Alice's Academy

What's Luck Got to Do With It?: Reading the East in Maria Edgeworth's "Murad the Unlucky"

Colleen Booker

Colleen Booker first became interested in Maria Edgeworth and children's literature while she was working on her Master's degree at Northern Arizona University. Currently a Ph.D student at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, her research focus lies primarily within the field of Irish literature and postcolonial theory.

This article on Maria Edgeworth's short story "Murad the Unlucky" may seem out of place in this issue devoted to magic realism and fantasy. However, the juxtaposition of the real and the fantastic and the idea of being a skilled reader of signs that Colleen Booker explores here is echoed in this issue's other articles: how to read magic realism within children's literature; how to read fantastic phenomena within a realistic setting; how to read gender in texts; how to read signs within a text to gain larger social insights. Booker's careful discussion of Edgeworth's political, social, and economic concerns behind the writing of "Murad the Unlucky" sheds an important light on an often-overlooked tale.
(Elizabeth Pandolfo Briggs, editor, Alice's Academy)

"I send you part of an Arabian fable which I beg you to finish." This is Richard Lovell Edgeworth's first request, made in 1779, for a story from his daughter, Maria Edgeworth (Butler 146). Although that story has been lost, a curious Oriental tale does emerge in Maria Edgeworth's Popular Tales published in 1804. "Murad the Unlucky" is a tale of two brothers from Constantinople: Saladin is endowed with business sense and understands the "language of commerce," while the other, Murad, is irrational, and unable to contend with the cryptic signs surrounding him. One evening, the Sultan of Constantinople, in peasant disguise, takes a stroll through the city with his vizier. The two begin a discussion as to whether or not fortune or prudence improves the lives of men. Not being able to come to a consensus, the vizier suggests they visit the homes of Murad, the Unlucky, and Saladin, the Lucky, to see if it is fortune or prudence that rules their lives. The tale consists of the brothers telling their own life stories and the choices they made, whether good or ill, that determined their present state.

Robert L. Mack claims in his introduction to "Murad the Unlucky" that this small Oriental tale is an extension of Edgeworth's criticism of "British imperial policy, with a critique as well of the pedagogical misadventures which encouraged the English to think of the world as a rich 'object' ripe for spoil" (xliii). Edgeworth herself had long been aware of the harmful effects of romantic constructions of the East on the psyches of young Englishman, as she notes in Practical Education:

A boy at seven who fantasizes about being "Sinbad the sailor" may at seventeen retain the same taste for adventure and enterprise, though mixed so as to be less discernible, with the incipient passions of avarice and ambition; he has the same dispositions modified by a slight knowledge of real life, and guided by the manners and conversation of friends and acquaintance. Robinson Crusoe and Sinbad will no longer be his favourite heroes; but he will now admire the soldier of fortune, the commercial adventurer, or the nabob, who has discovered in the east the secrets of Aladdin's wonderful lamp; and who has realized the treasures of Aboulcasem.

It is in this context of Orientalism joined with a more complex commercial system arising out of the late eighteenth century that Edgeworth wrote "Murad the Unlucky." Edgeworth knew how wondrous tales such as those in The 1001 Arabian Nights Entertainment could alter the perception of young readers' reality, specifically that of young English boys of the laboring and mercantile class. As Mack continues to argue, "While certain aspects of her tale deliberately evoke the world of the [Arabian] Nights, they do so only to deconstruct it, exposing beneath the lush romanticism of eighteenth-century Orientalism the harsh realities of life in the 'gorgeous East'" (xlv-xlvi).

