In his preface to Fatal Revenge, Charles Robert Maturin stresses the fear of the unknown as essential in the emotional and spiritual lives of humans: It is not the weak and trivial impulse of the nursery, to be forgotten and scorned by manhood. It is the aspiration of a spirit; ’it is the passion of immortals,’ that dread and desire of their final habitation.
In one of his sermons, he focuses on the same theme: The very first sounds of childhood are tales of another life—foolishly are they called tales of superstition; for, however disguised by the vulgarity of narration, and the distortion of fiction, they tell him of those whom he is hastening from the threshold of life to join, the inhabitants of the invisible world, with whom he must soon be, and be for ever.
These quotations indicate a major aspect of Maturin’s perception of human existence; the haunted and the sacred are interwoven and share a common ground. Human fascination with the supernatural, the world of demons and ghosts, springs from the same source as the desire to believe in salvation and a return to paradise. In fact, the road to salvation leads through the dark places of the soul where individuals must admit their fallen state, their own guilt.
The theme of guilt is common in all of Maturin’s novels. His major characters must struggle with the serpents in their own hearts, their own original sin. In keeping with this theme, the settings of his novels are generally those of a fallen world; dungeons and underground passages are common backgrounds for the action. Even in those novels that contain descriptions of more natural surroundings, storms and earthquakes are common occurrences, always reminding people that they have been exiled from paradise. Harmony with nature, with humanity, and with God has been lost.
Maturin develops this theme of guilt, which brings exile and separation, through his handling of character. The divided nature of humanity is represented by the pairing of characters, especially brothers: Ippolito and Annibal in Fatal Revenge, Connal and Desmond in The Milesian Chief, Paladour and Amirald in The Albigenses. These brothers are described in such a way as to suggest one identity fragmented into two opposing selves. Ippolito is passionate, Annibal rational; Desmond is the soft flower, Connal the proud oak. Often a character is torn in two opposing directions and does not know how to reconcile them: Connal between his Irish pride and his realization that the Irish peasants are not yet ready to govern themselves; Charles in Women between his love for Eva, a shy quiet girl, and Zaira, a worldly and more accomplished woman. At times, a character seems pursued by a dark, sinister double: Montorio by Schemoli in Fatal Revenge; Alonzo by the parricide in Melmoth the Wanderer. By far the most striking and powerful example of this is the character of the wanderer himself. Melmoth represents the potential for evil that can be found in all humans. In developing Melmoth’s character, Maturin echoes the warning in Genesis against too much curiosity about the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Melmoth has sold his soul for increased knowledge; his sin is one of “pride and intellectual glorying,” the sin of Lucifer and of the first mortals.
As Maturin’s characters wander in a fallen world, little guidance is provided. Especially weak and ineffective are the parental figures. In fact, a distinguishing trait of this fallen world is the disintegration of the family. In all of Maturin’s six novels, there are parents who are woefully irresponsible. They are often self-centered, putting their own greedy desires before their children’s welfare, or they seek to expiate their own guilt by placing the burden of their sin upon their children. This selfish turning inward and transference of guilt to another is also found in Maturin’s representations of larger structures of authority, especially the Catholic Church. As the divided soul wanders in a fallen world, parent and church offer little hope.
Maturin reserves the role of spiritual guide for the female characters who either love or are loved by the hero (such love is not always fulfilled or requited). Often his women are idealized creatures who can reconcile within themselves all conflicting opposites: in Melmoth the Wanderer, Immalee embodies passion and purity; in The Albigenses, Genevieve is a “mixture of strength and purity that is never to be found but in woman.” Even if a woman finds herself hurled into a world of experience and corruption, as Zaira is in Women, her heart remains pure. At times, Maturin uses his female characters to symbolize self-sacrificing love that, although never placing the beloved before God, does place the beloved before the self. Despite Maturin’s emphasis on such redeeming love, however, when domestic happiness is found by his characters it seems contrived and imposed upon them by others. Maturin is undoubtedly at his best when depicting people lost and searching for wholeness, not in actually finding it.
Maturin titled his first novel The Family of Montorio, but the publisher changed the title to Fatal Revenge, hoping to attract readers who would be interested in a gothic tale. The novel is definitely written in the style of Radcliffe—one of its central figures, a ghostlike monk who calls himself Schemoli, is clearly patterned on Radcliffe’s Schoedoni in 1797’s The Italian—but Maturin uses what he borrows to develop his own characteristic theme with originality. Although he follows Radcliffe’s technique of revealing the supernatural events as merely the result of disguise and charade, his descriptions of aberrant states of mind, to which all are subject, go beyond her handling of evil, and beyond the mere cataloging of grotesque horrors used by those writers who chose to imitate the more sensational style of Matthew Gregory Lewis. Annibal concludes after a brief period of solitary confinement that an “inward acquaintance” delights one not with tranquillity but, on the contrary, with “the grave of the mind.” In describing the anguish of his guilt, Montorio cries, “the worm within me never dieth; and every thought and object it converts into its own morbid food.” In Maturin, the evil within is quite real.
The plot of this novel is complicated, and Maturin’s narrative is at times twisted and confusing. The tale...
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