William Beckford: Vathek

Vathek (1786), William Beckford's "Arabian Tale", was one of the most popular of the oriental works that became fashionable in the period (Lord Byron called it his "Bible"). It is also one of the strangest. It is not strictly speaking a Gothic novel, but is heavily influenced by the genre and frequently utilises Gothic devices to create terror and melodrama. As with Walpole's fantastical story, Vathek is a self- indulgent tale of imagination on the part of Beckford, an eccentric and extravagant young millionaire who ended his days as a social outcast after a sexual scandal. Interestingly, just as Walpole claimed to have been inspired by his Gothic mansion at Strawberry Hill, Beckford created his own fantasy home at Fonthill Abbey that is used as a basis for some of the descriptions in the Vathek. The novel was originally written in French and was translated into English with Beckford's assistance by Samuel Henley.

Vathek is the ruthless and despotic Caliph, a man so powerful and terrifying that "when he was angry, one of his eyes became so terrible, that no person could bear to behold it; and the wretch upon whom it was fixed, instantly fell backwards and sometimes expired." The Caliph is compelled by his insatiable pride and need for sensual indulgence, aided by the influence of his wicked mother, to become the servant of the Devil, or Eblis in return for the sight of the treasures of the pre-Adamite sultans. In order to fulfil his wish he must sacrifice fifty young boys and journey from his capital Samarah to the ruined city of Istakar, stopping on the way in the province of one of his emirs and falling in love with the beautiful Nouronihar. Together they arrive at the subterranean halls of Eblis, only to face the wages of sin as the damned burst into flames in a scene of appalling punishment.

The work is written with a disarming mixture of irony and grotesque comedy, Gothic moments of terror and sublime descriptions of beautiful settings. Beckford demonstrates a particular relish for exaggeration and vastness. Take, for example, the Caliph's ever-expanding tower, or the 300 courses he regularly consumes for dinner, an expansion that brings the work close to burlesque. The storyline was read at the time as a moral fable in which the vicious were rightly punished:

"such was, and should be, the punishment of unrestrained passion and atrocious deeds!"

but, as with many Gothic novels, the ultimate stabilisation is undercut by the author's obvious relish for the scenes of sensual magnificence and violent passion. The eminent critic William Hazlitt recognised this element, objecting to "the diabolical levity of its contempt for mankind", and there is the aspect, typical in Gothic works, of sympathy for the villain as Faustian victim of his own ambition and the workings of the devil. The vogue for tales of Oriental exoticism were a forum for free indulgence in descriptions of passion, violence and sensual pleasures, justified because the East was a safely distinct space from European society, and such excesses could be condemned as ending in damnation even as they have previously proved delightful. Vathek aligns itself with this tradition, although the ending is perhaps more a satirical reading of the moral veneer of eighteenth century Orientalism, and indeed Gothic, literature, rather than a sincerely expressed sentiment.

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