Dissertation: Orientalism and the Formation of Stereotypes in Burton's Arabian Nights

Pages: 14 (3927 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 20  ·  Level: Master's  ·  Topic: Literature  ·  Buy This Paper

Arabian Nights: Shaping of Western Perspectives Through Literature

Long before the invention of the internet, the world relied upon literature to gain knowledge about other cultures. As such, the writings of novelists, poets, journalists, and research writers whose own, and often limited experiences, together with their own personal views on culture, politics, and religion served as the basis for shaping many a reader's mind regarding foreign cultures and traditions. This shaping of the mind, which Edward W. Said contends was most prominently shaped through colonial and post colonial literature, are the images and the understanding by which most Westerners today still perceive the East, and most specifically the near Eastern Arab Islamic Muslim culture (Said, 1979). It is a prevailing stereotypical image and understanding that has been created for the Westerner, first, through the use of language in literature from a place of "intellectual authority over the Orient within Western culture (p. 19)." The intellectual authority over the Orient, according to Said, helped to reinforce the Westerner's own identity as one superior to that of the Easterner's, and, thusly, in the mind of the Westerner, made the West more powerful than the East, especially given the history of the West's geographical imperial expansion (pp. 54-55). These prevailing stereotypical images and Western understanding of the Orient are in part what Said defines as Orientalism.

Said's concepts of Western Orientalism, the West's intellectual authority and its "relationship of strong to weak (p. 39)" as gained from literature are examined in this essay using the work of Captain Sir Richard Burton, in his the Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night. Burton was born to the English privileged class; he was the son of a retired lieutenant colonel, and his early education was conducted in Italy and France (Zipes, 1991). Later, he attended Trinity College in Oxford (expelled in 1842), and he became fluent in foreign languages (Zipes). By way of his experiences in foreign countries and his academic training, Burton eventually became proficient in twenty-five languages and fifteen dialects (Zipes). He enrolled in the British Army, which led him to India where he worked as a subaltern officer (Zipes). He spent eight years in India, but he resigned from the Army when some of the work he was involved in became "too controversial (Zipes, p. vii)." He lived with his mother in France from 1850 to 1852, and during that time he wrote four books on India (Zipes).

Later, Burton became a traveler and explorer, and "was the first westerner to visit forbidden Moslem cities and shrines (Zipes, pp. vii-viii)." He took at least two exploratory trips along the Nile, but went to America in 1860 to pursue his research of the American Seventh Day Adventist, Brigham Young (Zipes). In 1861, he married into an aristocratic family, and accepted a post as consul, in Fernando Po, a Spanish island off the coast of West Africa (Zipes). From 1864 to 1868, he served as a British consul in Santos, Brazil, and, from 1868-1871, he held a post as consul in Damascus, Syria (Zipes). His last post before his death in 1890 was in Trieste, Italy (Zipes).

Jack Zipes (1991) says that Burton's "unexpurgated translation of William Hay McNaughten's Calcutta II edition (1839-42)," is considered one of the finest works on what has subsequently (in the West) become known as One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, or Arabian Nights (p. vii). Zipes is perhaps one of the few authors who have rewritten the book for Western readers based on Burton's translation, who discusses the fact that Burton indulged in plagiarism while writing his translation of McNaughten's work (p. viii). A fact reported by Zipes, but one that is absent in more recent biographies on Burton by such authors as Edward Rice, whose 2001 book, Captain Sir Francis Richard Burton: A Biography, portrays Burton an explorer, a spy, as was as an accomplished author and translator whose "Arabian Nights lead the reader to see that in Burton's view sex, for women as well as men, was not an uncomfortable duty for the propagation of the race but a pleasure to be enjoyed with enthusiasm and vivacity (Rice, p. 6)."

Whether or not Rice is referring to the race of the characters in Arabian Nights, or the race of the reader of the stories, remains unclear; but it is exactly this kind of interpretation of Burton's work as it is read by the Western reader (Rice in this case) that is the subject of this essay. Said (1991) writes:

"Many terms were used to express the relation: Balfour and Cromer typically used several. The Oriental is irrational, depraved (fallen), childlike, "different"; thus, the European is rational, virtuous, mature, "normal." But the way of enlivening the relationship was everywhere to stress the fact that the Oriental lived in a different but thoroughly organized world of his own, a world with its own national, cultural, and epistemological boundaries and principles of internal coherence. Yet what gave the Oriental's its intelligibility identity was not of his own efforts but rather the whole complex series of knowledgeable manipulations by which the Orient was identified by the West. Thus, the two features of cultural relationship I have been discussing come together. Knowledge of the Orient, because generated out of strength, in a sense creates the Orient, the Oriental, and his world. In Cromer's and Balfour's language the Orient the Oriental is depicted as something one judges (as in a court of law), something one studies and depicts (as in a curriculum), something one disciplines (as in a school or prison), something one illustrates (as in a zoological manual). The point is that in each of these cases the Oriental is contained and represented by dominating frameworks (p. 54)."

Whether or not the intent of Burton's work, as Rice says, was, in at least one way, to demonstrate to the Western reader "that that in Burton's view sex, for women as well as men, was not an uncomfortable duty for the propagation of the race but a pleasure to be enjoyed with enthusiasm and vivacity (Rice, p. 6)," it served as the "framework" said mentions by which the West perceives the Orient and the Oriental, and because it would be used as an element of comparison to self by the reader, creates a "sense" of the Oriental that is not necessarily consistent with Oriental culture, traditions, values, or religious or personal morals.

While Burton was clearly, according to Rice, a man who was deeply interested in cultural eroticism as denoted by Burton's works in that regard, including the Arabian Nights, but, too, the Anaga Ranga and Kama Sutra "which he discovered (Rice, p. 6)," Burton was influenced in other ways as a result of his own experiences in politics, religion, and by his own European ethnicity. These influences are like an onion-skin layer over his work in Arabian Nights, and serve to create the sense and image of the Oriental that allows the Westerner to see his self in a place intellectually and culturally superior to the Oriental, creating a barrier to equality between the East and the West that would allow the West to see and understand the Oriental as a partner, or an equal, in society, politics, religion, and world affairs.

This essay will explore the ideas and philosophies of other scholars who reject Said's ideas on Orientalism. Some of those scholars will seemingly be the most unlikely persons of opposition, such as Ibn Warraq (2007), who holds that Said's Orientalism is, by way of putting European imperialism at the center of his perspective on Orientalism, is the one who, in the end, is creating the barrier between the equality that is being sought between the East and the West today.

These ideas and philosophies will be examined in relation to Burton's interpretation and annotations in One Thousand Nights and One Night, and begins with a literature review of the existing literature on Orientalism, and, for comparison, other adaptations and interpretations of Burton's work. The history of the origins of collection of stories told by the character Shahrazad that comprise the Arabian Nights will be explored so that on the basis of origin some understanding of the place of the work in the life of the Oriental can be better understood. This is necessary to understand how, taken out of the context of overall meaning in which it was intended to be read, can impact the perception and understand of Orientals as a people when read by readers (Western) who read without the benefit of having traveled to, or experienced the Orient themselves.

The sensitive and emotional issues of savage slavery as depicted in the stories in conjunction with an exploration of the condition and savagery of slavery perpetrated against people of other cultures by the West will be examined here and used as a comparison that will demonstrate that in this regard, at least, not only is the West an equal offender as transgressor of human rights, but… [END OF PREVIEW]

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