A Numbers Game

I also wrote mine on numbers! Sorry about the repeat, I focused however only on the significance of the number three in the tree apples story. 


A Numbers Game

In the story The Story of the Three Apples the role of quantitative description is more prevalent than in previous Nights stories.  I wanted to examine the role of numbers in this story specifically the recurrence of the number three.

The number first appears within the title and the subject of the story.  It is titled The Story of the Three Apples and the subject of the story in the Nights version revolves around the attainment of these three apples.  When the plot opens you meet the caliph and his vizier Ja’far just before they discover the butchered body of the woman in question.  The Caliph gives Ja’far only three days to discover what the cause of her death was and to bring the murderer before him.  This is the first time the number is introduced, I believe a foreshadowing to the story they will later hear about the three apples.  It is on the third day that the husband and father of the ‘women in pieces’ come forward both admitting to the murder.  When her husband retells his own story, the story of the Three apples, he tells of how he traveled day and night to purchase these three apples, each for a dinar, to equal three dinars.

  I first wondered if there was a link in Islamic theology to the number three, similar to the importance of the trilogy in Christianity.  However, after further research I found that there was no historical link to the number.  Instead, I believe that the author of the story put an emphasis on the number in order to further signify what occurs when it is no longer intact.  For also referenced in her husband’s story, the murdered woman bore three sons.  It is when the eldest son breaks the trilogy of the apples, stealing one from her bedside (and later having it stolen from him) that leads to the death of his mother.  When one son is singled out, and one apple is removed from the rest, there is no longer harmony and symmetry in the story and thus chaos ensues and the wife is murdered.  This could be seen as a type of Repetitive Designation that David Pinault talks about in his essay “Story-Telling Techniques in The Arabian Nights”.  As Pinault said, “Repetitive designation creates thereby an effect of apparently casual foreshadowing and allows the audience the pleasure of recognition at that later moment when the object reappears and proves significant”.  The repetitive use of the number three prepares the reader to notice the discord when there are only two apples remaining. 


2+2=3? Numerical Importance in 1001 Nights

In reading the 1001 Nights, I’ve begun to pay more attention to the numerology involved in the stories, looking for patterns involved with the mention of a specific number. Yet, the Nights are full of numbers, and not all of them have any profound meaning past a superficial purpose of providing detail. Numbers such as two, forty, or even one-thousand and one are commonly identified throughout the Nights, and typically help formulate the plotline by providing clarification in the text. Yet, the mentioning of numbers also supports the exaggeration of stories, assisting in making the tale more ‘strange and entertaining’ for the audience.

One of the most important numbers conveyed in the Nights is two, whether it is a dual of actions or characters that portrays a conflict or contrast in a story. We see this number consistently in the stories, with the initial combination of Shahrayar and his brother Shahzaman, as well as the two viziers in ‘The Tale of the Three Apples,’ Shams al-Din Muhammad and Nur al-Din Ali. This dual creates an opportunity to compare one character against another and present one set of character traits that are either mimicked or in complete opposition to the other. Yet, this dualistic power is not the only numerical representation seen in the Nights. Through the tales read and analyzed thus far in class, the number three has found its way into a story, either through an object, action or representation of people. Ever since the story of ‘The Merchant and the Demon,’ I have grown curious as to find any symbolic meaning for using this number over others in the stories.

The presentation of the number three is conveyed in a variety of forms, such as the appearance of three old men in the tale of ‘The Merchant and the Demon,’ or the confession of the Christian, the Jew and the Muslim in “The Hunchback Story,” or the three sisters in “The Porter and the Three Ladies.” Yet, the number three is not only found in the number of characters involved in a story; but also in objects and actions. It is not just one red apple that the merchant murderer finds for his wife in Basra, but three apples. The cloth merchant must not just wash his hands once in a basin, but forty times in three different liquids. More importantly, most of the stories have at least three frames: the initial story of Shahrazad and Shahrayar, the story being told by Shahrazad and the story told within the frame story.

