Places: Vathek

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: English translation, 1786; original French edition, 1787 as Vathek

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Gothic

Time of work: The past

Places DiscussedPalace of Alkoremmi

Palace Vathekof Alkoremmi. Vathek’s own palace, situated on a hill above the city of Samarah (Sāmarrā), 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 building with nine domes and nine bronze portals, whose advertised purpose is to offer asylum to pilgrims and safe repose to travelers. Although not as luxurious as the palace of Alkoremmi, it is well appointed. It stands within sight of the domes of Shadukiam and Ambreabad, the abodes of the peries (Persian fairies). The principal symbol of virtue in the text is the group of lofty crags to which the good Genius brings Gulchenrouz and the sacrificed children.

Ruins of Istakar

Ruins of Istakar. Ancient mountain city to which Vathek brings Nouronihar. Roofless watchtowers, too numerous to count, are arranged around an immense palace fronted by four colossal statues representing chimerical hybrids of leopard and griffin. The towers tumble when the mountain splits to reveal the entrance to the underworld through which Vathek is allowed to pass.

Realm of Eblis

Realm of Eblis. Although roofed by a vaulted ceiling, the subterranean world to which Vathek and Nouronihar descend is a vast plain decorated with seemingly infinite arcades and colonnades. Its pavements are strewn with gold dust and odorous saffron and studded with censers in which ambergris and aloe-wood burn. Heavily laden tables set between the columns and troops of lasciviously dancing genies recall Vathek’s own experiments in extravagance, but the agonized shades of the damned are not so pleasing to the eye. Eblis, enthroned on a globe of fire set within a vast tabernacle, generously offers Vathek the sole use of the fortress of Aherman (Ahriman, a Zoroastrian demon) and the halls of Argenk, but these seemingly infinite and interminably gloomy apartments have no power to relieve the torment of one who has exhausted his capacity for pleasure and hope. Endless corridors and multitudinous rooms do not signify power and wealth in Eblis’s realm but serve instead to emphasize the awful loneliness of the human heart and the futility of hedonistic worldly ambition.

BibliographyAlexander, 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.
Categories: Places