History: This was composed in French beginning in 1782, written when William Beckford was only 21. It was translated into English by Reverend Samuel Henley in which form it was first published in 1786 without Beckford's name, published with the title of An Arabian Tale, From an Unpublished Manuscript, claiming to be translated directly from Arabic. The first French edition was published in 1787.
Plot: The novel chronicles the fall from power of the Caliph Vathek who renounces Islam and engages with his mother, Carathis, in a series of licentious and deplorable activities designed to gain him supernatural powers. At the end of the novel, instead of attaining these powers,Vathek descends into a hell ruled by the demon Eblis where he is doomed to wander endlessly and speechlessly.
Vathek, the ninth Caliph of the Abassides, ascended to the throne at an early age. He is a majestic figure, terrible in anger, and addicted to the pleasures of the flesh. He is intensely thirsty for knowledge and often invites scholars to converse with him. In order to better study astronomy, he builds an observation tower with 1,500 steps.
A hideous stranger arrives in town, claiming to be a merchant from India selling precious goods. When the merchant does not respond to Vathek's questions, Vathek looks at him with his "evil eye," but this has no effect, so Vathek imprisons him. The next day, he discovers that the merchant has escaped and his guards cannot account for him. The people begin to call Vathek crazy. Vathek admits that he should have treated the stranger kindly.
Vathek wants to decipher the messages on his new sabers, offers a reward to anyone who can help him, and punishes those who fail. After several scholars fail, one elderly man succeeds: the swords say "We were made where everything is well made; we are the least of the wonders of a place where all is wonderful and deserving, the sight of the first potentate on earth." But the next morning, the message has changed: the sword now says “Woe to the rash mortal who seeks to know that of which he should remain ignorant, and to undertake that which surpasses his power”. The old man flees before Vathek can punish him. However, Vathek realizes that the writing on the swords really did change.
Vathek then develops an insatiable thirst and often goes to a place near a high mountain to drink from one of four fountains there, kneeling at the edge of the fountain to drink. One day he hears a voice telling him to “not assimilate thyself to a dog”. It was the voice of the merchant who had sold him the swords, Giaour. Giaour cures his thirst with a potion and the two men return to Samarah. Vathek returns to immersing himself in the pleasures of the flesh, and begins to fear that Giaour, who is now popular at Court, will seduce one of his wives. Some mornings later, Carathis reads a message in the stars foretelling a great evil to befall Vathek and his vizir Morakanabad; she advises him to ask Giaour about the drugs he used in the potion. When Vathek confronts him, Giaour only laughs, so Vathek gets angry and kicks him. Giaour is transformed into a ball and Vathek compels everyone in the palace to kick it, even the resistant Carathis and Morakanabad. Then Vathek has the whole town kick the ball-shaped merchant into a remote valley. Vathek stays in the area and eventually hears Giaour's voice telling him that if he will worship Giaour and the jinns of the earth, and renounce the teachings of Islam, he will bring Vathek to “the palace of the subterrain fire” where Soliman Ben Daoud controls the talismans that rule over the world.
Vathek agrees, and proceeds with the ritual that Giaour demands: to sacrifice fifty of the city's children. In return, Vathek will receive a key of great power. Vathek holds a "competition" among the children of the nobles of Samarah, declaring that the winners will receive "endless favors." As the children approach Vathek for the competition, he throws them inside an ebony portal to be sacrificed. Once this is finished, Giaour makes the portal disappear. The Samaran citizens see Vathek alone and accuse him of having sacrificed their children to Giaour, and form a mob to kill Vathek. Carathis pleads with Morakanabad to help save Vathek's life; the vizier complies, and calms the crowd down.
Vathek wonders when his reward will come, and Carathis says that he must fulfill his end of the pact and sacrifice to the Jinn of the earth. Carathis helps him prepare the sacrifice: she and her son climb to the top of the tower and mix oils to create an explosion of light. The people, presuming that the tower is on fire, rush up the stairs to save Vathek from being burnt to death. Instead, Carathis sacrifices them to the Jinn. Carathis performs another ritual and learns that for Vathek to claim his reward, he must go to Istakhar.
Vathek goes away with his wives and servants, leaving the city in the care of Morakanabad and Carathis. A week after he leaves, his caravan is attacked by carnivorous animals. The soldiers panic and accidentally set the area on fire; Vathek and his wives must flee. Still, they continue on their way. They reach steep mountains where the Islamic dwarves dwell. They invite Vathek to rest with them, possibly in the hopes of converting him back to Islam.
Vathek becomes angry and claims that he has followed Giaour’s instructions long enough. He stays with the dwarves, meets their Emir, named Fakreddin, and Emir's beautiful daughter Nouronihar.
Vathek wants to marry her, but she is already promised to her effeminate cousin Gulchenrouz, who she loves and who loves her back. Vathek thinks she should be with a "real" man and arranges for Babalouk to kidnap Gulchenrouz. The Emir, finding of the attempted seduction, asks Vathek to kill him. But Nouronihar prevents Vathek from killing her father and Gulchenrouz escapes.
