(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This story, one of a number of tales and sketches collected in Tales of a Traveller (1824), is narrated by an old man to a group of listeners. The story concerns a young student from the German university town of Gottingen. The student, Gottfried Wolfgang, is described as a man of good family but also as one given to intense speculation on the dark, mystical side of existence. Indeed, he is shown to have dedicated himself to these studies to such an extent that both his physical health and his imagination have become “diseased.” As the narrator tells his audience, “He took up a notion, I do not know from what cause, that there was an evil influence hanging over him; an evil genius or spirit seeking to ensnare him and ensure his perdition.”

To combat Wolfgang’s melancholy and morbid obsessions, his friends and family send him off to France to continue his studies at the Sorbonne. They hope that, removed from the gloomy German environment, he will be more happily influenced by the new surroundings of the school and by the “splendors and gayeties of Paris.” Unfortunately, Wolfgang arrives in Paris at the beginning of the Reign of Terror, and the scenes of butchery and cruelty that follow cause him to withdraw even more into his own private, dark world of the imagination. Again, in the words of the narrator, “Sometimes he spent hours together in the great libraries of Paris, those catacombs of departed authors, rummaging among their hoards of dusty and obsolete works in quest of food for his unhealthy appetite. He was, in a manner, a literary ghoul . . .”

In addition to his constant musings on the metaphysical and demonic, the student is also sexually obsessed. Although he is too shy actually to approach a woman, he gives himself over to romantic and erotic dreams when safely ensconced in his...

(The entire section is 751 words.)