Haroun and the Sea of Stories

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Language, Words, and Naming Theme Analysis

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Language, Words, and Naming Theme Icon
Storytelling Theme Icon
Power and Censorship Theme Icon
Balance and Opposites Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Language, Words, and Naming Theme Icon

Haroun and the Sea of Stories is extremely concerned with words, naming, and the intricacies of language in general. It is filled with puns, plays on words, and double meanings, all of which encourage the reader to consider how exactly language works and functions, as well as what exactly its purpose is.

The novel contains many characters and locations whose names are derived from Hindustani words, and Rushdie even includes a reference glossary to provide the reader with additional tools to understand the names. This asserts, first and foremost, the idea that names and words have meaning and are worthy of consideration unto themselves. Most of the names have to do with language and speaking, such as "Gup" meaning gossip and "Batcheat" coming from a word that means chit-chat. In this way, the names of characters provide further evidence that language is something important and worthy of study. In the same vein, "Khattam-Shud" means "completely finished," and the character Khattam-Shud wishes to essentially finish and eradicate completely all the stories in the Ocean. Similarly, Rashid and Haroun's names come from Harun Al-Rashid, a historical caliph and an integral figure in One Thousand and One Nights. This reference provides further weight to their positions as storytellers.

Verse, rhyming, and song are used to highlight important passages and relationships throughout the text. The Plentimaw fishes mate for life, and speak in rhyming couplets with their partner in order to show their devotion to them. Similarly, though Batcheat's physical presence is minimal throughout the text, when she does speak, she's most often singing about her love for Prince Bolo. Rhyme also works to turn the act of reading the novel from a solo endeavor to a communal one, as some rhymes are harder to pick out unless they're read aloud and heard. This works to support the idea that language is not something to be used or understood by one person, as Khattam-Shud would like it to be, since he's the only Chupwala allowed to speak. Rather, language is a means of communication between individuals.

Iff the Water Genie states early on that to name or label something brings that thing into existence. This raises the question of what the act of naming something means, and what the implications are when naming and language are removed. Haroun's home city in Alfibay is so sad, it's forgotten its name. Further, the logic of the novel suggests that Khattam-Shud's insistence on silence will also mean that names are lost or forgotten as a result of the silence. These relationships between silence and loss indicate that the presence of language is linked to happiness and an understanding of one's existence in the world, while the complete absence of language eliminates understanding and purpose. In this way, when Haroun's city remembers that its name is Kahani, which means "story," it is filled with happiness and celebration thanks to its reclamation of its name and of this specific language. Essentially, the novel's insistence on the importance of naming encompasses the idea that by creating and using specific language to describe something, we can then begin to understand and engage with that thing in a meaningful and purposeful way.

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Language, Words, and Naming ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Language, Words, and Naming appears in each Chapter of Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Language, Words, and Naming Quotes in Haroun and the Sea of Stories

Below you will find the important quotes in Haroun and the Sea of Stories related to the theme of Language, Words, and Naming.
Chapter 1 Quotes

"What's the use of stories that aren't even true?"

Related Characters: Mr. Sengupta (speaker), Haroun Khalifa, Rashid Khalifa, Soraya Khalifa
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

Haroun overhears Mr. Sengupta ask this question of Soraya. Mr. Sengupta despises Rashid and stories, preferring facts and rationality to imagination and nonsense. Mr. Sengupta uses this phrase to discredit Rashid and his stories, and it becomes the central question of the novel. It haunts Haroun going forward, and in a sense, Haroun's quest becomes an attempt to answer this question and discover the purpose of “untrue” stories.

By taking this question into consideration, the novel brings into question its own purpose in the world as a fictional, and therefore by nature untrue, story. Thanks to the framing device, the story of Haroun's adventure on Kahani is told twice, first by the narrator to the reader, and then by Rashid to Mr. Buttoo's constituents in the Valley of K. The reader sees firsthand the power of this fictional story, as it's powerful enough to upset Mr. Buttoo's political grip in K and bring happiness back to the valley. While the reader is then asked to answer the question for themselves as it pertains to the novel as a whole, the moral of Haroun's adventure takes the position that stories are directly linked to power, and are best used to enact positive change in the world.