In spite of Edgeworth's attempt to portray the East "realistically" rather than fantastically by using what Mack refers to as a "truly overwhelming amount of information about the East--travellers' accounts, letters, maps, even guidebooks--in circulation" (xlv), I argue that this tale is not completely free of Orientalist prejudices and that there are definite moments in "Murad" where stereotypes perpetuate Oriental discourse. Furthermore, I suggest that "Murad" is an extension of a larger project of Edgeworth's that involves what Patricia Comitini terms "self-help philanthropy", or "writing as an act of "charity" (68). Comitini argues that Edgeworth's writing, specifically in Popular Tales was indicative of "an earnest attempt to 'improve' humankind, a sympathetic outreach to those in need of guidance, but also as a way to politically mediate, through the practice of reading, the contentious oppositions arising in the society at large" (68). I would also argue that this "practice of reading" that Comitini discusses in her essay is at the heart of "Murad," which in large part is a tale about literacy, specifically reading the signs of international commerce. In short, "Murad" is a text about reading texts, specifically about reading texts in a way that would ameliorate class conflict and emphasize middle class, Western values.

Mack asserts that Edgeworth's reliance on Baron de Tott's travel writing of the East that divulge an "'Orient' plagued by violence and political turmoil" (xlvi) is a part of what lends "Murad" a more realistic feel as opposed to "the hazy, opulent landscape of the earliest Eastern tales" (xlv). For Mack, these more complex portrayals of the East are in part what makes "Murad" a "corrective" Oriental tale (xliii), but he does not address the Eastern stereotypes that persist throughout the story. For instance, Edgeworth mentions in the tale how many of the Turks believed in irrational ideas such as predestination (226), and she points out how some Turks are "lethargic" (249). Perhaps the most obvious example of Orientalism, which reveals itself in anti-Semitism, is in Edgeworth's portrayal of Rachub, a stereotypical "Shylock" character. He is a greedy moneylender who goes so far as to spread the plague in Cairo by selling infected clothing to an unsuspecting Murad. Furthermore, Sheila A. Spector sees this portrayal of Rachub as

the other a gainst whom all characters within the story can be measured. As in other stories, the jew symbolizes the outer limits of acceptable behavior, the educated, i.e., Westernized, brother Saladin prudently rejecting the temptations offered by Rachub, and the ineducable, i.e., Oriental, Murad succumbing and thereby losing everything.

It is in fact a Westerner, a Frenchman, who rids Saladin of his attitudes towards predestination. In the story, the Frenchman, "an ingenious engineer" (244), gave a firework exhibit for the peasants of Constantinople; Saladin thought that because of his "good fortune" he could not be harmed by the display, but this proved to be his folly as he sustains serious burns. However, he tells his audience,

This accident, gentleman, I consider as one of the most fortunate circumstances of my life; for it checked and corrected the presumption of my temper. During the time I was confined to my bed, the French gentleman came frequently to see me. He was a very sensible man; and the conversations he had with me enlarged my mind, and cured me of many foolish prejudices: especially of that, which I had been taught to entertain, concerning the predominance of what is called luck, or fortune, in human affairs.

After this occurrence, Saladin sees his fortune not propelled by "luck," but by the "prudence" of his choices (245). As Comitini writes, "To Edgeworth, the freedom to choose was a progressive notion, but, paradoxically, the lower orders would have to be taught 'proper' limits of freedom of thought as well" (91). Thus, in spite of Saladin's ability to make prudent choices, he only maintains a limited "social mobility" within his own class, and when offered an opportunity to be a Pasha or a governor, Saladin declines. Shelley Saguaro argues that his refusal is a "parable for politics and commercial relations closer to home" that sees commerce as "not as an inevitable adjunct to conquest and capitalist imperialism but more in the sense of its derivation in 'mutual merchandise'" (157-58). Saguaro reads Saladin's decline for social ascendancy as a comment on "prudence" in capitalism and its larger project, imperialism, but Saladin's "choice" is illusory and suggests Edgeworth's conflicting ideology of the role of laboring classes: they can obtain only a certain amount of mobility, but still must maintain their place in the social order. Comitini writes, "[Edgeworth's] enlightened belief in a limited social mobility guaranteed capitalist conformity to the progressive values of hard work, frugality, respect for private property and familial obligations" (92). In spite of Saladin's co-option of middle class values, he still maintains the status quo, "saying that he had no ambition, was perfectly happy in his present situation, and that, when this was the case, it would be folly to change, because no one can be more than happy" (Edgeworth 256).

