Haroun and the Sea of Stories

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Themes and Colors
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.
Storytelling Theme Icon

The first question the novel asks is, "what is the use of stories that aren't even true?" The novel then sets out to answer this question, as well as complicate the answers. As fiction, the novel tells a story that, by default, isn't necessarily true, and the obviously fantastical and magical elements emphasize this almost to absurdity. This process and style brings into question the purpose of the novel itself as it simultaneously explores the purpose of the stories within its own pages, as well as its place in the world.

Haroun's story relies very much on the stories of others in order to add meaning and create different meanings. The outside references are numerous and range from One Thousand And One Nights to Beatles' songs. By including so many references to outside works, the novel then gets to pull meaning, morals, and ideas from those outside works. In this way, the novel is able to essentially borrow meaning from these stories, rather than create meaning solely out of thin air. Further, by making these references to outside fictional works, the novel insists that made-up, fictional stories in general can be meaningful, as their inclusion creates layer upon layer of meaning. Additionally, an individual reader's interpretation and experience of the novel is extremely dependent on his or her familiarity with the referenced works. In this way, the experience of reading Haroun and the Sea of Stories can become a highly personal experience.

In addition to exploring the meaning of stories, the novel is also very concerned with exploring its own structure and texture in regards to story structure and character archetypes. Haroun and Khattam-Shud especially make constant observations about the arc of the story in which they find themselves. Haroun remarks that Khattam-Shud himself is an anti-climactic figure, while Khattam-Shud states that Haroun's arrival is indicative of a tiresome melodrama. In exploring its texture and more general character archetypes, the novel is especially concerned with the shape and form of evil characters. By presenting evil characters that appear mundane and boring, such as Khattam-Shud and Mr. Sengupta, the novel insists that evil characters need not take an obvious or expected shape, as Mr. Buttoo and his henchmen do, in order to carry out their evil plans. As well as questioning what makes a good villain, the novel also questions the very concept of a happy ending. While Haroun's final wish for a happy ending comes at the end of the novel, it's still very close to the beginning of his life. This further supports the idea that stories are living, breathing things, and while a story may end for the reader, the characters' lives continue after the last page.

By engaging with itself in this reflective manner, the novel asks the reader to question in a broader sense what makes a good story, what makes a good hero or villain, and what constitutes a truly happy ending. Essentially, the novel functions as a champion of the value of stories as teaching tools, entertainment, and a force for good in the world. It takes the position that whatever the specific purpose of a story might be, there is always a use for stories. Further, it encourages the reader to be an active participant in the preservation of old stories, for it is through the oldest stories that humans can connect to their roots and each other, and find common ground despite apparent irreconcilable differences.

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Storytelling ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Storytelling 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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Storytelling 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 Storytelling.
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

"'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.

Chapter 3 Quotes

When Haroun heard his father say only a story, he understood that the Shah of Blah was very depressed indeed, because only deep despair could have made him say such a terrible thing.

Related Characters: Haroun Khalifa, Rashid Khalifa
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

Haroun, Rashid, and Mr. Buttoo are on the Dull Lake, where the weather is beginning to act up. Haroun has just asked if they're in the Moody Land, where the weather is dependent on inhabitants' moods, and Rashid replies that the Moody Land is only a story.

The novel makes it explicitly clear from the very beginning that stories are not only based in some degree of truth (or can create their own kind of truth), but are useful and worthy of preservation and consideration. Rashid, here, is denying or downplaying these facts in his misery. This is especially important considering he's a storyteller by profession, and so essentially he's stating that his entire profession is unworthy of respect.

He knew what he knew: that the real world was full of magic, so magical worlds could easily be real.

Related Characters: Haroun Khalifa, Rashid Khalifa, Mr. Buttoo
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

Haroun, Rashid, and Mr. Buttoo are in a boat on the Dull Lake, and Haroun has just caused the weather to calm down by realizing that they're in the Moody Land. Mr. Buttoo simply believes that a spot of bad weather came and went away again without explanation, but Haroun makes this realization and keeps his thoughts to himself.

