This panel was compiled by the Conference Program Team from independently submitted paper proposals
One of the earliest romances of New Persian literature, Vis-o-Rāmin is also one of the most unusual, for it inverts the standard convention of chaste love to create a scenario in which an adulterous relationship forms the nexus of the plot. This unique feature has elicited a variety of reactions in the scholarship on this work; some critics read it as an artifact of the pre-Islamic cultural milieu, others as a metaphorical exposition on kingship, and still others as a carnivalesque satire that overturns established norms and celebrates carnal pleasure (cf. Minorsky, Hedayat, Mahjoub, Meisami, Southgate, Davis). While all of these arguments have merit, they tend to place too much emphasis on the illicit act itself while neglecting the context in which it occurs, resulting in a skewed reading that overlooks some key aspects of Vis-o-Rāmin’s contribution to the development of the romance in Persian literature. More important than the explicit adultery, in my view, is the characters’ relationship with their own actions. The ‘seduction’ of Vis is the result of a lengthy exchange of arguments and negotiations that take up nearly a third of the work, highlighting the seriousness of the issue. During this process, it becomes clear that Vis regards her actions as sinful, and by the end of the story comes to loathe both herself and Rāmin for her fall from grace. The fact that she nevertheless agrees to the affair suggests that she is motivated not by physical desire, but a complex and sometimes conflicted set of moral standards. The ethical ambiguity of the situation is enriched by two additional seduction attempts, the first between the Shāhanshāh and Vis’s mother, the second between Rāmin and his wet-nurse, that identify a number of alternative ways of negotiating illicit sex within the world of the romance and clarify why Vis’s relationship with Rāmin is so tormented. Arguing against previous readings, this paper contends that Vis’s affair is not evidence of her lack of moral rectitude, but rather the opposite: a firm commitment to right behavior even if and when it entails sin, shame, and disgrace, demonstrating a set of lofty, almost rigid, ideals about romantic love and its obligations. Through this study, we may further appreciate the significance of Vis-o-Rāmin in establishing the central themes, conventions, and problems of a nascent literary genre.