Salman Rushdie draws on both Indian and Western literary traditions in his novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories to emphasize the influential bearing that stories have on their authors and readers. The novel is Rushdie’s first book intended for children, but it contains meanings on many levels that are accessible to different groups of readers depending on their varied experiences and ways of understanding the story. As an Indian man living in Britain and writing in English, Rushdie faced the challenge of writing for audiences with a wide variety of cultural backgrounds, which at once allowed him access to a huge selection of inspiration in his writing, while also limiting the amount of understanding that individual readers may take from the novel because most people will not pick up on elements of the novel that come from other backgrounds than their own. He uses wordplay and puns that reference both Western and Hindustani words and cultural jokes, along with many references and allusions to other stories from Indian, European, and American traditions. Rushdie’s many sources of inspiration serve as an excellent example of one of the major points that he expounds in the novel, which is that the classic stories of all societies are important to the cultures that they come from both for preserving that culture’s traditions, and because they are the foundation of everything that has come after them.
The novel’s prevalent themes of the positive effects of storytelling and communication make Rushdie’s beliefs about the necessity of free speech obvious, but the ways in which the story promotes these beliefs is more subtle and operates on multiple levels, using wordplay and puns, references to other stories from both Indian and Western cultures, and heavy symbolism. The novel acts as a re-presentation of the concept of mimesis, which in itself essentially says that all art is an imitation of the world that it is based on and the art that has come before it. Simply by describing a part of the world, an author or artist represents it, evoking the meaning and character of that part of the world through the lens of their own interpretation. Authors are also inspired by the texts and genres that they have read, imitating the form of these styles and building their new stories within the framework of everything that has come before them. The way that stories and other forms of art represent the world is not a new idea, and in his re-presentation of tropes from classic stories through the references and allusions that he uses, Rushdie offers an interesting twist not only on these tropes but also on the idea of representation and originality in general. What Rushdie does in the novel with classic texts such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Arabian Nights, Rashid Khalifa also does with the stories he has heard and the experiences that he has had in the novel. This is just one of the ways that Haroun and the Sea of Stories contains multiple levels of meaning, and can be seen within the central metaphor of “the Sea of Stories” that the novel uses, which is made up of “the Streams of Story…each coloured strand represented and contained a single tale…all the stories that had ever been told and many that were in the process of being invented could be found here” (Rushdie 72). The Sea of Stories is constantly changing as parts of stories are recombined and repurposed within new tales, just as Rushdie’s novel does with the many works and tropes that it references. Rushdie’s idea that stories are both a product of and a tribute to their predecessors is a theme that resonates throughout the novel, as it combines elements of classic Western and Indian stories and means of storytelling to become, itself, an example of the very concept that the Sea of Stories represents.
Much of Haroun and the Sea of Stories’ critical reception, both scholarly and from readers on Goodreads.com, emphasizes the parts of the novel that remind readers of other classic literary works, showing the distinct impression of the interconnectedness of stories that Rushdie achieved with his novel. The most common comparison was between Haroun and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, closely followed by Arabian Nights and The Wizard of Oz, with many other works that similarly fall into the genres of fantasy or magical realism, along with children’s literature. These comparisons are evident within the novel both through its general style and tropes, and through the many more pointed references and homages to other works that appear in Haroun. For example, the trope of a child being transported to a fantastical land with strange creatures and helping to solve the problems of their society can be seen commonly in many children’s stories such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and The Phantom Tollbooth. The concept of a frame story, or a story that is told within another story, also appears in all of these works along with Arabian Nights, a famous collection of Indian, Arabic, and Persian tales. References to Arabian Nights abound in Haroun, from the theme that telling stories is a way to bring meaning to the world, to the more direct references like Haroun and Rashid’s names, which come from the name of one of the characters of many Arabian Nights tales, and the use of the number 1001, which is the same as the number of stories and nights in Arabian Nights. Haroun also refers to classical works of literature that have elements of myth and fantasy, such as the Greek mythological story of Jason and the Argonauts, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan which describes a fantastical vision of the wild city of Xanadu. Rushdie mentions this in his epigraph, saying, “…Xanadu: All our dream-worlds may come true” (Rushdie 11), alluding to the theme of fantasy becoming reality in Haroun. A huge number of references such as these can be found in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which makes the readers’ comparisons between this novel and other stories seem logical and emphasizes Rushdie’s intentions, because his heavy use of references and allusions contributes to his goal of showing how deeply influential classic stories are to readers and authors, and how stories are all derivative of each other.