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Chapter 2 Quotes

"It was a figure of speech," Mr. Butt replied. "But but but I will stand by it! A figure of speech is a shifty thing; it can be twisted or it can be straight. But Butt's a straight man, not a twister. What's your wish, my young mister?"

Related Characters: Mr. Butt (speaker), Haroun Khalifa, Rashid Khalifa
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

Haroun is at the Bus Depot in the Town of G, waiting while Rashid purchases tickets to the Valley of K, and has just met Mr. Butt. Mr. Butt tells Haroun he's “at his service” as a figure of speech, but Haroun takes him at his word and proceeds to ask him for a favor.

The exchange between Haroun and Mr. Butt begins to explore the intricacies of language. Mr. Butt chooses to allow "at your service" to actually mean what it means, rather than exist only as a figure of speech. Further, the use of rhyme here, while subtler than other instances in the novel, denotes the importance of the phrase for the reader. Essentially, the use of verse nestled within prose flags this as something that requires further attention, while also adding to the overall theme of wordplay and absurdity.

"'Need to stop?' he bellowed over his shoulder. "'Need to go so quickly?' Well, my sirs, I'll tell you this: Need's a slippery snake, that's what it is. The boy here says that you, sir, Need A View Before Sunset, and maybe it's so and maybe no. And some might say that the boy here Needs A Mother, and maybe it's so and maybe no. And it's been said of me that Butt Needs Speed, but but but it may be that my heart truly needs a Different Sort of Thrill. O, Need's a funny fish: it makes people untruthful. They all suffer from it, but they will not always admit. Hurrah!"

Related Characters: Mr. Butt (speaker), Haroun Khalifa, Rashid Khalifa, Soraya Khalifa
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

Haroun has just asked Mr. Butt if he's forgotten to stop the Mail Coach to deliver and pick up the mail. Mr. Butt's speech is very characteristic of the playful style of language in the novel. The text reads somewhat differently depending on whether it's read or heard, which ties in ideas of reading as simultaneously a communal activity and a highly personal one. Hearing it, one may have an easier time picking up on the subtle rhyming at play, while when reading it, the reader becomes aware of the use of capitalization to indicate important words or phrases. The capitalization takes simple words and ideas and elevates them from whatever they may be (noun, adjective) to proper noun status. This style choice is utilized throughout, and by setting up the expectation that some common words that are important (or concepts that are being converted into or considered as concrete things) will be capitalized, it adds extra weight when something that seems as though it should be important isn't capitalized, as in the case of Haroun's sad city.

"Khattam-Shud," he said slowly, "is the Arch-Enemy of all Stories, even of Language itself. He is the Prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech. And because everything ends, because dreams end, stories end, life ends, at the finish of everything we use his name. "'It's finished,' we tell one another, 'it's over. Khattam-Shud: The End.'"

Related Characters: Rashid Khalifa (speaker), Haroun Khalifa, Khattam-Shud
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

Haroun asked Rashid about one of his old stories, when Rashid remarks that he thought they were "khattam-shud" throughout their harrowing bus ride. Rashid answers Haroun’s question with this description of Khattam-Shud.

The novel here brings the idea of "the end" to life in the form of the character Khattam-Shud. Remember that khattam-shud without capitalization is a Hindustani word that means "completely finished," and as Rashid shares here, in Alfibay it's used to indicate the end of something (like saying “The End” when a fairy tale is finished). By bringing an idea to life as a character in this way, the idea becomes more tangible and more easily accessible. The reader is able to engage with the idea by analyzing the idea in terms of character traits, motivation, and relationship to other characters, which transforms the idea of the end into something concrete. Further, this description of Khattam-Shud is echoed through the novel several times, and it takes the meaning of khattam-shud and clearly lays out the goals of Khattam-Shud the character: to destroy stories, enforce silence, and end everything.

"Do those names mean anything?" Haroun asked.
"All names mean something," Rashid replied.

Related Characters: Haroun Khalifa (speaker), Rashid Khalifa (speaker)
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

Haroun and Rashid are entering the Valley of K, and Haroun is asking about a vandalized sign that now reads "Kache-Mer" and "Kosh-Mar" instead of just "K." Rashid explains that Kache-Mer means "place that hides a sea" and Kosh-Mar is rude and means "nightmare."

