Portrayal of Adultery in The Thousand and One Nights

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

The story of The Thousand and One Nights, translated by Dawood, is a tale about a clever woman who saves herself, and other women in the kingdom, from being killed by a vengeful king. She tells him a story that never ends for a thousand and one nights, and purposely makes sure that she does not finish each of the stories, leaving the king interested in the ending of each of her stories. In the story, the theme of adultery or infidelity is quite prevalent. Although many stories are about happy marriages, involving two people falling in love, the author uses describes how society looks down upon women. In essence, this frame story for the entire work is the unifying thread between each of the stories, recounted by Schherazade, an intelligent wife to the king. Although the story of The Thousand and One Nights is considered a unique tale that teaches morals using the different stories within the main story, the depiction of adultery seems to be associated with death.

In the story, two kings, Shahryar and Shahzaman, are used to bring out the themes of riches and greed, while also helping develop the theme of adultery in many ways. First, when Shahzaman, the young king, catches his wife having sex with a kitchen boy, he considers this an act of adultery and kills both of them. Later when Shahryar visits his brother’s kingdom, he finds out that his brother’s wife is also adulterous. When his brother, Shahrayar, realizes this, he also kills the wife and all slaves involved in adultery. From then, Shahryar decides to land his anger on all women, marrying and executing several virgin women each night.

One day, the two brothers, after vowing to search for faithful women, fall prey of a strange woman “who had been kept by her demon husband inside a chest” (193), so that she will not cheat on the husband. She tricks the duo to have sex with her “when the demon is asleep with his head on her lap” (193), a trick she has used to trick many other men. However, when the brothers find out that the strange woman’s wiles are unending, they return home. At this time, the feel as if all women are adulterous and not faithful to their husbands.

Other than the illicit sex between man and women, the author also portrays a unique kind of infidelity between a beast and a woman. For instance, there is the portrayal of bestiality in the “Tale of Wardan the Butcher, the Woman, and the Bears” (190), which illustrates a different form of sexuality. Accordingly, the author thinks that “The effect of this ambiguous attraction is even more striking when the sexual encounter is illicit, in other words when sex is considered a crime” (190). While this illustration is more of a negative supposition of what women can do, the narrator appears to use it to draw back to the barbaric acts that men do to their women in the patriarchal society.

Throughout the story, there are a lot of depictions of infidelity or adultery, along with the expression of women as sex objects. For instance, “The Story of the Third Dervish recounts the experiences of the protagonist in a supernatural realm where he “enjoys the favors of forty beautiful maidens but is magically transported back to the ordinary world when he transgresses the taboo not to open a particular door” (195). It is particularly interesting to note the dynamics of several tales resulting from illicit sexual activities or extramarital encounters, whether real or imagined.

Overall, The Thousand and One Night story appears to be a reflection of a particular culture, exposing the deeds of both men and women in society at the time the story is told. On the one hand, men are depicted in the story as oppressive and full of themselves. On the other hand, some women are portrayed as smart and intelligent, while others are adulterous. Almost in all of the stories, culture seems to assign women a lowly status in society. They are presented as inferior to the men, and their identities tend to be imposed upon the men and the rigid patriarchal society.

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