Representations of the Devil in Nineteenth-Century Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Representations of the Devil in Nineteenth-Century Literature


Representations of the Devil in Nineteenth-Century Literature

Known by a variety of names—Satan, Lucifer, Mephistopheles—the Devil remains one of the most intriguing and ubiquitous figures in western literature, with such literary luminaries as Dante, Milton, and Goethe finding in him the perfect personification of the human impulse toward evil. Since the advent of the Bible, the Devil has existed as the quintessential adversary, and the ultimate antithesis to goodness and morality. In the Medieval era, the Devil evolved from a relatively minor role in Holy Scripture to a dominant figure in the didactic mystery and morality plays of the day. During the Reformation and Renaissance, Luciferian figures continued to be abstracted and allegorized in literature, that is until the publication of John Milton's Paradise Lost in 1667. In the poem Milton drew a dynamic and supremely defiant Satan, whom subsequent interpreters would sometimes view as the epic's subversive protagonist. Meanwhile, in the eighteenth-century, the rising tide of Enlightenment rationalism prompted a decline in literary representations of Satan, with many considering the Devil as an inappropriate subject even of mockery or satire. All of this began to change by the end of the century and the new vogue of the Gothic novel in England. Writers, typified by Matthew Gregory Lewis in his popular Ambrosio the Monk (1796), seized upon Satan as a principal source of supernatural horror, creating a mania for spine-tingling terror among readers.

Also in England during the last decade of the eighteenth century, the nascent Romantic movement, led by William Blake, was about to embark upon a philosophical and poetic reinterpretation of the Devil. Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-1793) provided the groundwork for a reevaluation of Satan by figuring the Devil once again in Miltonic terms as an intractable and energetic individual who stood in opposition to an autocratic God. Miltonic and Blakean interpretations of Satan were furthered by Percy Bysshe Shelly and Lord Byron, poets who by the early nineteenth century had made the Devil into a representative icon of the Romantic movement. Rather than simply a symbol of pure evil, the Romantic Satan appeared as an embodiment of vitality, strength, boldness, and political and cultural rebellion. Indeed, the Romantics sought to treat the Devil as a tragic or heroic figure worthy of pathos, thereby inaugurating the tradition of the Promethean Satan, an indefatigable rebel, long since abused by the oppression of Heaven. This literal denunciation of Biblical morality did not sit well with numerous conservative commentators, including the outspoken poet and critic Robert Southey. Southey's vehement public attacks in print on Byron's atheism culminated in his suggestion that the Romantic poets should more accurately be dubbed the ‘Satanic School’—a term of derision that only added to the popular myths surrounding the literary personas of both Byron and Shelley. Consequently, the process of extolling the Satanic in verse continued; later in the century, the Symbolists Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud would choose to emphasize the dark, seductive power of the Devil indirectly in their poetry.

Another more traditional development in modern interpretations of the Devil had also begun by the early nineteenth-century with the appearance of the first part of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's drama Faust in 1808. The Faust-myth, a venerable legend drawn from Germanic folklore, treats an integral theme within diabolical literature, that of the devil-compact. In a prototypical deal with the Devil, the legendary Faust, often depicted as a sorcerer, offered up his soul in exchange for otherworldly pleasure and power. Goethe adjusted the story somewhat so that his Faust instead desired limitless knowledge, and, because his intentions were not purely selfish or evil, he was able to circumvent his contract with Mephistopheles and prevent his soul from being cast into hell. This subject of a mortal being who enters into a compact with the Devil became a common one in nineteenth-century American fiction. Washington Irving, in his story “The Devil and Tom Walker” (1824), employed the theme, and critics recognize Faustian elements in many of the tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Mark Twain, additionally, evoked folklore interpretations of the Devil in his satiric novel The Mysterious Stranger (1916), while numerous other examples of the formula appeared in popular fiction.

With the notable exception of Goethe, nineteenth-century European writers generally offered a more symbolic representation of Satan than their American counterparts. A tattered devil inhabits the dreams of Ivan Karamazov in Feodor Dostoevsky's novel Brat'ya Karamzovy (1880; The Brothers Karamazov). Ivan's devil exists as a slovenly, down-on-his-luck figure whom critics have viewed as both a manifestation of philosophical evil and a type of the late nineteenth-century Russian atheist. Nikolai Gogol presents an at once sardonic and metaphorical view of the Devil in human form as Chichikov, the unscrupulous gatherer of the dead in his Mertvye dushi (1842; Dead Souls). Such diabolical incarnations in literature as Gogol's additionally represent an important segment of fictional treatments of the Devil in human form, in a varied tradition that stretches from Medieval romance to the modern novel.

