William Beckford's 'Vathek': Moral, Immoral or Ironic?

Term Paper 2011 17 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1. Introduction: Vathek and the Question of Morality

2. Moral Philosophy in the Age of Enlightenment

3. Morals in Early Gothic Fiction

4. Morals in Vathek
4.1 The Narrative Situation and the Implications for Morality in Vathek
4.2 Religion in the Context of Enlightenment Philosophy
4.2.1 The main protagonists and the Age of Enlightenment
4.2.2 Vathek and Christian Values
4.3 Vathek’s and Carathis’ Amoral Conduct
4.4 The Role of Sexuality and its Moral Implications
4.5 Summary: Morals in Vathek

5. Conclusion: Vathek – A Moral, Immoral or Ironic Novel?

Table of figures


1. Introduction: Vathek and the Question of Morality

If “Gothic fiction is a literature of nightmare” (MacAndrew 1979: 3), then William Beckford’s Vathek would be a prime example. First published in 1782, it tells the story of the Caliph Vathek, who – encouraged by his evil mother Carathis – yields to the temptation of forbidden knowledge only to realise that the place he seeks is Hell. What distinguishes Vathek from earlier Gothic novels, though, is its use of irony. Since morality plays a central role in many early Gothic novels, the question arises to what extent morals in Vathek are overshadowed by irony and sarcasm. In the Oxford English Dictionary ’s definition of “moral”[1] and “morality”[2], the term is put in the context of “virtue and vice”, “religion”, “the rules of right conduct” and “sexual conduct” (Murry 1991: 1068).

Consequently, the structure of the analysis of Vathek is directed by these four main notions. In order to understand the prevalent ideas of virtue and vice, the central philosophical thoughts of the eighteenth century shall be explored followed by a brief analysis of the role morality plays in other early Gothic novels. The reading of the novel will be introduced by a discussion of the narrator’s situation since he is the principal proclaimer of morality. After that, the previous theoretical basis shall be put in the context of the novel and the concepts of religion, conduct and sexuality will be explored further.

The intention of this term paper is to analyse which role morality plays in Vathek and whether the final result is that the narrator ridicules the moral concepts of the time or whether the severe judgement of the protagonists is serious after all.

2. Moral Philosophy in the Age of Enlightenment

In the eighteenth century, moral philosophy did, “as a matter of historical fact, presuppose something very like the teleological scheme of God, freedom and happiness as the final crown of virtue” (MacIntyre 1981: 56). Religious ideas of morality greatly influenced the Age of Enlightenment. In fact, the contribution of the time was to “provide a rational foundation for and justification of morality” (ibid.: 42). Of course, it is not the intention of this chapter to discuss the individual theses of each moral philosopher. However, to understand what concepts of morality might have influenced William Beckford’s Vathek, the attempt is to summarize the most important notions of the century.

The Age of Enlightenment spread in several waves over Europe. In Germany, most commonly known is probably Immanuel Kant’s “Categorical imperative”[3], which is the underlying principle of his moral philosophy. He argues that if the rules for morality are rational, they must be the same for all rational beings. Concluding, all that matters is the will of such beings to carry them out because the contingent ability to do so is insignificant.

The English Enlightenment was greatly influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment with well-known philosophers such as Adam Smith, David Hume, Adam Ferguson, John Millar, Lord Kames or Lord Monboddo (cf. ibid.: 36). According to the great Enlightenment philosopher Adam Smith, “the great purpose of all systems of morality” is “[t]o direct the judgements of this inmate” (Smith 2009: 345). “For Smith the most basic task of moral philosophy is one of explanation; it is to provide an understanding of those practices which traditionally are called moral” (Haakonssen 2009: vii). Effectively, the philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment were the first to question or to extend the moral reasoning of the church. In England, the secularised Protestant background fostered the exchange between the educated class, the servants of government, the clergy and the lay thinkers “in a single reading public” (MacIntyre 1981: 36). Consequently, “morality became the name for that particular sphere in which rules of conduct which are neither theological nor legal nor aesthetic are allowed a cultural space of their own.” (ibid.: 38)

In Vathek, William Beckford toys with these ideas. As shall be shown in the analysis of chapter four, Beckford indirectly discusses the principal ideas of his time.

3. Morals in Early Gothic Fiction

Not only in Vathek does morality play a central role. In fact, in many early Gothic novels, moral behaviour is a key component of the message the story wants to convey. In Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, which might be classified as the first Gothic novel, the castle symbolically collapses when Manfred, the protagonist, comprehends the weight of his guilt that he has burdened himself with. Likewise, in Ann Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance, the evil characters are punished whereas the good ones are recompensed. Nevertheless, the culpability and the consequent chastisement is relatively ‘harmless’ in comparison to William Beckford’s Vathek where the Caliph, his mother and Nouronihar are condemned to eternally suffer in purgatory. Only in later novels such as M. G. Lewis’ The Monk, does the evil protagonist receive an equally severe castigation.