Adversely, it is Murad's inability to listen to an English "man of science" that leads him to suffer. After falling in with a band of English soldiers in the Egyptian desert, Murad is put to work at digging a well. However, Murad tells his audience that he is "not inclined to such hard labour, but preferred sauntering on in search of a spring" (229). Murad sees what seems like a pool of water in the distance, but is only a mirage. Although the "man of science" warns Murad "not to trust to this deceitful appearance" (229), Murad wanders off on this fool's errand in spite of reason, blaming his decision to follow the mirage as the work of "evil spirits, who clouded [his] reason, and allured [him] into their dominion" (229). Here, Murad's transgression is twofold: not only does he resist a piece of advice from a Westerner, but he also resists the reward of honest labor, instead lured by what seems like an easy solution to his problems. As Comitini states in regards to another Popular Tale, "laboring-class economic prosperity is linked to labor, and labor is linked to moral worth" (93). Murad's downfall is his inability to conform to utilitarian values, which, at least in this tale, are notably Western.

Adam Smith's influence on Edgeworth is evident in "Murad," and it is no coincidence that prudence, a capacity for commercial knowledge, and a utilitarian work ethic are upheld as the highest of human ideals in the world of this tale. For Edgeworth, the development of international commerce and mercantilism offered a utilitarian answer that "could ameliorate the social and material inequities of a colonial system" (Easton 101). However, according to Fraser Easton, Edgeworth's readings in economic philosophy, specifically Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, inform much of Edgeworth's work (103). He argues that the Smithian paradigm of value "is fundamentally an imperial paradigm, one that legitimates a presumptive hierarchy of nations headed by Britain" (103). In "Murad" the privileging of Western influence suggest a world that is not only made in Britain's (and the West's) likeness, but a world that holds its allegiance to bourgeois values.

For Edgeworth, it was through literacy that these bourgeois values could be transmitted to the lower classes, but this transmission was not necessarily fueled by ideologies of breaking down class barriers; rather it was a mode of furthering social control by improving the "morality" of laborers (Comitini 72-73). "Murad" is a part of a tradition of writing that "attempts to lay out guidelines for the 'correction' of the poor's moral deficiencies, and, as the logic extends, financial problems without upsetting social order" (73). Reading as social control is exemplified by the brothers' dual "readings" of the Orient--within the tale there is clearly a "right" way and a "wrong" way to read the East.

A significant example of controlled ways of reading in the tale exists in the way in which these two brothers approach a cryptic inscription placed on two vases. The vases, Murad informs us, were "remarkable for their beauty, but still more valuable on account of certain verses, inscribed upon them in an unknown character, which were supposed to operate as a talisman, or charm, in favour of their possessors" (219). When a notably upper-class woman wishes to purchase the vase, Murad refuses to sell it, believing he will be the victim of "some dreadful calamity" if he does so (220). His brother Saladin, on the other hand, sees this is an archaic mode of thinking, and he sells his vase and invests the money into new merchandise in order to expand his business. Saladin displays his ability to utilize practical knowledge and apply it to business transactions. As Comitini notes, Edgeworth's characters "learn from their mistakes...because they assessed the consequences of their own actions and chose to change their habits. In other words, they learned how to redeem themselves through observing their experiences and rationally thinking about them" (93). Saladin, already understanding that his life is not predetermined but determined by his choices, does not see the vase as a mysterious talisman, but as an object of material value that can simply be bought or sold. Furthermore, Saladin asserts that "it would be the height of folly to lose a certain means of advancing [one's] fortune, for the uncertain hope of magical protection" (220). Saladin speaks with a new awareness of consumer society, which is based upon the exchange of material goods and not upon superstitious constructions. Also, Edgeworth leaves out any promises of alternative readings of what the vase could signify, and it remains simply a material possession.

