Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The stories in Tales of a Traveller strongly reflect the influence that the European gothic horror story, with its emphasis on psychological as well as physical terror, played on Washington Irving. Gottfried Wolfgang is an “enthusiast,” one given to extremes rather than carefully reasoned actions. He has devoted himself to unhealthy studies, and they have made him into a kind of monster—a “literary ghoul,” as Irving bluntly puts it, feeding on dead and putrid thoughts just as an actual ghoul would feed on dead bodies. Thus, the student is shown from the beginning to be of unsound mind, bordering precariously on the edge of madness.
Irving also makes clear, however, the student’s sexual obsession, which is equally unhealthy. His lack of restraint as he thinks about women, and especially about the one ravishing female of his dreams, shows yet again the diseased state of his imagination. Indeed, these two fascinations—mystical speculation and sexual fantasies—are linked in the student’s mind: His ghoulish tendencies are easily transformed into necrophilic desires.
Finally, when Wolfgang gives himself to the mysterious woman, he does so by denying time-honored social and religious beliefs and ceremonies. “What need is there of sordid forms to bind high souls together?” he asks before consummating his marriage night with his “bride.” Because the woman is most likely dead, although possibly inhabited by an evil spirit, this sexual consummation is an act of incredible horror: Wolfgang becomes a necrophiliac and must pay for his rashness with his sanity.
Thus, in addition to being a thrilling horror story, “Adventure of the German Student” is a warning against enthusiasm, loss of balance, lack of reason. For Irving, who grew up in the Age of Reason, Wolfgang represents the dangers of extreme liberality, whether in philosophy, sex, or religion, just as the French Revolution illustrates the madness of a society that rejects a rational manner of government. The story shows Irving’s uneasiness with many aspects of the Romantic movement.