The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Long fascinated by the collection of fantastic tales known as The Thousand and One Nights and as The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, William Beckford was a wealthy Englishman who lived like an Oriental potentate and was nicknamed the Caliph of Fonthill. Vathek (subtitled An Arabian Tale), a fantasy set in Arabia, is his only novel. The publication of the work was marked by controversy. Beckford originally wrote Vathek in French because the Oriental tale was regarded in the eighteenth century as a French genre. He then enlisted a schoolmaster named Samuel Henley to help him translate the novel into English. Henley not only published his translation without permission but even suppressed any mention of Beckford, claiming that he had translated the story from an ancient Arabic manuscript. Angered by Henley’s betrayal, Beckford revised the text and in 1816 published a new English edition of Vathek. A French version, published in 1819, is a translation from the 1816 English edition rather than Beckford’s original version.

The novel recounts the temptation and fall of the caliph Vathek, a man with few positive qualities. He has a violent temper and an insatiable desire for both power and pleasure. Vathek’s mother, Carathis, is a sorceress who shares her son’s devotion to the occult and exceeds him in ambition. The clearest symbol of Vathek’s pride is a huge tower that he has constructed “from...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Palace of Alkoremmi

Palace of Alkoremmi. Vathek’s own palace, situated on a hill above the city of Samarah (Smarr), situated upriver from Baghdad on the Tigris, in what is now Iraq. To the edifice constructed by his father Motassem, whose tower has eleven thousand steps, Vathek has added five new wings, each intended to gratify one of the five senses: the Eternal or Unsatiating Banquet; the Temple of Melody, or the Nectar of the Soul; the Delight of the Eyes, or the Support of Memory; the Palace of Perfumes, also known as the Incentive to Pleasure; and the Retreat of Joy, or the Dangerous. These perfect incarnations of refined sensation cannot, however, prevent his determination to exceed their limits.

Mountain of the Four Fountains

Mountain of the Four Fountains. Place at which the demoniac Giaour, Vathek’s tempter, arrives after rolling like a ball across the plain of Catoul. The Giaour eventually falls into a chasm etched out by a cataract descending from the mountain, and it is to this chasm that Vathek brings his unsuccessful sacrifice of fifty children, hoping to buy admission to the black portal of the realm of Eblis, which he has glimpsed in its depths.

Valley of Fakreddin

Valley of Fakreddin. Refuge that Vathek finds when he is lost in the wilderness en route to the stream of Rocnabad (from which he drank delectably in his youth). Emir Fakreddin’s palace is a stone...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Alexander, Boyd. England’s Wealthiest Son: A Study of William Beckford. London: Centaur Press, 1962. Includes chapters on the origins of Vathek and its connection with the three supplemental episodes that Beckford wrote in the 1820’s, which did not appear in print until 1912.

Day, William Patrick. In the Circles of Fear and Desire: A Study of Gothic Fantasy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. One of many studies of gothic fiction that include a discussion of Vathek. Links the work to the “apocalyptic vision” of literary modernism.

Frank, Frederick. “Vathek: An Arabian Tale.” In Survey of Modern Fantasy Literature, edited by Frank N. Magill. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Salem Press, 1983. A useful essay on the work, which draws interesting comparisons between Vathek and the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

Mahmoud, Fatma Moussa, ed. William Beckford of Fonthill 1760-1844: Bicentenary Essays. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1972. Includes Mahmoud’s essay, “Beckford, Vathek and the Oriental Tale,” which offers a comprehensive analysis of Vathek, and Mahmoud Manzalaoui’s “Pseudo-Orientalism in Transition: The Age of Vathek,” a useful account of the work’s literary-historical context.

Varma, Devendra P. “William Beckford.” In Supernatural Fiction Writers: Fantasy and Horror, edited by Everett F. Bleiler. New York: Scribner’s, 1985. A brief essay that provides information and interesting speculations about the origins of Vathek and its connections to Beckford’s own life.