Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 848
Setting is important to Coleridge’s poem Christabel, as it takes place in a dark forest and a dark castle. When Christabel (innocence) first meets Geraldine (evil), it is at night and under the cover of the trees in the forest. An old belief is that the dark forest is the dwelling place of the devil, who waits to tempt innocent victims to evil. In a way, Christabel is walking right into evil’s way by going into the forest at night. Although the speaker says there is moonlight, we can envision the woods being dark because the moonlight cannot penetrate the dense trees. Additionally, “the moon is behind, and at the full,” so readers might intuit—given the full moon’s common literary use as a symbol for burgeoning dark forces—that something bad is about to happen.
When Christabel and Geraldine return to Christabel’s home, readers find that it is a castle. One can envision the moat, the iron gates, the drafty and dark corridors as they are described. The two women walk the halls “Now in glimmer, and now in gloom” and “not a moonbeam enters” Christabel’s room. Therefore, readers sense pervasive darkness, which contributes to a feeling of dread. We know that something is wrong but are still not sure what it is. These settings prepare us for the poem’s subsequent events.
Symbolism is also important to the poem. As readers, we decipher what is happening as we go through the lines, but we constantly question what is real. The poem is written in an ambiguous way to keep us guessing. Certain symbols clarify our thoughts. For instance, Bracy’s dream is of a dove being strangled by a snake. He says he heard the dove’s cry for help but could see nothing wrong, and he went closer to see what was the problem. Then he noticed a green snake “Coiled around [the dove’s] wings and neck.” The snake had been camouflaged by the grass. Bracy says the dove’s name was Christabel. The dream should be a warning to Leoline and everyone that danger is camouflaged but real and present. Clearly, the dove symbolizes the innocent Christabel, who never harms anyone but exists in purity and love. The snake, known as a symbol of evil, is Geraldine, who hides under the guise of a helpless victim but is actually a spell-casting temptress. The symbols in Bracy’s dream confirm the reader’s suspicions that Geraldine is not to be trusted. The snake image, associated the devil, clearly confirms that Geraldine is a dark force and compels the reader to consider other clues in the poem as to who she really is.
We might be tempted to dismiss the poem as a supernatural story meant as pure entertainment. But perhaps Coleridge has a greater purpose in mind. One of his primary themes seems to be that evil will be victorious over good if we are not careful. The signs are all there that Geraldine is dangerous. She is found in a dark wood in the middle of the night. She appears to be physically weakened when near religious symbols, such as the angels in Christabel’s room. She chases away Christabel’s mother’s spirit, who is there as a protector. Christabel and Leoline seem to be in a trance around her. Bracy dreams of Christabel being harmed. Christabel has a vision of Geraldine as an old hag. However, the characters do not listen to each other. Each one holds clues as to Geraldine’s true nature, but each clue by itself is not enough proof. If Leoline would listen to the others, and if Christabel would be...
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honest about her visions, perhaps they could all piece together the clues and avoid doom. Perhaps Coleridge is reminding readers to pay attention to warning signs so we can make sure that good wins over evil.
It is important to note that the use of a third-person limited narrator adds to the suspense of the poem. The narrator knows the poem’s events and what Christabel and Leoline are thinking, but they do not get inside Geraldine’s mind. Because the narrator is limited, we are left guessing at the end of the poem whether our suspicions about Geraldine are correct. We know she is a force of evil, but we are unsure exactly what kind. We might guess that she is some type of vampire based on the way she weakens near iron and wood (which might be used to make stakes to kill a vampire) and the fact that she is outdoors at night in a weakened state. She seems to thrive in darkness, so she is right at home in that dark castle. She also could be a witch, given her ability to cast spells and speak to spirits. We will never know exactly what Coleridge intended, but we can say that he used a third-person limited narrator to place suspicions in our minds. Thus, we are not taken in by Geraldine’s charms, though the characters are.