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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. 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

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William Beckford’s Vathek, published in 1782 as An Arabian Tale from an Unpublished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 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.

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.

 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.

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.  

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.

1 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)

2 Edward W. Said, Orientalism, (London: Penguin Books Ltd,
2003), p. 59

3 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)

4 Roger Lonsdale, ‘Introduction’, in
Vathek, by William Beckford (New
York: Oxford University Press, 2008) pp. 7-31 (p.25)

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