Critical Evaluation

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William Beckford’s Vathek is usually classified as a gothic novel, and it does indeed contain many of the same elements as the gothic novels more typically set in Europe, including a defiant and charismatic villain, a submerged but obsessive interest in perverse sexuality, and a diabolical bargain that ultimately leads to damnation. Vathek is, however, a highly idiosyncratic example of the gothic genre, not only in the overblown exoticism of its Eastern setting but also in its near-comedic grotesquerie. As if the text’s inherent eccentricities were not enough, the familiar English version of it is an unauthorized translation of an unpublished manuscript of Beckford’s text, which he wrote in French, by a clergyman named Samuel Henley. Beckford seems to have disapproved of the translation beyond the fact that it preceded publication of his original version.

The most obvious debt Vathek owes is to The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (fifteenth century), which was translated into French by Antoine Galland 1704-1717. A more direct influence, however, was Voltaire, whom Beckford met in Paris in 1777, the year before Voltaire’s death. Voltaire borrowed materials from Galland to construct a series of extended satirical works he called contes philosophiques (philosophical tales); these included Zadig (1747) and La Princesse de Babylone (1768; The Princess of Babylon, 1769), as well as Candide: Ou, L’Optimisme (1759; Candide: Or, All for the Best, 1759). It was probably the rumor that Voltaire composed Candide at a single sitting that prompted Beckford to boast (falsely, according to his biographers) that he wrote Vathek in a single session of something less than seventy-two hours.

If Vathek was intended to be a conte philosophique, it is a peculiar example. Such tales are supposed to have clear and explicit morals, though philosophical reasoning often proceeds doggedly to dreadful inconclusiveness. As Candide demonstrates—the philosophical tale can be more a powerful devastator of hopeful systems than a supporter of them. Voltaire, however, subjects his corrosive skepticism, mocking sarcasm, and phantasmagorical imagination to a strict discipline, whereas Beckford plainly sees no reason not to give free rein to imagination, which is what he allows his character Vathek to do. Five years before the publication of the first of the Marquis de Sade’s elaborately extended conte philosophique—which proposes that morality is an arbitrary and hollow sham, and that nothing in nature can deny the powerful the right to indulge to the full in perverse pleasures—Beckford’s Caliph Vathek had gone forth in search of similar extremes.

That great figure of diabolical bargains, Doctor Faust, negotiates with the devil for enlightenment, pleasure, and profit, but Vathek desires what is beyond mere pleasure and profit, some final and absolute evil. The dreadful fate that claims him at the end is not the kind of trivial damnation that later claims such gothic villains as Matthew Gregory Lewis’s monk. Instead, Beckford devises the awful revelation that the archfiend Eblis has no absolute to offer. Vathek’s hell is the realization that his boundless desires must remain forever unsatisfied. One of the great triumphs of the text is the image that encapsulates this fate: the limited hellfire that cages but never consumes the heart. This fire does not merely singe the flesh and rack the body with pain; it is a metaphysical flame that leaves all the yearnings of the flesh intact while mocking all ambition, emotion, and enlightenment. The image of the eternally burning heart remains unsurpassed throughout the subsequent centuries when legions of writers delved in search of the ultimate horror.

Beckford inherited an immense fortune from his erratic father, which included the neo-Gothic monstrosity of Fonthill Abbey, which...

(This entire section contains 846 words.)

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was repeatedly burned to the ground and rebuilt at vast expense and ever greater expansiveness. Beckford turned the abbey into a fabulous palace, fully equipped for the contemplation of absolutes. The life he led there was rumored to be debauched, at least in its latter phases. Certainly he was well-placed to dream of such desires as those that consume Vathek.

Beckford seems to bow to conventional morality in his novel’s last paragraph, in which he describes the fate of “the humble and despised Gulchenrouz” as that of passing “whole ages in the undisturbed tranquillity and the pure happiness of childhood.” He must have known (through Galland if not otherwise) that the paradise promised by the Qur’an to the faithful followers of Allah bears no more resemblance to this imagined fate than do orthodox visions of hell to the novel’s Halls of Eblis. It can be assumed that, as a loyal follower of Voltaire, Beckford means his concluding observation sarcastically, and that he intends to imply that paradise is a place fit only for children, bliss fit only for the ignorant, and peace fit only for the mindless. The final irony of Vathek’s paradoxical damnation is that there is no alternative that anyone blessed with freedom of desire could possibly want. That conclusion entitles Vathek to be considered an authentic conte philosophique, for it represents a braver display of authentic horrors than all the gothic novels that trailed in its wake.