Haroun and the Sea of Stories | Study Guide

Salman Rushdie

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Course Hero, "Haroun and the Sea of Stories Study Guide," May 10, 2019, accessed August 17, 2022, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Haroun-and-the-Sea-of-Stories/.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories | Themes

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Stories and Storytelling

At its heart, Haroun and the Sea of Stories is a love letter to stories and a celebration of the craft of storytelling. It calls for a greater appreciation of ancient stories, stories in other languages, and stories that are just plain fun. It rebukes mediocre stories and storytelling with a political agenda. In the great Ocean of the Streams of Story, story streams twine and flow as colorful ribbons. The Source of Stories, located in the Old Zone, issues forth a continuous flow of stories like a bright current of light. The nature of stories is to weave in and out of one another, to combine in new ways, and to retain their connections to the source stories from which they came.

In the novel, Haroun begins his quest to get his father's stories back and make his father happy again. Later, he comes to love the stories for themselves and undertakes a dangerous mission to save the Ocean of the Streams of Story. Once he sees the Source of Stories, he is amazed by its beauty and realizes it has the power to heal the world.

Rashid, Haroun's father and a famous storyteller, stands in for the author in the novel (who also addresses the audience a few times in the novel, in storytelling fashion). Through him, Haroun learns about the craft of storytelling. He learns it is like juggling. A storyteller keeps all the story threads in the air until the end, when they are caught one by one. He learns it takes charisma and a strong voice. A storyteller mesmerizes with his skill and takes the audience on a joyful ride. Haroun also learns it takes courage. A great storyteller reveals truth even when it is not popular to do so.

To support and develop this theme, Rushdie connects his story to other stories, both ancient and modern, in ways large and small. He draws on ideas from diverse cultures and times, including The Thousand and One Nights, an ancient collection of Middle Eastern stories such as "Sinbad the Sailor," "Ali Baba," and "Aladdin" connected by a frame story; Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, which involve the journey of young Alice into the magical land of Wonderland. L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its film adaptation; and J.M. Barrie's play Peter Pan, in which Peter's shadow separates from his body and gains a personality of its own. These and other references and allusions help structure the story and add to its humor and style.

Language and Meaning

Closely tied to the theme of story and storytelling is the theme of language and meaning. The novel is a celebration of language and its power. Every word has meaning. Names of characters and locations all have meanings that reveal something important about characters or locations. Striking images and similes are used in the opening paragraphs: "Smoke poured out ... of the sadness factories and hung over the city like bad news" and "Old zone of ruined buildings that looked like broken hearts." Rushdie is an equal-opportunity writer—using elevated, poetic language alongside silly jokes and sentimental song lyrics.

When Haroun sees the volumes of The Ocean of the Streams of Story on the houseboat on Dull Lake, he finds they are in a language he does not understand, but his father shows an ability to understand ancient and obscure languages. Rashid is able to translate the Abhinaya language spoken by Mudra—"the most ancient Gesture Language of all." This proves to be essential to the quest's success. Language must convey meaning; otherwise, it is useless. Among other points, Rushdie seems to be making the case for maintaining ancient languages and old writings.

Censorship

The theme of censorship is prominent throughout the novel, both on Earth and on Kahani. On Earth, the politician Mr. Buttoo first introduces this theme by demanding Rashid tell only cheerful, positive stories that will make people want to vote for him. On Kahani, this theme is developed by Khattam-Shud. The villain seeks to have only certain kinds of stories told and demands complete silence from his followers. He looks to poison the stories of the world in the Ocean of the Streams of Story and is driven to plug up the Source of Stories. His trajectory from a mild form of censorship to a fanatical need for control and the stifling of all language and story is a cautionary tale of what happens when a leader attempts to control the expression of language.