The importance of the number three can be viewed from a perspective that examines balance, elaboration and religious connotations. In stories that involve three different people there is a balance with each character’s own tale, as each is viewed to carry a third of the responsibility to keep the story entertaining. Three different people and three different stories allows for a moral lesson to be conveyed three different times, a tactic possibly used by Shahrazad to firmly reiterate a message to the king.  Additionally, it allows for Shahrazad to continue a story, giving her more time and power over the King. Rather than introducing just one or two people, she brings forth a third, and the audience is prepared to hear three stories. The number also places an emphasis on an event or object to draw attention to its importance. Rather than have the merchant in the story “The Three Apples” bring one apple for his wife, he brings back three, indicating power of the apple in determining the fate of the woman later in the story. The number three also holds spiritual and religious value, and creates another perspective in examining Sharazad’s incorporation of this number. In a Christianity context, three can represent the connection found between God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, where all three encompass the nature and power of God. Three also refers to the levels of hell, purgatory and heaven and the spirituality of the body, soul and spirit. However, in Islam I was not able to find any concrete affiliations to the number three for the exception of a Muslim’s pilgrimage to the three holy cities: Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. More importantly, Shahrazad does not allude to just one religion when she discusses the three people in “The Hunchback Tale,” she gives all three a different Abrahamic religion. Through the inclusion of Christianity, Judaism and Islam she does show the connection between all three religions and gives a balance for the story, as well as an element of toleration.

To my knowledge there has not been any academic investigation with the distinction of the number three in Shahrazad’s stories. An explanation to this may be because there does not seem to be any relevance or priority in this specific number. Yet, when I engage myself into any story in the Nights, any mention of three drives me to examine the content in greater detail, and focus on parallels with that number throughout the tale. Through a meticulous examination at the numerology in the stories, I hope to find more connections with the number three, and draw more conclusions as to why it is so prevalent in these stories.

Blog 2 – Freud Had Nothing on Shahrazad

As we’ve been reading stories within stories within stories in the 1001 Nights, we’ve seen lengthy introductions such as “I heard, O happy King, that the tailor told the king of China that the young man said to the guests:” As confusing as it might be to keep track of who is “telling” each story and to what audience, it’s important to keep in mind that regardless of who is said to be speaking, and no matter what the context of the story is, they all have one thing in common –  every word in every story is spoken from the mouth of Shahrazad.

I bring this up as a pretense for understanding the 1001 Nights as a form of therapeutic psychotherapy. Since our first week of class, the idea that these interwoven tales were a form of psychotherapy has intrigued me and greatly influenced my reading of the Nights. I’d like to analyze a few of the common themes between the tales that could be viewed as subtle forms of therapy directed at Shahzaman.

Firstly, as previously mentioned, almost every story begins with an introduction of who is “telling” the story and to what audience. Whether these introductions are long and involved or a simple one-liner, Shahrazad diligently gives this recap at the beginning of nearly every tale. In doing so, Shahrazad distances herself from the story. In a way, this depersonalizes the story if you will and prevents the possibility of him “catching on” to Shahrazad’s psychological tactics.

Next, we see the frequent parallels drawn between Shahzaman and particular male characters in the story. His situation is often mirrored in demons, Caliphs, and other male figures with some degree of power. While these parallels seem obvious to us, Shahrazad has already distanced herself from the story so that these parallels don’t appear pointed at Shahzaman. Remember, he’s a part of her audience just like us – we don’t think that Shahrazad is directing these stories at us, why should he? Just as Professor Litvin mentioned that her young son feels better after hearing the story of “Where the Wild Things Are” when he’s had a long day – Shahzaman doesn’t need to understand the direct parallels for the stories to have a similar psychological effect.

