Vathek is an Arabian caliph whose reign is marked by turbulence and unrest. A sensuous person, he builds five palaces, each devoted to the enjoyment of one of the five senses, and his fondness for food and women consumes much of his time. In addition to the gratification he finds in the life of the senses, he also tries to master the sciences and the deep, unfathomable secrets of the world beyond. To this end, he builds a huge tower where he pursues his studies in astronomy and astrology. There Carathis, his mother, burns refuse and live bodies to appease the dark powers.
One day, Vathek obtains several mysterious sabers from a hideous, repulsive stranger. These sabers bear letters the caliph is unable to decipher. He offers great rewards to anyone who can read them; but because the punishment for failure is also great, few accept the offer. At last, an old man appears to read the inscriptions. The next morning, however, Vathek discovers that the inscriptions changed. From that time on, the letters on the sabers change daily.
Vathek is in despair. He begs the stranger to return and explain the inscription to him, for he is sure that the letters are the key to the dark kingdom and the riches Vathek hopes to find there. The stranger, who is the Giaour, finally reappears and tells Vathek that only a sacrifice will put the powers in a receptive mood. On a journey with his court, Vathek throws fifty children into a chasm as a sacrifice for the bloodthirsty Giaour. The people are angered by his cruelty and begin to hurl execrations at Vathek, but his guards return him safely to his palace.
Carathis continues her own sacrifices in the tower, to the disgust and anger of the people, who increasingly object to Vathek’s defiance of Mahomet and the Muslim creed. Obeying a message written on a mysterious piece of parchment, Vathek and his court set out on a pilgrimage in search of the mountains of Istakhar, where the secrets of the dark world are to be revealed to him. On the way, they meet the messengers of Emir Fakreddin, a deeply religious prince. For some time, Vathek is Fakreddin’s guest. Although he loathes the prayers and the religious ceremonies observed by his host, he is attracted to Fakreddin’s daughter, the lovely Nouronihar. She is long betrothed to her cousin Gulchenrouz, and their mutual devotion has the approval of the emir and of his people.
Nouronihar so attracts Vathek that he plots to seize her by force. Fakreddin, already scandalized by Vathek’s behavior, is informed of the plot. He and his court determine to outwit Vathek. He administers a drug to the young lovers, and when Vathek sees them in their deathlike trance, he is convinced they are dead. Nouronihar and Gulchenrouz are secretly taken to a safe retreat and looked after by Fakreddin’s servants. When the young people awaken they believe that they really died and that they are now in Paradise.
One day, however, Nouronihar strays from the hidden retreat and is...
(The entire section is 781 words.)