The novel’s reception also points to a split between its two major elements—the wordplay and writing style that draw heavily on the influences of Indian culture, and the plot, tropes, and characters that have more similarities to European and American works. Although the reviews from readers included people from European, American, and Indian backgrounds, the positive reader reviews tended to focus on the symbolic layers of meaning within the story, while the negative reviews all mentioned their dislike of the novel’s wordplay and puns, which are mainly relevant to Indian culture and the Hindustani language. One American reader said, “in the end I left disoriented, like I’d eaten an exotic meal” (Karpuk), which implies that much of his dissatisfaction with the book was caused by his lack of knowledge about its elements that come from Indian culture. The reader reviews that did not like the book all share similar complaints such as “overload of puns” (Katie) and “the jokes and play on words aren’t all that funny” (Marcel), and do not mention the novel’s historical background or deeper meanings, which seems to show that an understanding of these elements of the novel is a large factor in whether people enjoyed it or not. The scholarly articles represent the perspectives of readers from academic backgrounds who would have read the novel with contextual knowledge and understanding of both its Western and Indian influences, and unsurprisingly these praised all of the parts of the novel. The scholarly reviews place the novel within the context of its writing, which is a key part of the novel’s outermost layer of meaning, as Mini Chandran explains in her article, “Haroun…was also a metaphorical statement of the ultimate triumph of the writer over forces that sought to silence him” (Chandran 1). As a text that relies so heavily on references and other stories, knowledge of the novel’s place in the world of literature makes it more enjoyable and allows readers access to more of its complexities that may be otherwise overlooked. Rosalia Baena also describes this aspect of Haroun’s construction, breaking down the readership by age as she says, “the novel is directed at a double audience: a young reader can enjoy the story…an adult reader and a literary critic perceive at least two other layers of meaning, at a political and a metafictional level” (Baena 65).
To add another layer to the connections within the novel, Haroun and Rashid’s journey and adventures on the second moon of Kahani symbolically parallel the problems that they face in their lives on Earth in their city of the same name. They help battle to save the Sea of Stories from the cult-master Khattam-Shud who asks, “what’s the point of stories that aren’t even true?” (Rushdie 155), mirroring Rashid’s struggle to recall the importance of storytelling when faced with adversaries who ask the same question as Khattam-Shud. Among many clear parallels between their lives on Earth and their adventures on the moon, Rashid’s wife with whom he happily tells stories has been taken away by Mr. Sengupta who hates stories, and the princess of the land of Gup on Kahani, where they love to talk and debate, has been kidnapped by Khattam-Shud. With the defeat of Khattam-Shud, Haroun protects the integrity of the stories in the sea, which is the crucial act that saves the planet and likewise returns his father’s conviction in the power and importance of stories to him. While these connections can be found entirely within the story and are more obvious than the intertextual and other references that the novel makes, they give readers the most straightforward layer of symbolism that creates the tone for the interpretation of the more complex meanings and references in the novel, urging readers to look for broader elements of symbolism. After Haroun and Rashid learn the full importance of storytelling and protecting stories on Kahani, they help teach these ideas to the people of Earth in the Valley of K and in their home city by telling the story of their adventures, prompting readers who essentially just heard the same story to take the same message away from their reading.
Haroun and the Sea of Stories urges its readers to draw parallels on many levels: between Haroun and Rashid’s adventures on the moon and their experiences on Earth; between the people on Earth in the novel and the readers on Earth themselves; between the novel and the other stories that it draws from; and between Rashid’s political predicament and Rushdie’s own similar one. Through this multifaceted approach to storytelling, Rushdie is able to emphasize his message over and over again, as each layer of the story ultimately supports the same belief. What is the purpose of stories that aren’t even true? Haroun and Rashid, the people of Earth, readers of the novel, and the world’s literary body all learn from Haroun and the Sea of Stories that stories are a key part of culture, and that they influence and are influenced by each other to create traditions that are more powerful than any source of silence, corruption, or oppression in the world.
Baena, Rosalia. “Telling a Bath-Time Story: Haroun and the Sea of Stories as a Modern Literary Fairy Tale.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 36.65 (2001): 65-76. Print.
Chandran, Mini. “Fabulation as Narrative in Haroun and the Sea of Stories.” Jouvert 7.1 (2002): n. pag. Print.
Karpuk, Nicholas. Rev. of Haroun and the Sea of Stories, by Salman Rushdie. Goodreads.com. 29 Sept 2008. Web. 31 May 2014.
Katie. Rev. of Haroun and the Sea of Stories, by Salman Rushdie. Goodreads.com. 14 Dec 2011. Web. 31 May 2014.
Marcel, Alegra. Rev. of Haroun and the Sea of Stories, by Salman Rushdie. Goodreads.com. 23 Aug 2007. Web. 31 May 2014.
Rushdie, Salman. Haroun and the Sea of Stories. New York: Penguin, 1990. Print.