The Emir and his servants then meet and they develop a plan to safeguard Nouronihar and Gulchenrouz, by drugging them and place them in a hidden valley by a lake where Vathek cannot find them. The plan succeeds temporarily - the two are drugged, brought to the valley, and convinced on their awakening that they have died and are in purgatory.
Nouronihar, however, grows curious about her surroundings and ascends to find out what lies beyond the valley. There she meets Vathek, who is mourning for her supposed death. Both realize that her 'death' has been a sham. Vathek then orders Nouronihar to marry him, she abandons Gulchenrouz, and the Emir abandons hope. Meanwhile, in Samarah, Carathis can discover no news of her son from reading the stars. She conjures the spirits of a graveyard to perform a spell that makes her appear in front of Vathek, who is bathing with Nouronihar. She tells him he is wasting his time with Nouronihar and has broken one of the rules of Giaour's contract. She asks him to drown Nouronihar, but Vathek refuses, because he intends to make her his Queen. Carathis then decides to sacrifice Gulchenrouz, but before she can catch him, Gulchenrouz jumps into the arms of a Genie who protects him. That night, Carathis hears that Motavakel, Vathek's brother, is planning to lead a revolt against Morakanabad. Carathis tells Vathek that he has distinguished himself by breaking the laws of hospitality by ‘seducing’ the Emir’s daughter after sharing his bread, and that if he can commit one more crime along the way he shall enter Soliman’s gates triumphant. Vathek continues on his journey, reaches Rocnabad, and degrades and humiliates its citizens for his own pleasure.
A Genie asks Mohammed for permission to try to save Vathek from his eternal damnation. He takes the form of a shepherd who plays the flute to make men realize their sins. The shepherd asks Vathek if he is done sinning, warns Vathek about Eblis, ruler of Hell, and asks Vathek to return home, destroy his tower, disown Carathis, and preach Islam. Vathek's pride wins out, and he tells the shepherd that he will continue on his quest for power, and values his mother more than life itself or God's mercy. Vathek's servants desert him; Nouronihar becomes immensely prideful.
Finally, Vathek reaches Istakhar, where he finds more swords with writing on them. Gaour opens the gates with a golden key, and Vathek and Nouronihar step through into a place of gold where Genies of both sexes dance lasciviously. Giaour leads them to Eblis, who tells them that they may enjoy whatever his empire holds. Vathek asks to be taken to the talismans that govern the world. There, Soliman tells Vathek that he had once been a great king, but was seduced by a Jinn and received the power to make everyone in the world do his bidding. But because of this, he is destined to suffer in hell for all eternity. Vathek asks Giaour to release him, saying he will relinquish all he was offered, but Giaour refuses. He tells Vathek to enjoy his omnipotence while it lasts, for in a few days he will be tormented.
Vathek and Nouronihar become increasingly discontented with the palace of flames. Vathek orders an Ifreet to fetch Carathis from the castle. When she arrives, he warns her of what happens to those who enter Eblis' domain, but Carathis takes the talismans of earthly power from Soliman regardless. She gathers the Jinns and tries to overthrow one of the Solimans, but Eblis decrees "It is time." Carathis, Vathek, Nouronihar, and the other denizens of hell lose "the most precious gift granted by heaven - hope". They begin to feel eternal remorse for their crimes.
Review: Vathek can be seen as a critique of the Enlightenment and of enlightened despotism, so much the rage in Europe in the late 18th century. Beckford seems to rail at knowledge being held above respect for a common humanity. Many have tried to extract a moral import and some have even described a mystique of knowledge and a system of ethics. In a more likely scenario we have a fable whimsical and indulgent, crafted as a parody of "orientalism". The author's disquietude trumps an increasing distance from the absurd drive and hedonistic tendencies of the protagonist, while we feel a sympathetic kinship laxed the more into the novella we proceed. The author wrote this fable in French and supervised the translation as best he could. The grotesque and the sublime are here married insolubly but tend to find a balance suspended over a void that derides and insinuates the emptiness of a spiritual fantasy in turmoil.
Opening Line: "Vathek, ninth Caliph of the race of the Abassides, was the son of Motassem, and the grandson of Haroun Al Raschid"
Closing Line: "Thus the Caliph Vathek, who, for the sake of empty pomp and forbidden power, had sullied himself with a thousand crimes, became a prey to grief without end, and remorse without mitigation; whilst the humble and
despised Gulchenrouz passed whole ages in undisturbed tranquillity, and the pure happiness of childhood."
Quotes: "As there were several clefts in the rock from whence water seemed to have flowed, Vathek applied his ear, with the hope of catching the sound of some latent runnel, but could only distinguish the low murmurs of his people, who were repining at their journey, and complaining for the want of water."
"Ah!" said Vathek; "and shall my eyes ever cease to drink from thine long
draughts of enjoyment! Shall the moments of our reciprocal ecstasies be reflected on with horror?"