Rashid's assertion that all names mean something indicates to the reader that it isn't just the names on the sign that mean something; all names in the novel mean something. Rushdie makes this abundantly clear by including a guide to the names at the end of the novel, where he explains the meaning and origins of the names. The names serve a variety of purposes. Some, as in the case of Mali, indicate a profession: Mali means "gardener." The names of Haroun and Rashid come from a legendary caliph from 1001 Arabian Nights, which reinforces their roles as storytellers and the champions of stories, as well as threading the motif of the 1001 Arabian Nights through the novel in a more covert way. By stating upfront that all names mean something and offering a guide to help create understanding of the names, the novel provides an easy way to both engage with it and create meaning.

Chapter 4 Quotes

To give a thing a name, a label, a handle; to rescue it from anonymity, to pluck it out of the Place of Namelessness, in short to identify it—well, that's a way of bringing the said thing into being. Or, in this case, the said bird or Imaginary Flying Organism.

Related Characters: Iff (speaker), Haroun Khalifa, Butt
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

Iff instructs Haroun to choose a bird, and Haroun, thinking he's being logical, replies that the only bird in the room is the peacock bed. In this passionate speech, Iff then gets at the importance of naming to the novel.

Throughout the book, Rushdie encourages the reader to consider the names of characters and places as more than just a simple way to identify someone or something, but as a way to understand and engage with them. This particular passage subtly references the idea of Haroun's sad city, which is so sad it's forgotten its name. Following Iff's logic, the sad city exists in the "Place of Namelessness" alongside the bird that Haroun has not yet named. However, once Haroun chooses the Hoopoe bird and the sad city remembers its name, both Haroun and Kahani are able to deepen their understandings of the world and of themselves. This further supports the idea that claiming specific language through the act of naming is a way to create meaning and purpose in one's life.

Chapter 5 Quotes

"A strange sort of Story Moon our Kahani would be, if storybook things weren't everywhere to be found." And Haroun had to admit that that was a reasonable remark.

Related Characters: Butt (speaker), Haroun Khalifa, Iff
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

Haroun and Iff are speeding towards Gup City on Butt the Hoopoe, and Haroun is thinking that all manner of fanciful stories are coming true. Butt's reply highlights the relationship between absurdity and logic, and the balance between the two that is necessary for such a story to make sense. Since Kahani means "story," the fact that the moon Kahani is filled with storybook things makes perfect logical sense. However, this is one idea that builds throughout the novel and only becomes clear at the very end, when it's revealed that Haroun's sad city is also named Kahani. In this way, Butt's declaration here also serves to help the ending of the novel make sense, as one could argue that Soraya's return and the sad city's naming is a happy ending that could only be found in a storybook. However, since Kahani the moon and Kahani the city are linked by their name, they're both therefore subject to storybook logic.

Chapter 6 Quotes

—"I don't know," panted Iff as he struggled to keep up with the charging boy. "We've never caught a spy before. Maybe we should scold him. Or make him stand in the corner. Or write I must not spy one thousand and one times. Or is that too severe?"

Related Characters: Iff (speaker), Haroun Khalifa, Rashid Khalifa
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

Rashid has just been captured as a spy by the Guppee forces, and Haroun is rushing through the crowd to try to fix the situation. Haroun angrily asks what Guppees do to spies, listing several gruesome torture tactics, which bewilder and offend Iff and the surrounding Guppees.

Haroun comes from a place in Alfibay that relies on censorship to maintain order. Spies in Alfibay, presumably, are subjected to interrogation and torture in order to reveal their secrets. However, the punishments Iff suggests for spies are humorously minor in comparison. This begins to provide evidence of the sort of people the Guppees are—peaceful, open, and shocked even by the possibility of having to write lines (and the number of lines proposed is another reference to the 1001 Nights). These qualities then stand in stark contrast to the cruel society of the Chupwalas, who are not only secretive but sew their mouths shut as a sacrifice to Bezaban. The opposites at play allow Haroun to consider the differences between the two sides and where a happy, balanced medium might be.