This realization opens Haroun up and primes him for the fantastical dream adventure on which he'll soon embark. His experience out on the Dull Lake and the Moody Land makes it very clear to Haroun that there is magic in the world. Further, as the magic he experiences there is something he heard about first in Rashid's stories, it underscores their importance for Haroun, and the power of stories in general. This moment of receiving proof of Rashid's stories allows Haroun to then take the rest of his father's stories as truth as well.

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 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.

Chapter 9 Quotes

"It's our own fault," he wept. "We are the Guardians of the Ocean, and we didn't guard it. Look at the Ocean, look at it! The oldest stories ever made, and look at them now. We let them rot, we abandoned them, long before this poisoning. We lost touch with our beginnings, with our roots, our Wellspring, our Source. Boring, we said, not in demand, surplus to requirements. And now, look, just look! No colour, no life, no nothing. Spoilt!"

Related Characters: Iff (speaker), Haroun Khalifa, Khattam-Shud, Mali
Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:

Haroun, Iff, and Butt have just been captured by Chupwalas and are being drawn through the weed jungle towards what they'll soon find out is Khattam-Shud's ship. Haroun's story can be considered a cautionary tale for what happens when a culture ceases to preserve and protect their history and oldest stories. The weed jungle and the cold, colorless Ocean act as physical representations of these forgotten cultural texts, while Khattam-Shud's entire operation shows what can then be done to the stories once they're forgotten. Iff is correct that stories can rot and decay if they're deemed boring, surplus, or no longer necessary (and then aren't told), but Khattam-Shud takes it one step further. He sees the opportunity to co-opt these old stories and poison them, and since they're no longer popular and in circulation, it becomes ridiculously easy to turn them around and use them for evil.

"But this is all too fanciful for words," he told himself. "A boat made out of shadows? A shadow-ship? Don't be nuts." But the idea kept nagging at him, and wouldn't let go. Look at the edges of everything here, said a voice in his head. The edges of the poison tanks, the crane, the ship itself. Don't they look, well, fuzzy? That's what shadows are like; even when they're sharp, they're never as sharp-edged as real, substantial things.

Related Characters: Haroun Khalifa (speaker), Khattam-Shud, Iff
Page Number: 152
Explanation and Analysis:

Haroun and Iff are being shown onto Khattam-Shud's ship in the Old Zone of the Ocean. Haroun and Iff have been warned that since Khattam-Shud can separate himself from his shadow, he can be in two places at once, and here Haroun is confronted with the instinct that he's dealing with the shadow version.

Throughout the novel, Haroun has been on a journey in which he's not only attempting to save his father and stories, but in which he's also learning to trust himself. Haroun makes many observations about his surroundings, but this situation is extremely important to his growth and development. Through this mental nagging, Haroun is learning to trust in not just the logic he grew up with in Alfibay, but in the nonsensical, storybook logic of Kahani. This, in turn, allows Haroun to triumph, as he wins the war by accepting and working within the absurdity of Kahani.

"That's him? That's him?" Haroun thought, with a kind of disappointment. "This little minging fellow? What an anti-climax."

Related Characters: Haroun Khalifa (speaker), Khattam-Shud
Page Number: 153
Explanation and Analysis:

Haroun and Iff have just been escorted onto the Dark Ship and are about to be introduced to Khattam-Shud, who has just appeared and is a disappointing villain. In this situation, the novel is engaging with conventions of how villains are supposed to look—scary, imposing, and evil, and not like an office clerk in fancy dress, which is how Haroun describes both the Chupwalas on the ship as well as Khattam-Shud himself. The novel, then, takes the position that evil isn't always obvious, expected, or easy to identify. It can indeed take the form of a clerk—and in the same vein, someone who looks perfectly normal may be wholly capable of doing intensely evil deeds. Note also that the word “minging” and the general description of Khattam-Shud links him to Mr. Sengupta, the “villain” of Haroun’s other story.

