How is marriage characterized in The Thousand and One Nights (also known as The Arabian Nights)—in other words, how are the women treated by their husbands?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Arabian Nights is also known as The Thousand and One Nights. The structure of the story involves a great ruler of Persia; his name is Sultan Schahriar. He is very much in love with his wife, but when he finds out that she has long been unfaithful to him, he exacts the punishment as set forth by the law of the land: that the sultana be executed. 

The Sultan's faith in women is so completely destroyed that he refuses to place himself in a position to be tricked ever again.

So every evening he marries a fresh wife and had her strangled the following morning before the grand-vizir, whose duty it was to provide these unhappy brides for the Sultan.

In this way, each woman he married never had time to deceive him, for by morning she was put to death. At the story's start, we find the first clue as to how wives are characterized and treated by their husbands: they are not to be trusted to the point of death. However, one woman decides that she will stand up to the Sultan to stop his inhumane treatment of her countrywomen. The grand-vizir to the Sultan (the one who was responsible for finding new brides and killing them) has two daughters. His oldest is Scheherazade, not only beautiful, but also spirited and courageous.

One morning Scheherazade asks her father if he will choose her to be the Sultan's next bride. Her father rejects her request, greatly distraught at the thought of losing his daughter. However, Scheherazade refuses to be swayed and eventually her father agrees. The Sultan is amazed—he cautions the father that if he cannot kill his daughter when the time comes, the grand-vizir will give up his own life.

Scheherazade is determined to change the fate of the kingdom's young women, and end the suffering of their families. She arranges to tell the Sultan a story on their wedding night, with her sister in attendance—just before dawn. At a strategic moment, at the start of the Sultan's day, Scheherazade will stop telling the story, promising that she will continue it if the Sultan gives his permission that she live one more day. 

It is finally the day of the wedding...

When the usual hour arrived the grand-vizir conducted Scheherazade to the palace, and left her alone with the Sultan, who bade her raise her veil and was amazed at her beauty.

With tears in her eyes, Scheherazade faces her new husband. Concerned that she is crying (perhaps foreshadowing a softer side of the great leader than one might expect), he asks what is wrong. Scheherazade pleads that she might have her sister sleep with them, as a last request: for Scheherazade notes they will never see each other again. The Sultan agrees. The sister, Dinarzade, wakes at dawn and begs her sister for one of her "charming stories"—but the older sister stops the story just before it ends—at the beginning of the new day. Intrigued by Scheherazade's story, the Sultan agrees that she may live one more day to finish the tale. Her stories are irresistible and this continues for many nights. Eventually, after countless years, the Sultan has fallen deeply in love with Scheherazade.

The Sultan ends his law to execute a new wife each day. By then the couple has many children, and the Sultan's attitude toward women had changed—he has discovered his wife to be not only beautiful and entertaining, but also brave. Getting to know his wife has restored his trust in women. And he realizes he has fallen in love Scheherazade.

Read the study guide:
The Arabian Nights

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