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Oriental Tales and Great Expectations (Critical Essay)

Dickens Quarterly 2010, March, 27, 1

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Since the first decade of the eighteenth century when Antoine Galland's translation of The Arabian Nights appeared in France, soon to be translated in turn into English, the Nights has been a synonym for the fabulous. Wordsworth records that when, as a boy, he learned that his book of Arabian tales was but a thin slice of four volumes, his vision of this "mighty quarry" of literary wealth was "scarcely earthly." (1) Such was the collection's renown that even the hard-headed and unromantic James Mill, whose patron Jeremy Bentham deemed the French Declaration of the Rights of Man as nonsensical "as if it had been an oriental tale" (cited in Dinwiddy 40), obtained an edition for his eldest son. As if the sort of enchantment theoretically discredited by the Enlightenment (2) came back to life in the Nights, Leigh Hunt wrote in 1834, "To us, the Arabian Nights are one of the most beautiful books in the world.... The pauper touches a ring, and spirits wait upon him. You ride in the air; you are rich in solitude. ... You have this world, and you have another. Fairies are in your moonlight" (cited in al-Musawi 47). It bears remembering that readers in those years encountered the Nights not through the medium of Richard Burton's pseudo-archaic diction, which came later, but through one or another version based ultimately on the more felicitous Galland translation itself. (3) Anyone who dips into this collection of oriental tales knows exactly where the amazed delight it inspired came from. And yet the equation of the Nights with the utterly fantastic may blind us to the collection's actual content, for the fact is that it ranges miscellaneously from romance down to beast fables and tales of trickery, and that some of the core tales (that is, those of the fourteenth-century Syrian manuscript that served as one of Galland's sources and has recently been re-translated by Husain Haddawy) are devoid of marvels except insofar as the extravagance of human delusions is marvelous in itself. Such tales dispute or even invert the image of the Nights as a world "in which you are invited to step from the labour and discord of the street into a paradise where everything is given to you and nothing claimed," as George Eliot put it in chapter 36 of Middlemarch. Characters in the Nights may imagine themselves in such a magical realm only to discover otherwise. Their stories are of interest to students of Dickens, whose greatest works, while "romantic," are nevertheless in the tradition of Don Quixote and its ridicule of romance itself.

Oriental Tales and Great Expectations (Critical Essay)
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  • Category: Language Arts & Disciplines
  • Published: Mar 01, 2010
  • Publisher: Dickens Society of America
  • Seller: The Gale Group, Inc.
  • Print Length: 18 Pages
  • Language: English
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