Study Guide

The Arabian Nights

by Sir Richard Burton

The Arabian Nights Themes

Themes

Infinity and Immortality
The passing on of stories is a universal means of preservation. It is a way to circumvent mortality. That The Arabian Nights is a story about storytelling conveys this idea of immortality: Scheherazade’s telling stories is literally a means by which she preserves her own life, and the structure of her stories—stories within stories whose endings interweave with the next story’s beginning, night after night—seem never-ending and, therefore, are a symbol of infinity.

Sexuality
The original Arabian Nights are full of sexuality, which the nineteenth-century translations previous to Burton’s, in keeping with the stringent Victorian sexual mores of the time, largely left out. However, Burton’s translation, in his effort to present a more complete version of the tales, preserves the sexual references, allusions, scenes, and themes. Moreover, his long annotations include extensive notes on Arabic sexual practices and the meanings of allusions, a feature that causes his translation to be much more sexualized than even the original tales.

Misogyny
The mistreatment, beating, and outright killing of women is regarded as lawful and just, especially as punishment for a woman’s infidelity to her husband. This value recurs in the outermost frame, in which the King kills one maiden after another in retribution for his first wife’s infidelity. In the story of the portress in ‘‘The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad,’’ the portress breaks her oath to her husband by allowing another man to kiss her, for which her husband...

(The entire section is 667 words.)