Now that Shahrazad has set the stage as such, she can employ one of her most powerful techniques – asking the reader to accept certain facts at face value for the sake of the story. My favorite example is in “The Three Apples.” The premise of the outer frame is that the Caliph is outraged by the idea that “people are being thrown into the river in [his] city, while [he] bears the responsibility till Doomsday.” He says “By God, I will avenge this girl and put her murderer to the worst of deaths.” He sends Ja’far to find the murderer and from here begins the entire story. Now, in these short sentences, Shahrazad is asking the listener – including Shahzaman – to accept two very important conditions if the story is to hold any ground.

1)  One must accept that a young girl’s brutal murder is an act that should, in fact, be punished and

2)  The king bears the responsibility of his people.

If the listener does not accept these two conditions, the rest of the story holds no weight. Why would you have any interest in what happens next if you don’t care about the driving force behind the story anyway? We are told that Shahzaman is intrigued by each story and will spare Shahrazad one more day to hear the end, so on some level he must have accepted these facts. He may not consciously agree with them, but at some point he must have accepted them for the sake of the story. In this subtle way Shahrazad has made Shahzaman unknowingly accept particular values on a subconscious level. In this same story, consider how Shahrazad employed the same technique with the tale of the husband, who murdered the girl, but felt remorse after realizing that it was a mistake and he had acted rashly. Again, she asks the listener to accept that remorse is an appropriate emotion to feel after having committed such an act – an act that is analogous to what Shahzaman did to his own wife.

Blog Post 2: Food: The Mundane Plot Twister

Food has a reoccurring role in the stories in The Arabian Nights.  On the surface, the luscious varieties of food combined with the large quantity of food represents the life of the wealthier people in society.  However, food has more importance and is used as the mundane object that becomes a crucial turning point in some stories.

In The Three Apples the main food, the three apples, actually makes the title of the story.  One of these apples becomes the necessary object to change the course of the story when the son steals it from his dying mother.  Eventually the father sees an apple in the hands of a slave who claims the apple came from his mistress.  Since the apple is gone from the dying woman’s bedside, her husband assumes the worse and kills her.  The travels (and coincidence of another apple) are responsible for this woman’s death.

The Hunchback Story also relies on food for its coincidental turning points.  The hunchback chokes oh a fish to start the series of events where the hunchback is passed around.  There is one point where food also keeps the coincidental mess going when the Jew puts the hunchback in the kitchen of the steward from the king’s kitchen.  The stewards believed that the hunchback was stealing his meat, sheep tails, and cooking butter all along while he had blamed the cats, dogs, and mice.  His assumption leads him to become another link in the chain of people who thought they were responsible for the hunchback’s death.

The encounter with the steward also displayed the importance of food.  Despite the fact that most characters in these stories belong to the upper class, food is treated like a treasure among them.  In a few different stories there actually was a direct correlation between brilliant luxurious feasts and an increased possibility of sex.  For example, in the most recent story The Porter and the Three Ladies, feasts of food and drink eventually lead to more scandalous activities lacking sexual discretion.  Even The Three Apples touches on this idea as the husband immediately assumed his wife was disloyal due to the disappearance of this treasure of an apple.  Not only is the apple proof of the supposed affair, but it also is implied that the apple would be a worthy gift for a lover.  This showed food’s heightened importance in sexual relationships.  One story within The Hunchback Story about the first disabled man also included a food for sex tradeoff.  It was more obvious in his story since he would bring the woman food each night and sleep with her afterwards.  Eventually his lack of money caused him to steal and lose his hand for this woman because he felt he must provide food to the lady before sleeping with her each night.

The stories of the disabled men within The Hunchback Story used food not as a turning point in their stories but as a pathway to a new story.  The eating etiquette of both the man without his right hand and the man without thumbs pushed them to tell tales of their misfortunes.  This showed how important food etiquette was and how apparent it was if it was incorrect.  This again showed regard to food as a luxury of the wealthy that are expected to treat each other and the food as a treasure.  Since food was a prized possession of the wealthy, it is the most obvious catalyst for many stories to take on a new direction or the reminder that a new story is due to begin.  Food also was sexualized as feasts were often this prelude to sex or just sexual indiscretion in a few stories.

