The publication in 1717 of a French translation of The Thousand and One Nights sparked the creation of numerous fantastic narratives set in Arabia and the Orient. Among these are Voltaire’s philosophic fantasy Zadig (1747) and Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas (1759). Beckford’s contribution to the genre of the Oriental fantasy was to combine the exotic setting of Arabia with an emphasis on sensual depravity and demoniac obsession that was associated with another emerging literary genre, the gothic tale.

Vathek received favorable reviews when it was first published and has gained in reputation with the passage of time. Early reviewers emphasized the power and inventiveness of the novel’s fantastic episodes, especially the dramatic conclusion in the subterranean realm of Eblis. Modern critics have stressed Beckford’s ability to fuse fantastic episodes with an underlying moral theme. Despite its lurid descriptions and emphasis on horrible events, Vathek is essentially a cautionary moral tale about the dangers of self-indulgent sensuality.

The work invites a psychological interpretation. The subterranean kingdom of Eblis may be intended to represent the realm of the unconscious mind. Vathek’s decision to renounce his religion, abandon his palace, and commit the most heinous acts of sacrilege in order to gain access to the power and wealth of a subterranean kingdom implies a willingness to follow...

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