Backlog: Salman Rushdie and magical realism

Dit artikel werd oorspronkelijk geschreven voor het vak Engelse Letterkunde II aan de KU Leuven (voorjaar 2013).

Salman Rushdie’s oeuvre shows many traits of “magical realism”. His short story The Prophet’s Hair (1981), for example, has often been called a fable, some even going as far as to place it in the tradition of The Thousand and One Nights. The genre of the fable is defined by Oxford Dictionaries as “a short story, typically with animals as characters, conveying a moral” (Oxford Dictionaries). A closer reading, however, reveals that many typical elements of fables are, in this particular short story, not present. The goal of this paper is to describe how anthropomorphising animals, the moral and the narrative structure, are used in The Prophet’s Hair in either a typical or an a-typical way.

The anthropomorphisation of animals

In fables animals are often used to portray either humans in general, or particular human traits. In The Prophet’s Hair, however, the characters are all human. Here, instead of using anthropomorphised animals, Rushdie seems to use the human characters to portray certain forces or human traits[1]. To pursue this, he shows how this trait influences their behaviour. Where in many fables the species can determine the animal’s behaviour (e.g. vixen are often associated with sneakiness and cunning), Rushdie uses a similar procedure that allows the characters’ names to mirror the trait or force they represent. Because of their Arabic names, however, this secondary way of expressing can only become clear to those familiar with the language. Interestingly, though, Rushdie also portrays the way this trait can become both positive and negative.

Hashim means destroyer, but the father is originally a kind man. Then, when he suddenly becomes very religious, this has as the negative side-effect that he begins to inflict violence on other people. Once fairly lenient towards the people who borrowed money from him, the moneylender now sees their lack of punctual reimbursing as thievery – a crime which he feels entitled to discourage rather violently.

Atta’s name, ethymologically from either Germanic (English) or Indian descend, can mean respectively father or egoistic. As the only son of the family, he is the one to take charge when things are (in his opinion at least) not going as they ought to because of his father’s behaviour, thus taking over the part of ‘father’ in the family. However, when he tries to make things go back to normal, it is not because he is compassionate or believes that the Prophet’s hair must be returned, he does this merely because he feels more comfortable with the way things were before. His decision to engage a thief to steal the hair demonstrates just how far he is willing to go to get back to the previous (preferred) state of affairs.

Sheikh Sin has a more obvious meaning: King of Sins, King of Evil (-Things). However, his willingness to do anything for money and treasure, seems a stark contrast to his actual ‘role’ in the gullies, where he also functions as a call-centre for the organized crime, and is often threatened for his life. Even within his home life, this contrast seems to live on: “He had made sure they were all provided with a lifelong source of high income by crippling them at birth, so that […] they earned excellent money in the begging business” (Rushdie 3009): even when raising his sons, he seems to cross the thin line between caring and hurting.

The daughter’s name, Huma, means golden bird or phoenix. Similar to the way the Prophet’s hair is said to bring either luck or malfortune to those who behold it, the Persians teach that “great blessings come to that person on whom the huma’s shadow falls” (Anzar). Indeed, Huma seems to be the only character shown in a somewhat positive light and is the only person in the family not as affected by the Prophet’s hair. Even when she does die, it is because of the effects of the relic on her father, instead of its effects on her.

In short, Rushdie’s version of anthropomorphising animals proves to offer a deeper level of understanding for the characters: they are not only determined by their circumstances, but through their names, they’ve also had a characteristic trust upon them, which clearly dictates all their actions.

The Moral

A second typical element of a fable is its moral: “As a special kind of stories, fables […] are often associated with a moral” (Kwong 275). The moral, “a lesson that can be derived from a story or experience” (Oxford Dictionaries), is usually explained in one of two methods: it is either made clear through the actions and outcome of the story, or it is explicitly told by one of the characters, usually the main character or the instance used for focalization, at the end of the story. In The Prophet’s Hair this lesson must be searched for in the outcome of the story.

The easiest interpretation would be that ‘stealing is wrong’ or that ‘no crime shall go unpunished’. This interpretation, however, does not seem to suffice to truly capture the complexity of this story. One of the most common themes in Rushdie’s work is, either directly or indirectly, religion[2]. In The Prophet’s Hair as well, religion has an important influence on the plot: the arrival of an object of religious value (the Prophet’s hair) is what starts the chain of events portrayed in the short story. This relic influences the actions and opinions of every person coming into contact with it.

Hashim, who seems to be living according to the spirit of the Qur’an, turns into someone who, in modern-day Western society, would be considered an extremist. Where he previously “set great store by ‘living honourably in the world’ ” (Rushdie 3004), he suddenly becomes very devote and forces his whole family to adapt their behaviour to what he now considers to be the ‘correct norm’. The insincerity of this change, instigated by the influence of the relic, is presumably what brings about the punishment Hashim’s whole family is then inflicted to.