Ironically, Murad repeatedly shows, after the fact, that rational knowledge about commerce and the ability to make wise decisions is available to him. In regards to the vase, he regrets not doing "exactly the contrary to what I had previously determined upon. Often, whilst I was hesitating, the favorable moment passed" (221). Murad mistakes this for being "unlucky" (221), but even this self-assessment is a continuation of his inability to apply reason, prudence, and social knowledge to the choices laid before him. It is no coincidence, then, that Edgeworth footnotes this passage about the vases with the maxim, "Whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first deprive of understanding" (221). However, it is not that Murad is deprived of "understanding," it is that his understanding is not in alignment with middle-class values.

Another example of Murad's inability to apply rational knowledge to certain situations occurs when Murad, penniless and starving, meets a baker who is willing to feed him as long as Murad agrees to change clothing with him and carry his rolls through the city. We learn that the baker makes this request of Murad because "For some time before, the people of Constantinople had been much dissatisfied with the weight and quality of the bread, furnished by the bakers. This species of discontent has often been the forerunner of an insurrection; and, in these disturbances, the master bakers frequently lose their lives" (221). Murad almost perishes on account of a riot that ensues as he poses as the baker, and again, he himself admits that he is unable to apply rational knowledge to the baker's actions. "All these circumstances," Murad claims, "I knew; but they did not occur to my memory, when they might have been useful" (221). It is significant that Murad's choices and not the social realities that surround him are highlighted within this section of the tale. The material struggle for bread lingers in the background, but it is ultimately Murad's "reading" of the situation that is the "lesson." As Comitini notes that in Edgeworth's Popular Tales,

Economic and social conditions exist because of an individual's habits of industry, and not because of economic and social conditions that precede the individual. In this way, the individual is preeminently responsible for his/her fate. Within the logic of the tales, a character can choose to improve or fall into idleness, but he/she must accept the current mode of social relations as natural.

The question of class struggle and an "insurrection" by "the people" of Constantinople is not up for discussion; it is up to Murad to "read" the situation and make the right choices regardless of social realities.

Edgeworth often pairs Murad's inability to read signs with his brother's acute business sense and capacity for reading the language of commerce. For example, both brothers encounter the character Rachub, who tries to sell a chest of plague-infected clothing to the brothers at separate moments in the story. Saladin rejects the chest of clothes because he observes that Rachub had plugged his nose with "aromatic herbs" as he opened the chest. Saladin also observes the word "Smyrna" written on the trunk, which was ridden with the plague at the time of the narrative (251). Murad, however, ignores these signs and consequently spreads the plague across Cairo by selling off the diseased clothes to unsuspecting buyers. Again, he admits that the social knowledge was available to him, yet he could not apply this knowledge to interpreting the signs (236).

Edgeworth constructs Saladin as rational, utilitarian, and resourceful, which are all traits celebrated in Practical Education. Saladin, for example, finds a red powder in the vase his father bequeathed to him and uses it to make a red dye that became exceedingly popular among the people of Constantinople: "The powder, it is true, was accidentally found by me in our china vases; but there it might have remained, to this instant useless, if I had not taken the pains to make it useful" (245). He is able to "read" the East with "rational" knowledge and use his "literacy" to further his economic status. For example, knowing that Constantinople is under threat by thieves who set fire to the city in order to pillage it amidst the confusion, Saladin observes one evening that rows of water spouts had been undone along the streets. He deciphers these tampered water spouts as indicating a plot concocted by bandits to set fire to the city in order to loot it. He awakens a fellow merchant, and together they foil the plot and save the city from certain demise (248). Because of his sound judgment and his ability to "read" what the tampered water spouts indicate in this instance, he finds himself raised "to a state of affluence far beyond what I had ever dreamed of attaining" (250), and at the end of this passage, it is the mercantile middle class who praise his actions most of all, for they "crowded 'round, calling me their benefactor, and the preserver of their lives and fortunes" (249).