Faces in 1001 Nights

The face is an important motif throughout the Nights. When the narration focuses on the face, it often seems to signal a turning point in the story and is tied to deep emotion. This is especially the case for men when their faces are described using color. In the frame story, when the king Shahzaman discovers that his wife has cheated on him with his slave, “اسودت الدنيا في وجهه,” the world blackened in his face. The same phrase is used when the young man in The Three Apples tells the story of the black slave telling him he had had an affair with the young man’s wife and she had given him her apple: “اسودت الدنيا في وجهي,” the world blackened in my face. (As a side note, the English in Haddawy is translated in the first case as, “the world turned dark before his eyes” and in the second, it is translated as “the world turned black before my eyes.” I wonder if there is a cultural difference between Arabic and English in which emotion is connected more to the eyes whereas in Arabic it is connected more to the face?) This particular phrase seems to come up only when a man has been cheated on by his wife. (It is also interesting to note the contrast between the darkness of these men’s faces and the names of Shams al-Din and Nur al-Din, who had presumably faithful wives who each gave them children.)

Another phrase that is the idea that if a man’s face is yellow, it represents weakness. Shahriyar returns from his trip and notes the change in color of his brother’s face, saying, “يا اخي، كنت اراك مصفر الوجه و الآن رد اليك لونك,” O brother, I saw you yellowed of face, and now your color has returned to you.” (In Haddawy, he is earlier described as ruddy, but Shahriyar makes no mention of the yellowing of his face when speaking to his brother. He instead makes a general statement about his looking having looked ill.)

This image is repeated in The Story of the Two Viziers. When Badr al-Din Hasan learns that the king has sent men to kills him for failing to attend the king,  “انقلبت احمرار وجهه الى الاصفرار” or the red of his face turned to yellow. In this way, the author reveals his shock and position of weakness before Badr al-Din has to flee. (The translator is also inconsistent in his translation of this image and says the Badr al-Din “paled.” It is interesting that English uses the “white” and “pale” to describe weakness while Arabic uses yellow. However, it seems that some parallelism between the stories is lost when using different translations of the same Arabic words.)

The repetition of using these particular colors to signify these particular emotions creates a continuity throughout the stories and the characters’ reactions to events in their lives.

Also, while men tend to show their emotional and physical state in their faces, the revealing of women’s faces change men’s emotional states and is often the catalyst for a change in their actions. When the Christian broker in The Hunchback story sees the woman’s face in his shop, he “sighed and lost [his] senses.” From that moment he can no longer eat or sleep and it sets into motion the chain of events in which he spends his money on her, loses his hand and inherits her wealth. In the next story, the Steward also encounters a woman in his shop, and when she unveils her face he “sighed.” He also is unable to eat or sleep and this also sets into motion the events in which he endures hardships to marry her and then loses his thumbs and toes when he fails to wash his hands properly on his wedding night.


Disfigurement in 1001 Nights

Among the affluence of exotic food and copious alcohol for Arabian entertainment in 1001 Nights, we also see a recurrence of disfigured people used for amusement. From mutilation as punishment to birth defects,  disfigurement isn’t only a means of delight but it is always a great segue into a story. There are three excellent examples of this in the parts of 1001 Nights that we have read thus far, first in the story of The Hunchback, then in the story of The Two Viziers and finally in the story of the Porter and the Three Ladies.

The reader is first introduced to human mutilation and disfigurement quite graphically in the  story of The Hunchback. The impetus for the entire wild night comes from the husband and wife’s desire to “carouse, banter and amuse” themselves with the hunchback, as if his jolly nature and disfigurement are cause in and of themselves for entertainment. This mocking of his misfortune is then mirrored when each the tailor, the steward and the broker must relay a story for the king’s amusement. It happens that all of their stories have a theme of mutilation; one resulting in the loss of thumbs and toes, another in a hand and another a broken leg. The brutality of each of these stories is enough to save their lives, going to show that something as vicious as being maimed is considered good entertainment.

