Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 752

James Morier’s romance is both an Oriental tale and a picaresque narrative. With its treatment of exotic customs and manners, the novel resembles such eighteenth century romances as Samuel Johnson’s THE HISTORY OF RASSELAS, PRINCE OF ABYSSINIA (1759) and William Beckford’s less philosophical VATHEK, AN ARABIAN TALE (1786). As a picaresque narrative, THE ADVENTURES OF HAJJI BABA OF ISPAHAN resembles the episodic novels of Defoe and Smollett. Like most novels concerning a rogue-hero, Morier’s book satirizes the foibles not only of the characters in the story but also those of humankind. Hajji Baba is an amiable opportunist and schemer, experienced in the worldly arts of guile and deception, but not the sole rascal in the book. On the contrary, Hajji learns his impudent tricks from others, and although he is an apt pupil, he is simply more successful—not more wicked—than most people. As one of his teachers, the Dervish Sefer explains: “We look upon mankind as fair game—we live upon their weakness and credulity”; from such counsel, Hajji discovers how to expropriate riches from the weak and stupid for the sake of his own ease. In a world of scoundrels and fools, he is seen as amoral rather than immoral; the reader sympathizes with his desire, in the contest of life, to be the world’s knave instead of its victim.

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During the course of his roguish adventures, Hajji ranges through almost all the social levels and professions of Persian (and, indeed, Middle-Eastern) life. At various times he is a barber, a merchant, a robber, a slave, a “seller of smoke,” a saka (water carrier), a luti (privileged buffoon), a dervish, a physician’s apprentice, a sublieutenant for the chief executioner, a scribe to a man of law, an ambassador to foreign powers, and finally, the shah’s deputy. He travels throughout the Middle East, from Cairo to Aleppo and Damascus; from Mecca and Medina to Lahore and Cashmere. Mostly, however, he travels through the cities and villages of early nineteenth century Persia, learning to understand the passions and weaknesses of his fellowmen. In none of the ranks of society does he encounter true comradeship, civility, or altruism. At one point, after he escapes from the Turcoman robbers and throws himself at the mercy of his countryman, a Persian prince, he is robbed and threatened with further punishment by his protector. A simple muleteer chides Hajji for lamenting his losses. After all, what could he expect from a prince? “When once he or any man in power gets possession of a thing,” the muleteer reasons, “do you think that he will ever restore it?”

In spite of Morier’s broad-ranging satire, which sometimes approaches cynicism, his prevailing tone is comic rather than censorious. Hajji is, above all, an affable rogue, high-spirited and inventive, most resilient when he appears to be defeated. Through his resourceful imagination, he overcomes most of the obstacles in his way; yet he is never wholly successful and triumphant as are some other picaresque heroes in fiction. Morier is too much the Realist to allow his adventurer the fullest enjoyment of his romantic dreams. Hajji’s true love, Zeenab, is kept from him, first by the crafty physician Mizra Ahmak, and later by the shah himself. Worse, as one of the royal executioners, poor Hajji is forced to witness her terrible death.

He suffers other misfortunes. When he is under the tutelage of the Turcoman bandits, he is forced to rob his own father; and years later, he arrives at his ancestral home just in time to watch the old man die. After his father’s death, Hajji and his mother quarrel and part on unfriendly terms. His marriage to the rich widow Shekerleb is dissolved by her kinsmen when they discover that Hajji is not so rich as he had pretended to be. He is not only humiliated but beaten on several occasions, once by order of the Mohtesib (inspector), who has him thrashed on the soles of his feet until he loses consciousness from the pain. Morier, therefore, avoids the romantic stereotype of the swaggering outlaw—the corsair, the highwayman, the outcast—popularized by such authors as Scott, Byron, and Shelley. Instead, his rogue-hero is a fellow mortal, perhaps less scrupulous than most of us, but unquestionably human in his weaknesses. In THE ADVENTURES OF HAJJI BABA OF ISPAHAN IN ENGLAND (1828), Morier continues the tale of Hajji’s adventures, this time as an envoy from Persia to the barbarians of the West.

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