Haroun noted that many other Pages of the Royal Guard were dressed in half-familiar stories. One Page wore the tale of ‘Bolo and the Wonderful Lamp’; another, ‘Bolo and the Forty Thieves’. Then there was ‘Bolo the Sailor’, ‘Bolo and Juliet’, ‘Bolo in Wonderland’.

Related Characters: Haroun Khalifa, Blabbermouth
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

Blabbermouth is leading Haroun to the Throne Room to meet his father, and Haroun is puzzled by the stories written on the Pages' tunics. The imagery of the tunics themselves reinforces that the novel is a book about books, stories, and words, as does the double meaning of "page." The many stories referenced on the Pages' tunics also provide another way for Rushdie to make overt references to outside works that span a great deal of time and geography, which further situates the novel as being dependent on these other works to form meaning. However, the changing of the title characters' names to Bolo is a relatively benign act of censorship and draws attention to the question of when censorship of this sort is appropriate, or if it’s censorship it all. The novel takes the position that it's essential to preserve stories, as they're a way for humans to connect to each other and connect with their history—but the reader is then asked to question whether these stories going to be truly preserved if the names are changed. Or, as Butt says, will these stories be able to handle some shaking up and change?

Chapter 7 Quotes

Haroun was rather shocked. "That sounds like mutinous talk to me," he suggested, and Iff, Goopy, Bagha and Mali found that very interesting indeed. "What's a Mutinous?" asked Iff, curiously. "Is it a plant?" Mali inquired.
"You don't understand," Haroun tried to say. "It's an Adjective."
"Nonsense," said the Water Genie. "Adjectives can't talk."
"Money talks, they say," Haroun found himself arguing (all this argument around him was proving infectious), "so why not Adjectives? Come to that, why not anything?"

Related Characters: Haroun Khalifa (speaker), Iff (speaker), Mali (speaker), Bagha, Goopy
Page Number: 118
Explanation and Analysis:

Haroun and the Guppee army are speeding across the Ocean towards the Land of Chup, loudly debating whether it's better to prioritize saving Batcheat or the Ocean. Haroun has been raised in Alfibay, where he's not used to hearing such debate in the first place, but also where debate like this would certainly come with consequences. Through what he experiences both in this moment and in thinking about what the implications of free speech are (and seeing the positive effects of such at the end of the novel), Haroun begins to develop an understanding of the true power of language.

Additionally, this passage showcases how the novel engages with language in a playful but serious way. The characters are debating the seriousness of free speech, but they're also having a rather ridiculous debate regarding parts of speech, what parts of speech can do or stand for, and how different individuals can interpret language in different ways.

"But but but what is the point of giving persons Freedom of Speech," declaimed Butt the Hoopoe, "if you then say they must not utilize the same? And is not the Power of Speech the greatest Power of all? Then surely it must be exercised to the full?"

Related Characters: Butt (speaker), Haroun Khalifa, Rashid Khalifa, Iff, General Kitab
Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:

Haroun, Rashid, and the Guppee army are heading towards the Land of Chup, and Haroun is shocked to hear the Guppees arguing and saying out loud that they'd sacrifice Princess Batcheat for the sake of the Ocean. Haroun remarks that that kind of talk is mutinous, and Butt replies with this consideration of the power of free speech.

As far as actual speech is concerned, the Land of Gup represents a society in which the concept of free speech is taken to the extreme. Individuals can say things that are rude, inflammatory, or that go against the wishes and decisions of those in charge, and all of these vocalizations are not just okay, but encouraged. Haroun and Rashid, however, come from a place where censorship is not as intense as in Chup but where one still cannot get away with saying such things, and so they struggle to understand how this intense display of freedom of speech functions and how it can be a good thing.

Rashid sees later the true positive effect of the debate and argument that takes place during this journey. The openness that it created means that the Guppees are able and willing to support each other and work as a team. The absence of secret thoughts and desires that then have the capacity to do harm is what allows the Guppees to win, and the opposite of this is what causes the Chupwala army to be so grossly ineffective.