But punishment in itself does not imply morality. Instead one could call this justice, revenge or retribution. In contrast, Gothic fiction tries to terrify the reader by showing him horrific consequences for misbehaviour. Thus, it aims to “explore the mind of man and the causes of evil in it, so that evil might be avoided and virtue fostered” (MacAndrew 1979: 4). Certainly, the Gothic authors inspired pity and terror in their readership but not with the sole purpose of frightening them. Furthermore, they tried to evoke the reader’s ‘natural’ compassion, sympathy and commiseration. As a result, the “novelists thus seek to cultivate the reader’s finer feelings by appealing to his Moral Sense” (ibid.: 26-27). Hence, it was their firm belief that all men possess a divine moral sense that enables them to distinguish between right and wrong instantaneously (cf. ibid.: 23-24): “Both good and evil are inner states of man’s mind and, since beauty lies in God’s order, the good and the beautiful are one, and evil is monstrous.” (ibid.: 24)

4. Morals in Vathek

Already in the very beginning of the novel, when Vathek erects an enormous tower, which is compared to the Biblical Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 58), moral behaviour is discussed by Mahomet and the Genii (Beckford 1998: 3-4). Correspondingly, the ending has a strong moral slant when the narrator elucidates the ‘moral of the story’ (cf. ibid.: 120). Thus, the beginning and the ending form a frame for the moral setting of the novel. Hence, the reflections of the following chapters will orbit around the question: “Is Vathek moral or amoral? Those who vie for the latter premise their belief on both the speciousness of Vathek ’s purported moral […] and in the salacious quality of the story itself.” (Weiss 1980: 97).

Throughout the plot, there are four recurrent themes of morality: philosophy, religion, sexuality, and the question of the right conduct. All of these are attributed a certain value in the novel – either presented as a virtue or as a vice. After the analysis of the narrator’s situation, these four parts shall be read in detail and put in the context of the theoretical introduction of the preceding chapter.

4.1 The Narrative Situation and the Implications for Morality in Vathek

In Vathek, morality is principally conveyed through the narrator. Therefore, in a first step, the narrator shall be looked at more closely. According to the literary theorist Franz K. Stanzel, there are three basic points of view: the first-person narrative situation, the figural narrative situation and the authorial narrative situation (cf. Stanzel 2008: 242-285). So as not to delve too deeply into literary theory, only the relevant narrative situation in Vathek will be outlined in its context.

In general, in Vathek, the authorial narrative situation is clearly dominant. Already in the beginning, the reader perceives the narrator as being situated on a divine level (cf. Beckford 1998: 3-4). Consequently, the omniscient character of the narrator is manifested. He effortlessly skips between the different levels and between the characters (of whom he knows the attitudes, feelings and motives). Moreover, he foreshadows future happenings (“Unluckily for him, he accepted the offer” [ ibid.: 11]) and is aware of all occurrences.

Apart from his omniscience, the narrator is also omnipresent. Even though we follow Vathek most of the time, the focus sometimes turns to Carathis (cf. ibid.: 90-91) or Fakreddin (cf. ibid.: 75-76), for example, and parallel events are linked by the narrator. This is perceivably done on two occasions when the narrator shows an awareness of his own narrative situation. When introducing the subplot of Gulchenrouz and Nouronihar, the narrator announces “But, let us leave the Caliph” (ibid.: 65) and likewise when closing the subplot he finishes with “But let us return to the Caliph” (ibid.: 87). Thus, he is actively intrusive in terms of leading the reader through the story.

However, there is a final characteristic of the unlimited point of view that is of particular relevance to the analysis of morality. As typical of the authorial narrative situation, Beckford’s voice challenges the characters’ actions and comments on them, which adds to the moral undertone of the book. According to Stanzel’s theory, these can be of a critical, humoristic, ironic or explanatory nature and value the characters’ behaviour (cf. Stanzel 2008: 242-285).

Alternatively, John Garrett argues that the narrator’s initial viewpoint is ambivalent and only becomes unequivocal once Vathek “nears his final goal” (Garrett 1992: 30). However, when Vathek sacrifices 50 children to the Giaour, his scheme is described as “dreadful” (Beckford 1998: 27). In other words, the narrator openly condemns Vathek’s cruel act. Therefore, it would be unjust to speak of “moral neutrality” (Garrett 1992: 30) as Beckford’s voice positions itself on several occasions, which shall be specified in the following.


[1] One of the Oxford English Dictionary ’s definitions of “Moral”, on which table number one is based, reads: “Treating of or concerned with virtue and vice, or the rules of right conduct, as a subject of study.” (Murry 1991: 1068)

[2] Morals, morality, moral virtue and ethics will be used as synonyms in this paper. Even though there is a fine distinction of these terms in philosophy, the differentiation would exceed the scope of this work.

[3] Kant formulates his categorical imperative as follows: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” (Kant 1993: 30)


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Title: William Beckford's 'Vathek': Moral, Immoral or Ironic?