Next, we meet the hunchback in a different setting, in the story of the Two Viziers. When Shams al-Din denies the king to marry his daughter, the king demands that she has to marry the hunchback, a most unfortunate fate. What is said in seriousness then becomes an easily conceivable joke as Badr al-Din, nephew of Shams al-Din explains to his new bride that they were simply playing a trick on the hunchback. Furthermore, the hunchback is subject to some extraordinarily poor and vile treatment by a Jinn who wishes Badr al-Din and his cousin be wed. This behavior is deemed excusable since it is only a hunchback and planning an elaborate prank around him is a believable action. Finding amusement at the expense of someone’s disfigurement is delightful, after all.

Finally, in the story of The Porter and the Three Ladies, the three ladies are hesitant to let the three dervishes into their home but once they are convinced that their matching blind right eyes will provide amusement, they agree to their entry: “Sisters, each one of them is a sight, with a face that would make a mourner laugh.” Additionally, their only consolation, that all of their guests mind their own business (in so many words), is broken by themselves when inquiring how these dervishes became blind. The promise of a story about mutilation proves to be strong enough to allow them to break their one rule and ask about their misfortune. Despite their joviality with drink and food and the pool earlier in the day, the only entertainment worthy of saving your life is a story and it ought to be about how you became disfigured.

The Various Transitions of Shahrazad

A point of discussion that seems to come up often in class is why Shahrazad ends her story for the night at a certain point, and how this evolves over time. As we were told in class, in some versions when the number of the night can very well correspond to pregnancy, Shahrazad is confident enough to end her story before the sun rises and dangle only a tiny thread of promise of a new story to latch on to. This may seem like the most practical answer, but I would like to explore some other possibilities lodged deeper in the psyche of our storyteller—and the king himself—using examples from our Norton edition.

After the first night, Shahrazad leaves her listener at a very typical cliffhanger: just as the protagonist is about to be killed. As common and “unoriginal” as it may seem to some, all of us have given in to this technique. How many times have you been flipping through channels and pause on a channel to scoff at a show you consider silly or a waste of time, yet still feel that tug of intrigue when they cut to the commercial break? This does not have to happen often, and we do not always stick around to see what happens, but it is not uncommon. We fully understand the techniques being used, but we still fall prey to them, even if only from time to time.

After the second night, Shahrazad ends the story with one of the characters in the story himself saying he wants to know what happens next, thus tugging a but harder at that sense of intrigue that we can either follow or choose to ignore. The pattern seems to continue, but eventually Shahrazad does become gutsier and ends stories completely right before the sun comes up. But how does Shahrazad keep this up? There are only so many projected paths and even the king would become aware of—even annoyed and bored with—these predictable endings. At this point, I do not think the King is deciding the fate of Shahrazad solely on the quality of one story; I think he truly wants to know just how many stories Shahrazad can come up with (although he probably does have some standards) and frankly, even this cruel, bitter soul probably gets tired of killing a new bride every night. This may even serve as an excuse for him to “take a break”, yet still provides the ability to maintain control over the situation and preserve enough of that sense of fear and “walking on eggshells” within Shahrazad, so he can continue feeding his ego and sense of pride.

Although it does play an important role, I do not believe that the way Shahrazad chooses to end her stories is the sole thing keeping her alive. In all honesty, I believe that as the Nights continues, we mustn’t take the details to heart because in the end we can never really know for sure since the Nights as a whole is basically one big concoction that has been passed through many minds and editors. Half of me wishes that we could take certain details more seriously or that there were more details about the relationship and exchanges between Shahrazad and the king, but the other half of me enjoys the fact that the story is imperfect and leaves much to be interpreted by the reader as they so please.