"But it's not as simple as that," he told himself, because the dance of the Shadow Warrior showed him that silence had its own grace and beauty (just as speech could be graceless and ugly); and that Action could be as noble as Words; and that creatures of darkness could be as lovely as the children of the light. "If Guppees and Chupwalas didn't hate each other so," he thought, "they might actually find each other pretty interesting. Opposites attract, as they say."

Related Characters: Haroun Khalifa (speaker), Mudra
Page Number: 125
Explanation and Analysis:

Rashid has led Haroun and the Guppee officials to a Chupwala camp, where they come across Mudra the Shadow Warrior fighting his own Shadow. As they watch, Haroun considers the story in which he's found himself and the opposites at play within it.

With this thought, Haroun takes simply listing opposites or being aware of them one step further, and begins to synthesize them somewhere in the middle. He's seen, for example, Bolo’s speech, which is what is being referred to here as "graceless and ugly." He will soon also see Mudra speak using the gesture language Abhinaya, which further drives home the point that communicating silently can be beautiful. Most importantly is the fact that Haroun sees that the Guppees and Chupwalas have the potential to happily coexist with each other if they could be somehow brought into balance with themselves, each other, and their world, which is essentially what happens when Haroun's wish causes Kahani to turn.

Chapter 8 Quotes

"All my life I've heard about the wonderful Sea of Stories, and Water Genies, and everything; but I started believing only when I saw Iff in my bathroom the other night. And now that I've actually come to Kahani and seen with my own eyes how beautiful the Ocean is, with its Story Streams in colours whose names I don't even know, and its Floating Gardeners and Plentimaw Fishes and all, well, it turns out I may be too late, because the whole Ocean's going to be dead any minute if we don't do something. And it turns out that I don't like the idea of that, sir, not one bit. I don't like the idea that all the good stories in the world will go wrong for ever and ever, or just die. As I say, I only just started believing in the Ocean, but maybe it isn't too late for me to do my bit."

Related Characters: Haroun Khalifa (speaker), Rashid Khalifa, Iff, General Kitab
Page Number: 137
Explanation and Analysis:

General Kitab has asked for a volunteer to investigate the second Khattam-Shud's activities and the Ocean's poisoning in the Old Zone. Haroun offers to go, and delivers this speech explaining why. Through this speech, Haroun begins to answer the guiding question of the novel regarding the purpose of stories. He's seen, first of all, how beautiful the physical embodiment of these stories is. This experience builds upon a lifetime of hearing these stories, which have surely provided guidance, entertainment, and fun to Haroun's life before he even believed in Kahani's existence.

Mudra's explanation of what happens when absolute silence is enforced has also certainly influenced Haroun. In addition to hearing about the mayhem and distrust caused by mandatory silence, Haroun has seen the terrifying effects of the Ocean's poisoning firsthand through his Princess Rescue Story experience. All of these experiences culminate in Haroun realizing the value of stories and of preserving them for future generations. When expanded to incorporate not just the events of the novel itself but the novel as a whole and stories in general, this speech turns into a passionate cry against the effects of censorship, so that stories might be enjoyed by all, whatever their use.

"Never thought it'd be so bad!"
"We have failed you! We feel sad!"
"I feel terrible! She feels worse!"
"We can hardly speak in verse."

Related Characters: Bagha (speaker), Goopy (speaker), Haroun Khalifa, Iff, Butt, Mali
Page Number: 140
Explanation and Analysis:

Goopy and Bagha are explaining to Haroun, Iff, Mali, and Butt the Hoopoe that they cannot continue heading south towards the Wellspring given the state of the Ocean, as the poison affects them too much. This is a prime example of how verse is used throughout the novel to highlight important passages or ideas. The Plentimaw Fish mate for life, and speak in verse with their life partners in order to express this union. Knowing this, it underscores just how poisoned the Ocean is that this pair of Plentimaw Fish is considering that they may not be able to speak in verse as a consequence (and thus also may lose the strength of their bond).

This also mirrors what Haroun observes on the road over the mountains between the Town of G and the Valley of K. Near G, the signs along the road warning drivers to drive carefully rhyme, but as the road climbs the mountain, the signs stop rhyming. In this way, rhyming is normalized, while at the same time it serves to highlight important passages. In this system, when rhyming is given up, it indicates an even more important statement.