The Allegorical Defiance of Censorship in Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories

Mark McDannald, Washington and Lee University


After Salman Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses (1988), the Ayatollah placed a fatwah upon him, causing Rushdie to adopt a life of seclusion and hiding. As a result, Rushdie suffered severe writer's block. Rushdie broke out of his slump in 1990 with Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), a children's book written as a means of explaining his situation to his son, largely through the use of allegory. Rushdie's experiences with censorship appear in the novel under the guise of the Old Zone section of the Sea of Stories and the division between the Guppees and the Chupwalas. Rushdie himself also appears allegorically in many characters of the book, namely Rashid, Princess Batcheat, Prince Bolo, and even Haroun. With this allegorical approach, Rushdie proposes his own beliefs about his situation and those responsible for censorship, while subtly poking fun at himself and his relation to the larger picture. Ultimately, though, Rushdie writes the novel not so much with the importance of his own situation at mind, as with the larger question of censorship. Thus, the novel stands not only as a personal testament for Rushdie's son, but also as a document universally opposing the oppression of writers.

Rushdie's allegorical representation of the censorship that plagues his life stands as the most discernible motif in the novel. The Sea of Stories lies upon the second of the earthıs moons, Kahani, which has been divided mechanically into two distinct hemispheres: "The Land of Gup is bathed in Endless Sunshine, while over in Chup it's always the middle of the night"(80). The Land of Gup takes care of the Sea of Stories with a rather socialistic hand, while the Chupwala, under the leadership of Khattam-Shud, wish to poison the sea and even remove language completely. Thus, those in the perpetual light propagate the stories and those in the perpetual darkness, adversely, strive to destroy, or censor, them. Here, on the surface, Rushdie seems to propose a purely polarized dispute between sides of complete good and complete evil, showing his displeasure with the censorship he has faced. The author, though, includes other passages which blur the line between freedom of speech and censorship, and blur the sides as well.

Rushdie subtly gives both sides of the Kahani moon traits which draw them closer to a median existence. The perpetual light/dark balance of the moon has been made possible, "Thanks to the genius of the Eggheads at P2C2E House"(80), which assigns a certain level of censorship to the Land of Gup. The Guppees have decided, without consent from the Chupwalas, that they will mechanically control the moon and subject the Chupwalas to permanent darkness. Thus, Rushdie seems to proclaim that some level of censorship, or at least the underlying desire to control that which one does not agree with, lies among just about everyone. Likewise, the Chupwala, apparently one dimensional, fight among themselves during the final battle and, "Many Chupwalas threw in their lot with the Guppees"(185). Many of the Chupwalas do not really want to be a part of Khattam-Shud's plans and seem to remain with his side purely out of fear. Most, like Mudra, the Shadow Warrior, do not wish to remain eternally silent. Moreover, when Rashid, Haroun, and the Guppees first encounter Mudra, the Shadow Warrior does attempt to speak to them. Mudra communicates with the Language of Gesture and, as Haroun watches him, "The dance of the Shadow Warrior showed him that silence had its own grace and beauty (just as speech could be graceless and ugly)"(125). Though the Chupwalas may communicate in different ways, Rushdie admits that their propositions are often worthwhile and even beautiful.

Both the Guppies and the Chupwalas share more than they admit, and a misappropriated rage stands between their agreement: "If Guppees and Chupwalas didnıt hate each other soŠthey might actually find each other pretty interesting"(125). The sides concentrate too much on the belief that they are absolutely different to attempt to learn anything from each other. Therefore, Rushdie does acknowledge his own favor toward the side of the Guppees, and the freedom of speech, while admitting that the sides are not entirely different and could learn from one another. Rushdie also comments upon the absurdity of the conflict between the two sides as he writes of the battle between the Guppees and the Chupwalas: "The Chupwalas who lived there wore little spherical nosewarmers that gave them the look of circus clowns," and, "Red nosewarmers were issued to the Pages of Gup as they marched into the Darkness"(179). Rashid even says, "Really, this is beginning to look like a war between buffoons"(179). Rushdie gives both sides equally ridiculous, clown-like appearances, mocking the battle between the censors and the free-speech activists. The Chupwalas, or censors, wear the nosewarmers at all times, while the Guppees don them merely for the battle, but at the time of the fight both sides appear equally silly. The fact that the Chupwalas wear the noses all the time simply suggests that Rushdie does, still, favor the Guppees. Regardless, he asserts that even though he may support one side over the other, the battle is ridiculous and pointless. At the same time, Rashid also remarks that, "Neither army will even be able to see properly during the fight"(180), because of the disparity in the amount of light each is used to. Thus, neither army in this censorship battle will ever see things in the exact same way, but that is merely a product of their environments. Here, Rushdie suggests that certain differences between groups are inherent and unavoidable. The actual fight, however, remains preposterous.


[These materials have been adapted from a paper written by Mark McDannald for Professor Suzanne Keen's English 350, Postcolonial Literature, Washington and Lee University, 1997.]



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