The Mysteries of Udolpho Essay - Critical Essays

Ann Ward


Ann Radcliffe combines elements of the sentimental novel, the horror novel, and the picturesque to crystallize what others such as Horace Walpole in The Castle of Otranto (1764) had begun: When she pictures for the reader Emily St. Aubert, awe-struck and terrified before the moldering, imposing ruin of Udolpho into which she will be taken and imprisoned by the evil Montoni, she sets what for the next two centuries will be the dominant image of gothic literature: a beautiful young woman powerless before a malevolent male will and imprisoned in a ruined edifice.

In The Mysteries of Udolpho, Radcliffe refines and transforms the eighteenth century aesthetic and thematic uses of sentiment and sensibility. Emily is perhaps too good, and, understanding this, her father tries to train her not to give in to her sensibilities (as other heroines of the eighteenth century would) and offers her some deathbed advice that looms over the entire narrative: She must overcome her over-refined sensibilities, which can make her fearful and faint, prone to flights of terrifying imagination, and incapable of living a good life. Instead, she must act in accordance with the principles of sound reason. In this struggle, she is most interesting as an emblem of the conflict between reason and imagination in the eighteenth century. To overcome her own sensibilities is Emily’s real challenge, and in this characterization, Radcliffe has created a work of sustaining interest.

In a time during which “taste” demanded the arousal of emotions, Radcliffe provided a respectable literary form in which to channel the demands of the age. Emily is always proper in her behavior, always...

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