On the other hand, Sheikh Sin is someone who not only lives opposed to the law, he appears to disregard the Qur’an. When he comes in possession of the Prophet’s hair, he thinks this relic will not affect him, for “neither he nor his blind wife had ever had much to say for prophets” (Rushdie 3009). Nevertheless, the consequences of dishonouring an object of such value soon come into being here as well: the Sheikh is shot, his sons can walk again and his wife can see again. It becomes clear that it is not merely its presence, but the wish to desecrate it which triggers the reaction.

To conclude, one could paraphrase the moral as: religion, although it may inspire people to greatness, also has the potential to inspire greed, unkindness and violence. Thus, it must always be treated cautiously. This moral can be found in various forms throughout Rushdie’s oeuvre.

The narratological structure

Recent narratological research has shed some new light on the narratological structure of the fable. Many genres, such as the fairy tale and the detective novel, already had a description of the typical structural elements. When trying to analyse a fable, these structures are usually just adapted to the fable, without any adaptation to allow for the typical elements of the fable.

Based on an analysis of The Prophet’s Hair according to Greimas’ actantial model (Masschelein 55), it becomes clear that the regular actants do not suffice to describe a fable: the subject (here: Huma) strives for an object (here: the removal of the Prophet’s hair). This aim is caused by the sender (here: both Atta and Huma) and will benefit the receiver (here: their entire family). The aim is further aided by the helper (here: Sheikh Sin), and counteracted by the opponent (here: Hashim). Within this scheme, there is no room for those elements typical of fables which define the genre, for example the moral.

Guenter Plum’s in-depth analysis of different types of story-telling genres, divides the concept ‘narrative’ further into four genre types: narrative, anecdote, exemplum and recount (qtd. in McCabe 90). Of these four, the structure of exemplum resembles the fable the most: (Abstract)-Orientation-Incident-Interpretation-(Coda). However, even though there is more room for the narrative freedom of the fable, the problem of adding the moral to this equation is not yet revolved.

Kwong (2011) has outlined an annotation scheme, developed for marking up the structure and semantics of fables, making a division between the structural and the semantic annotation. In a comparison of the structural tags listed by Kwong and the elements previously listed, it becomes clear that these match every component of The Prophet’s Hair. A first item to catch the attention is the addition of a moral to the structural annotation, explained as “the lesson of the story, often appearing as an additional sentence at the end to convey the message” (Kwong 278). A second addendum is the setting, which in the Prophet’s Hair coincides specifically with the first paragraph.

The semantic annotation is even more exhaustive, taking into account temporality, contingency, comparison and expansion. These items are discussed elaborately, both in theory and with examples. This paper is limited to a general discussion of some striking elements. Firstly, the elements of contingency (reaction, causal, condition, hypothetical and fantasy) can easily be adapted to the happenings of the flashback as well as the present-day actions. Secondly, the elements of comparison and expansion (contrast and concession, elaboration and justification respectively) are able to capture Rushdie’s language of “magical realist extravaganza, packed with incident poetic detail” (“Salman Rushdie” 3001).

To conclude, The Prophet’s Hair uses the anthropomorphisation of animals and the moral in an a-typical way, but its narrative structure proves to be quite typical of the genre of the fable. By expanding the concept of antropomorphisation to include an allegorical interpretation of humans and by providing a more complicated moral, Rushdie has written a short story which exceeds the usual concept of a fable, and thus offers the possibility to renovate this genre.


Kwong, Oi Yee. “Annotating the Structure and Semantics of Fables.” 25th Pacific Asia Conference on Language, Information and Computation. Hong Kong: 2011. 275-282

“Fable.” Oxford Dictionaries. Online edition <> Last accessed on 2 June 2013

Masschelein, A. Algemene Literatuurwetenschap I. Leuven: Acco, 2011.

“Moral.” Oxford Dictionaries. Online edition <> Last accessed on 2 June 2013

Plum, Guenter. “Text and Contextual Conditioning in Spoken English: A Genre-Based Approach.” Diss. University of Sydney, 1988. Print. qtd. in McCabe, Anne. An Introduction to Linguistics and Language Studies. London: Equinox Publishing Ltd., 2011

Rushdie, Salman. “The Prophet’s Hair.” The Norton Athology: English Literature. Vol. F. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 3002-3011.

“Salman Rushdie.” The Norton Athology: English Literature. Vol. F. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 3000-3001

[1] Rushdie is not the first author to use this procedure: in 1954’s Lord of the Flies, William Golding made his (fully developed) human characters represent the dominant motifs, this procedure was subsequently used by many others.

[2] His work The Satanic Verses (1988) is only one example of the influence and attention religious instances have given Rushdie’s oeuvre.

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