Chapter 10 Quotes

We must make a great many poisons, because each and every story in the Ocean needs to be ruined in a different way. To ruin a happy story, you must make it sad. To ruin an action drama, you must make it move too slowly. To ruin a mystery you must make the criminal's identity obvious even to the most stupid audience..."

Related Characters: Khattam-Shud (speaker), Haroun Khalifa, Iff
Page Number: 160
Explanation and Analysis:

Khattam-Shud is explaining to Haroun and Iff how he and his Chupwala minions are going about manufacturing poisons to target individual stories in the Ocean. This is one situation in which the novel engages in a very direct way with storytelling elements and conventions, and asks in a more roundabout way what makes a good story. Khattam-Shud has evidently figured out how to make individual types of stories into bad stories, which will in turn mean that those stories aren't then told. This take on censorship varies greatly from what Khattam-Shud is enforcing in Chup with the Silence Laws, as he doesn't need to enforce silence to end these stories—he must merely make them unlikable, unsuccessful, and boring.

"But why do you hate stories so much?" Haroun blurted, feeling stunned. "Stories are fun..."
"The world, however, is not for Fun," Khattam-Shud replied. "The world is for Controlling."
"Which world?" Haroun made himself ask.
"Your world, my world, all worlds," came the reply. "They are all there to be Ruled. And inside every single story, inside every Stream in the Ocean, there lies a world, a story-world, that I cannot Rule at all. And that is the reason why."

Related Characters: Haroun Khalifa (speaker), Khattam-Shud
Page Number: 161
Explanation and Analysis:

Khattam-Shud is explaining to Iff and Haroun why he's poisoning all the stories in the Ocean and how he's going about this task. Through this exchange, we can compare how Khattam-Shud and Haroun view their worlds. Haroun, who sees stories, and by extension, his world, as existing for fun, has a much easier relationship to his world. It is there for him to try to understand and enjoy where possible, but most importantly, he's integrated into his world. This stands in stark contrast to Khattam-Shud, who sees himself as separate from his world. This puts him in a better position to control it, and his preferred method of trying to control the world (or worlds) is through censorship, halting language, and turning stories from fun into nothing.

Chapter 12 Quotes

"Happy endings must come at the end of something," the Walrus pointed out. "If they happen in the middle of a story, or an adventure, or the like, all they do is cheer things up for a while."

Related Characters: The Walrus (speaker), Haroun Khalifa, Rashid Khalifa
Page Number: 202
Explanation and Analysis:

Haroun has just asked the Walrus for a happy ending for his adventure in addition to a happy ending for his sad city. Throughout the novel, Rushdie has taken the position that stories are living, breathing, changing things. As an extension of the logic of this concept, the Walrus here introduces the idea that stories don't end because the physical book is out of pages. Essentially, the Walrus is making sure that Haroun understands that he is perfectly able to grant him happiness, but it's not the end of anything, as Haroun is still a young boy, at the very beginning of his life, and his life will continue after the reader closes their book. And after all, Khattam-Shud—“the end”—has been defeated.

"Don't, Dad," said Haroun, his good mood deflating all at once. "Don't you get it? It isn't real. It's just something the Eggheads got out of a bottle. It's all fake. People should be happy when there's something to be happy about, not just when they get bottled happiness poured over them from the sky."

Related Characters: Haroun Khalifa (speaker), Rashid Khalifa, The Walrus
Page Number: 208
Explanation and Analysis:

Haroun and Rashid have returned to the sad city to find that the rains have continued, but the city isn't as sad as when they left it. Rashid is giddy and thrilled with this turn of events, but Haroun becomes sadder when he realizes that the happiness is the Walrus's doing.

Haroun has very clear ideas of where and when happiness is appropriate—at the end of a story, possibly, or possibly in conjunction with “something to be happy about.” This happiness that the sad city is experiencing, then, he believes is false and fabricated. This begins to get at the idea that this particular story, while it's about to end for the reader, is just the very beginning for Haroun, as he's still a young boy with lots of life ahead of him. This further underscores the novel's insistence that stories are living, breathing entities that can take on a life of their own.