothing like what I thought it would be in the slightest both story-wise and moralistically. I think it was interesting that the author chose other novels that had similar storylines and settings and compared them, which makes Vathek stand out even more.

            Do you think that Vathek stands out of the genre as a novel that fails to embrace the ‘moral’ literature of the time, or can the entire story be seen as a commentary on what happens when you fail to be moral and follow God? Is this book a push for religion or atheism? Do the events that unfold throughout the novel support a religious lifestyle or not?

Works Cited

Brewer, Lawton A. “Life After Pseudodeath: William Beckford’s Vathek.” Explicator 67.3 (2009): 170 – 173. Academic Search Premier. Web. 28 Nov. 2011.


  1. I have this vague feeling that the novel doesn't support religion or hedonism. Almost pushing towards agnosticism? Haha... I don't know. It contains too many ideas, all of which seems fatal to me. Even Gulchenrouz (what a weird name...) who seems happy till the end... is said to be "humble and ignorant." Being humble is great because it alludes to him having potential of bettering himself, but "ignorant" doesn't quite make his life seem fulfilling either.

  2. I think that the way this book is written is supposed to be quite moralizing, actually. True, it seems to glorify what is generally thought of as sinful, but it does that in a different way than is normative. It doesn't appear to be saying, "look how totally okay this is to do" so much as, "look how appealing the devil can make wickedness seem." I think it's showing the seduction of the dark side, rather than the horror of it. After all, the book is saying, there has to be some reason that evil chooses to be evil.

  3. I think that the overwhelming hedonism, horror and supernatural elements compel readers of the time to question the strength of their religious beliefs, acting as a test of their resolve in the face of contrary sentiments. Whereas earlier novels openly and explicitly delved into the value of spiritual growth and enlightenment, Vathek shows the whole ugly picture of what it means to NOT seek religious fulfillment and how, regardless of any hellish punishments for such in the afterlife, the very lives that Vathek and his mother lead are devoid of meaning, value, or appeal. Rank hedonism by itself cannot truly sustain one's soul, and so Vathek can be viewed as a pitiable creature, alone and ignorant of the value and nature of such things as love, friendship and the satisfaction of overcoming a real challenge. He, and not Gulchenrouz, is the truly ignorant individual, for Vathek doesn't know and couldn't comprehend the goodness that is absent in his selfish, apathetic life.

  4. I agree with Nora; I too found the novel to be pretty consistently moralizing. True, it does go into great detail about all the luxuries Vathek enjoys and the strange seductive appeal of dark magic and the occult. However, I think this is what makes it moralizing. At least for me, reading about all this excess was a testament to the sinful nature of it. I don't think Beckford meant for us to admire or envy Vathek; in fact, there was something almost pitiful about him amidst all his riches. It glorifies this lifestyle for the purpose of eventually associating it with eternal damnation.

    Similarly, I don't think this is an anti-religious novel either, or at least not any religion in particular. We could kind of read it as a negative portrayal of Islam, but then there is the fact that the characters renounced their religion. From that point, we can't really associate Vathek with any religious values because he isn't acting under the pretense of any religion anymore. But....I guess Vathek and his mother were pretty bad people before they officially rejected their religion... It's more of an anti-immoral than an anti-religious text.

  5. I was thinking along the same lines as Nora and Hannah on the question of whether or not Vathek can be seen as a part of the moral literature of the era. Unlike the other novels that we have read this semester in which the moral aspects of the story are obvious, Vathek is moralizing in the fact that it shows the consequences of giving into evil temptations. Beckford's description of what Vathek's life is reduced to (sacrificing his loyal subjects, performing witchery, etc.) in order to obtain more power gives readers a picture of what yielding to temptations does to the soul. While religion does not seem to play a major role in the novel, I think if anything Beckford offers readers a positive view on religion, including Islam. Vathek's problems only begin when he gives up his religious beliefs.

  6. I found Vathek's moralizing to be sarcastic and we weren't really supposed to get a true moral from this book. We talked in class how this novel seems to give us the extremes. To be completely evil with Vathek and his mom or be completely good with Gulchenrouz. I don't think we were supposed to really think that Vathek's path was to be completely avoided or Gulchenrouz's perpetual childhood to be completely wanted either. Although you could say this novel is about the consequences of greed or temptation, I feel like Beckford makes going bad look so enticing that it's hard for me to think that was what he was trying to moralize about. I don't think either choice of Islam or hedonism looked all that appealing and therefore, I don't think Beckford really supported either.