The censorship theme is further developed in the contrast between the Land of Chup, where Khattam-Shud rules, and the Land of Gup, where free speech is allowed and encouraged. Both Haroun and Rashid have their doubts about the level of free speech practiced among the Guppees, because it is extreme and chaotic. The talking never ends. The Chupwala forces seem disciplined and united in their commitment to silence—a formidable enemy. However, the silence of the Chupwalas leads to resentment, suspicion, and a lack of trust over time. The Guppees, on the other hand, develop bonds of trust through their constant arguing. In the final battle, the Chupwala army falls apart immediately because it lacks unity. The Guppee army, for all its silliness, is able to operate with a unity born of trust and is ultimately victorious. This shows that while free speech may seem counterproductive and chaotic, it is more advantageous in the long term.

Love and Family

While many of the themes in the novel have to do with big ideas about stories, free speech, and the power of language, it should not be forgotten that this is a story about a boy whose mother runs off with a neighbor and whose father plunges into a deep depression. Nowhere in the novel is the distance between the reality of home and the fantasy of Kahani more evident than in the characters' family relationships. Haroun's mother and father are struggling in their marriage. The love they shared for most of Haroun's childhood has been fading. They have tried and failed to have more children. Finally, the marriage seems to be over, and Haroun blames himself. He wants to fix it and wants his mother to return. In contrast, the love between Prince Bolo and Princess Batcheat is without much nuance or struggle. They are single-mindedly in love.

Will Haroun's family have a happy ending? Love and family in the real world are more complex than in most children's stories. It is not clear from the novel whether Rashid and Soraya reunite for good. As the Walrus says, "If [happy endings] happen in the middle of a story ... all they do is cheer things up for a while."

Expanding Understanding of Reality

Throughout the novel, Haroun's understanding of reality expands. At first, this occurs through his curiosity and persistence in asking questions. Although he doesn't always get definitive answers—Rashid answers his question about why he is an only child with "no answer at all"—his questions show an understanding that reality is larger and more complex than the little corner of it he inhabits. His father's insistence on giving indirect, strange, or incomprehensible answers to his questions, however, seems like a roadblock to Haroun ever finding the true nature of reality. Haroun is frustrated by this at first. When Rashid insists his stories come from the great Story Sea, Haroun tries to argue against this seemingly fanciful answer, asking crafty questions until Rashid says it is by a mechanism "Too Complicated to Explain."

As Haroun struggles to answer the questions his curiosity constantly brings up in his mind, he is confronted with the matter of deciding what the truth behind his father's answers really is. His doubts about his father's truthfulness are based in his preconceived ideas of what kinds of things are true and what kinds of things are imaginary.

And then something interesting begins to happen. The nonsense answers his father gives, which involve things Haroun cannot see and so cannot verify, begin to manifest. For example, the Water Genie Haroun is skeptical of in Chapter 1, when his father says his stories come from an invisible Tap installed by a Water Genie, suddenly appears. Haroun has to adjust and expand his understanding of what is real because he is confronted with evidence in front of his very eyes. This new evidence challenges Haroun's earlier concept of reality. This question of seeing versus believing as a way to distinguish reality is reinforced in the subsequent conversation between Iff the Water Genie and Haroun in Chapter 3. Iff points out that Haroun has never seen Africa or the North Pole, yet he believes they are real places. The unmistakable message is that reality includes things you can see and things you cannot see. Life's story is one of exploration and discovery as those things previously unknown are incorporated into your reality. The moments in the story in which the normal world seems to transform or enter the fantasy world show this process in a concrete way.

Exploring the borders and intersections of one version of reality with another is common in postcolonial literature, which originated in part because very different cultures were living alongside and intersecting with one another as a result of colonialism. The uncomfortable postcolonial tension between cultures that are intertwined yet represent different realities is similar to the way fantasy and reality are intertwined in the novel. The vision of the postcolonial world Rushdie paints in the novel is a hopeful one. Haroun's personal journey in the story is one of opening up his version of reality, not asserting his beliefs on others. In the end, Haroun finds a happy medium between reality and fantasy by living in a new reality that includes both, just as Chup and Gup find a new reality that has elements of both dark and light.

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