I first encountered The Thousand and One Nights, which is also referred to as The Arabian Nights, as I was preparing to teach it to my World Literature students. It blew me away. I was angry that nobody had recommended it to me or assigned it as reading in a class. It has a mixed reputation. There are lewd passages. Some of the stories reflect common human failings. Some of the stories can denigrate groups of people and reinforce stereotypes. On the whole, however, it teaches invaluable lessons about virtue, sacrifice, leadership, justice, compassion, trust, and tolerance. It’s one of my favorite things to read, and I never get tired of teaching it.
The Arabian Nights is a frame narrative. Frame narratives use one story to serve as the context for the telling of other stories. In this case, the story of Shahrazad and Shahrayar is the frame story, because it provides the occasion for the telling of other stories. Frame narratives were popular throughout the world in the middle ages. Other well-known frame narratives are The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron, and The Heptameron.
It also relies heavily on embedding. Embedding happens when a story is told within another story. For example, the three old men’s stories are embedded within “The Story of the Merchant and the Demon.”
One of the things that impresses me most about The Arabian Nights is its design. The text was produced by hundreds of people over hundreds of years, and if we’re not careful, we might assume that its construction was haphazard or random. The opposite seems to be the case. The text as it has been transmitted to us seems to be a masterpiece of narrative design, and its unity of purpose is breathtaking.
The text begins with the frame story. Two kings Shahzaman and Shahrayar, witness their wives having extramarital sex. Shahrayar loses his mind, and he decides to exact revenge on all of the women in his kingdom by marrying one woman every night and murdering them in the morning. Shahrazad, who is the daughter of Shahrayar’s vizier, devises a plan to save the women of the kingdom. She volunteers to marry Shahrayar, and she is able to delay her execution by telling him wonderful stories but leaving them unfinished.