(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 781 words.)