Articles of Recognition: A Study of Objectification in the Tale of the Three Apples

By: Yosef Press        

The Arabian Nights’ “Tale of the Three apples” advances its story through various items and objectifies its human narrators in relation to their effect on the plot. The Caliph represents the reader’s normal perception of power, but it is ultimately a mere apple that serves as the impetus for the events that unfold.  Although a superficial reading may afford the apples the broadest impact on the narrative’s progression and identify Jafar as the passive, yet least objectified, protagonist, many other figures bridge the gap between the two.  In doing so, the tale surpasses its limits and subtly reminds the reader of the potential impact of objects of recognition.  In a story commenting on storytelling, the text ensures that the figures who act the least ultimately matter the most.

The bulk of the narrative is directed by silent “tokens” that elicit a slew of recognitions and misrecognitions from the more organic characters (Aristotle 60). Although they cannot speak for themselves, these artifacts operate as the embryo from which all other facets of the story emerge.   After the woman’s murderer has been revealed, the apple commandeers the remainder of the plot and occupies center stage. Three separate narratives, the husband’s, his son’s and the slave’s, all revolve entirely around the whereabouts of the wayward apple.  Consequently, the son cries specifically due the loss of the apple, inadvertently recognizing it, as opposed to the death of his mother, as the story’s greatest tragedy.

The text makes an effort to assert that the apples’ relevance to the plot isn’t dependent on any intrinsic value.  The husband’s account epitomizes this fact by establishing the apple as an item with no inherent worth; it fails to cure his wife and she ultimately recovers without it.  However, it has vast implications for the overall tale as demonstrated by the fifteen day journey preceding its acquisition.  Subsequently, the apples become the sole determinant of many character’s fate, leading to the death of the wife and the threat of death for many other characters, including Jafar, the slave, and the husband.  The apple is so significant in spite of- or perhaps because of- its lack of any extraordinary qualities, portraying a model of recognition that is completely detached from the essence of the item itself.

Similarly, the woman’s body, not the woman herself, functions as a nucleus around which much of the story is structured.  One would expect the murder victim to be substantially explored but this is not so.  In a context where interrogation often evokes recognition, all the woman can respond to her husband’s query regarding the missing apple is “wot not, o son of my uncle, where tis gone” resulting in faulty recognition and her transformation from organism to soulless prop (122).  The description of the woman’s mutilated body is laden with far more complexity than that of her live self.  Its mention of being “cut into nineteen pieces”, the many materials with which it is covered, and the “weighty” chest that contains it respectively succeed in emphasizing the corpse’s status as an object, alluding to the many narratives it will generate, and drawing attention to the depth of the entire story (120).  Conversely, the husband’s description of the wife primarily draws attention to her relationship to others, her being “a maid” the only innate attribute that is mentioned (120).

Moreover, the tale’s ancillary characters are greatly objectified yet they retain a superior capacity for controlling the story’s flow.  Whether their depictions of events are fabricated or factual, they maintain a connection to the core narrative.  Functionally immobile, barring the instant when their stories are first heard, the husband and his uncle are “carried before the Caliph” by Jafar underscoring their status as objects (121).  While the husband’s account itself provides more personal detail, his immediate disappearance upon concluding his story renders him a plot device, discarded once its usefulness has expired, as opposed to a fully fleshed out character.  Additionally, the slave is described as “long as a lance and broad as a bench”; an implement to be handled and not a living, breathing individual (121).  Moreover, the slave is treated as a commodity to be exploited when Jafar states “If ill betide thee through thy slave, make him thy sacrifice; A many serviles thou shalt find, but life comes once and never twice” (123).

However, while the text convinces the reader to view these men as mere scenery, they prove critical in providing additional paths through which the narrative can gain new levels of complexity.  The husband’s account of the murder refocuses the entire story enabling it to transcend the mystery of who killed the woman.  It is no coincidence that Scheherazade interrupts the story specifically after his confession thereby informing us that the tale is about to embark in a new direction, one that would have been impossible to reach without the husband’s testimony.  The slave’s importance dramatically increases as well, as the second half of the story is hinged on Jafar’s need to discern his location, a far cry from his solely being a “great ugly black slave” unworthy of further notice (121).

Nevertheless, the text does not completely conceal these characters’ true import, but instead offers glimpses of their identity, compelling the reader to refrain from conceiving of them purely as objects.  The husband’s physical appearance is described at length when he is originally introduced shedding a fair amount of light on an otherwise unknown entity.  The slave too experiences a surge of personification when his name, Rayhan, is finally revealed and Jafar opts to save him thereby affirming his value as an individual.  Unlike Jafar, they play a crucial role in advancing the plot through their own actions and observations.  These characters have their own stories to tell and become heralds of recognition, yet their narrative ability is not absolute, as they too must rely on inanimate objects to achieve and induce recognition.  Their ambiguous nature coupled with their portrayal as objects is indicative of an elevated narrative value.

Unsurprisingly, Jafar, the chief target of the plot’s twists and turns, also stagnates in passivity for the duration of the tale.  While not exactly depicted as an object, his will is suppressed by others for much of the story.  He retains the ability to control his fate, exemplified by his uninhibited request “grant me three days delay”, but often selects the path of least resistance (120).  Even when given the opportunity to ensure his own survival, he opts to remain a sedentary figure in his home rather than search for the culprit.  After narrowly eluding death due to a chance occurrence, Jafar remains entrenched in his belief and offers a testament to the value of inactivity: “In this manner craft and cunning are of no avail; but He who preserved my life the first time can preserve it a second time.  By Allah, I will  not leave my house during the three days of life which remain to me and let the Truth do even as he will” (122).  Ironically, objects succeed where Jafar cannot, as they cultivate the narrative body and extend his life, while his efforts to imitate their immobility yield no success.

Alternatively, Jafar only breaks free of his submissiveness when he sheds his inert shell and evolves into a dynamic narrator.   Initially labeled the “dog of Wazirs”, Jafar reverses his lowly position by employing his narrative skills to rescue his slave from execution (120).  Offering the Caliph an original story, Jafar utilizes his newfound abilities to captivate and influence others.  Despite providing a glance of a human-driven narrative, the tale of the three apples concludes on the cusp of this discovery reinforcing the notion that objects, contrary to their static nature, truly dominate the story

The Tale of the Three Apples emphasizes the material elements of the story to convey an abstract theme.  By objectifying human characters and placing items at the tale’s center, the author is forcing the reader to recognize their capacity to prompt recognition despite their arbitrary nature.  The text has woven a web where all the figures, human and nonhuman alike, are portrayed as they really are; literary devices manipulated by the author to drive the story forward.  Accordingly, the human characters’ faculties grant them no advantage over their inanimate counterparts. On the contrary, they are shown to be comparably inferior in diversifying the plot.  The text, through the dominant voice of the Caliph, formally affirms the impact objects have on the story with its final act; naming the tale “that of the three apples” (123).

Newton, Adam. Course pack: 1001 Arabian Nights, “The Tale of the Three apples” P.120-123: New York, New York

Newton, Adam. Course Pack: Aristotle. Poetics P.60: New York, New York


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