Representative Works

Honoré de Balzac
Le centenaire; ou, les deux Beringheld (novel) 1822
Melmoth réconcilié (novel) 1835

Charles Baudelaire
Les Fleurs du mal [Flowers of Evil] (poetry) 1857

William Blake
Marriage of Heaven and Hell (poetry) 1790-1793
Milton (poetry) 1800-1804

Robert Burns
“Address to the Deil” (poetry) 1785

Lord George Gordon Byron
Manfred (verse drama) 1817
Cain: A Mystery (verse drama) 1821
The Deformed Transformed (unfinished verse drama) 1822

Giosue Carducci
Inno a Satana (poetry) 1865

Marie Corelli
The Sorrows of Satan (novel) 1895

Feodor Dostoevsky
Brat'ya Karamzovy [The Brothers Karamazov] (novel) 1880

Théophile Gautier
Albertus (poetry) 1832
La larme du diable (poetry) 1839

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Faust. 2 vols. (drama) 1808-1832

Nikolai Gogol
Mertvye dushi [Dead Souls] (novel) 1842

Nathaniel Hawthorne
“Young Goodman Brown” (short story) 1837

Victor Hugo
Le fin de Satan (poetry) 1886

Washington Irving
“The Devil and Tom Walker” (short story) 1824

Frederick Maximilian Klinger
Fausts Leben, Taten und Höllenfahrt (novel) 1791

Mikhail Lermontov
Demon (poetry) 1856

Matthew Gregory Lewis
Ambrosio the Monk (novel) 1796

Leconte de Lisle
“La tristesse du Diable” (poetry) 1866

Charles Robert Maturin
Melmoth the Wanderer (novel) 1820

Gérard de Nerval
Nicolas Flamel (drama) 1830
Le Prince de sots (drama) 1830

Charles Nodier
Le nouveau Faust et la nouvelle Marguerite; ou, comment je me suis donné au Diable (drama) 1832
“La combe de l'homme mort” (short story) 1833

Frederick Beecher Perkins
“The Devil-Puzzlers” (short story) 1871

Arthur Rimbaud
Une saison en enfers [A Season in Hell] (poetry) 1873

Sir Walter Scott
“Wandering Willie's Tale” (short story) 1824

Percy Bysshe Shelley
The Cenci (verse drama) 1819
On the Devil, and Devils (essay) 1819*

William Gilmore Simms
Paddy McGann; or, the Demon of the Stump (novel) 1863

William Makepeace Thackeray
“The Devil's Wager” (short story) 1833
“The Painter's Bargain” (short story) 1840

Mark Twain
The Mysterious Stranger, a Romance (novel) 1916

Paul Verlaine
“Crimen Amoris” (poetry) 1873

Alfred de Vigny
Eloa (poetry) 1823

*Likely date of composition.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Maximilian Rudwin (essay date 1931)

SOURCE: “The Salvation of Satan in Modern Poetry,” in The Devil in Legend and Literature, AMS Press, 1970, pp. 280-308.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1931, Rudwin considers the sympathetic portrayal of Satan in nineteenth-century poetry.]

The reversal of poetic judgment with regard to the Devil is among the most striking characteristics of the modern period. The popular medieval conception degraded Diabolus from the former high potentate of paradise to a powerless and ludicrous personage, who served our ancestors as the butt of such laughter as still rings across the ages. The modern period, on the other hand, has clothed the Devil with the...

(The entire section is 11439 words.)

Hannes Vatter (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “Romantic Satanism: Blake, the Gothic Novel, Shelley and Byron,” in The Devil in English Literature, Francke Verlag, 1978, pp. 148-78.

[In the following essay, Vatter surveys figures bearing qualities of the Miltonic Satan in the writings of English Romantic poets and Gothic novelists.]

The first step towards a freer development of the devil figure had been made, as we have seen, with the abandonment of Biblical subject matter in the first Moralities. A next, and more decisive step could be taken when the dogmatical tenets of theology were no longer accepted as binding and unquestionable realities. The Age of Reason, itself hostile to Satanism—who would...

(The entire section is 11112 words.)