At the end of the story the sultan, upon hearing both tales, declares Saladin not to be "Saladin the Lucky" but "Saladin the Prudent," and decrees Murad to be "Murad the Imprudent" (255) . Ultimately, it is prudence that decides the fortunes of humankind in Edgeworth's tale, not beliefs in the fantastic or superstition. Sound judgment and the ability to read the East in the new language of commerce are what allow Saladin to thrive, whereas his brother dies "a martyr to the immoderate use of opium" (256).
Marilyn Butler states that Popular Tales "was meant for those of the lower orders who could read, and the stories in it were accordingly about trades people and the characteristic problems of their lives" (287). "Murad" functions as a guide to young adolescents on the verge of entering a vocation and attempts to unravel the inundation of romantic Orientalism, which in all probability (mis)informed most English childhoods. Edgeworth understood how romantic and fantastic tales only work to harm the ability to function prudently as well as ethically in one's professional adult life, as she notes in Practical Education:

When a young man deliberates upon what course of life he shall follow, the patient drudgery of a trade, the laborious mental exertions requisite to prepare him for a profession, must appear to him in a formidable light, compared with the alluring prospects presented by an adventuring imagination. At this time of life, it will be too late suddenly to change the taste; it will be inconvenient, if not injurious, to restrain a young man's inclinations by force or authority; it will be imprudent, perhaps fatally imprudent, to leave them uncontrolled.

Controlling those impulses and inculcating the working class with utilitarian, bourgeois values was a part of the project of literacy for Edgeworth. It was not a question of what greater social forces were at work that created the "drudgery of a trade," but how to convince the laboring classes that they should be happy with their lot and work within the confines of a capitalist system regardless of its hegemonic and exploitative nature. Murad's (mis)reading of the East and his inability to make "prudent" choices is ultimately his demise, and at the end of the tale Edgeworth suggests that Murad became an opium addict, closing with a disturbing footnote of the fate of such addicts, describing them as having "pale and melancholy countenances...[with] their stretched necks, their heads twisted to the right or left, their backbones crooked, one shoulder up to their ears, and a number of other whimsical attitudes" (256). Refusing to become "literate," Murad becomes a part of the soulless throng of opium eaters who are only defined by their distorted physical bodies.

Within "Murad" the East becomes a meta-text and is a space to be read with a certain logic," not with a supernatural or fantastic lens. As Saladin and Murad read the East within their mercantile dealings, so do the young working class men who happen to read Popular Tales --they see the East only through Saladin and Murad's choices. The literacy advocated in "Murad" is one of limitations instead of one of liberation, and the East is constructed as a series of transactions, not as a sphere affected by social, political, and historical movements. The brothers are only capable of changing their surroundings by applying "good business sense," and thus "Murad" becomes an early version of the "myth of meritocracy" where socioeconomic status is made, not already made for you. In the end, it is a bourgeois reading that wins out, and the East recedes into the background as a social and cultural space based solely on its utility.

Works Cited

Butler, Marilyn . Maria Edgeworth. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.

Comitini, Patricia. Vocational Philanthropy and British Women's Writing, 1790-1810. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005.

Easton, Fraser. "Cosmopolitical Economy: Exchangeable Value and National Development in Adam Smith and Maria Edgeworth." Studies in Romanticism 42:1 (2003): 99-125.

Edgeworth, Maria. "Murad the Unlucky." Oriental Tales. New York: Oxford UP, 1992. 215-256.

Edgeworth, Maria and Richard Lovell Edgeworth. Practical Education. 1st American ed. New York: G. F. Hopkins, 1801.

Mack, Robert L. Introduction. Oriental Tales. Ed. Robert L. Mack. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.

Saguaro, Shelley. "Maria Edgeworth and the Politics of Commerce." Moderna Spark 92.2 (1998): 147-158

Spector, Sheila A. "The Other's Other: The Function of the Jew in Maria Edgeworth's Fiction." European Romantic Review 10:3 (1999): 307-340.


Colleen Booker

Volume 10, Issue 1 The Looking Glass January, 2006

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"What's Luck Got to Do With It?: Reading the East in Maria Edgeworth's 'Murad the Unlucky'"
© Colleen Booker 2006.
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