Critical Evaluation

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 787

Illustration of PDF document

Download The Devil's Elixirs Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The Devil’s Elixirs is modeled on Matthew Gregory Lewis’s classic gothic novel The Monk (1796), which the character Aurelia reads. Like Lewis, E. T. A. Hoffmann employs a monk as a central character in order to emphasize the sharp difference that might exist between the image that one presents to the world, in speech and public behavior, and the inner self of one’s fantasies, desires, and impulses. Lewis’s Ambrosio is, however, a monster of calculated hypocrisy whose embarkation upon a career of sin, although doubtless unwise, is the result of a conscious decision; the situation of Hoffmann’s Medardus is more confused.

Medardus’s confusion is communicated to the text that tells his story, which becomes inordinately convoluted. Attempts to say what happens in the story are bound to fail. The linear plot of The Monk is much easier to follow—Ambrosio is drawn inexorably to his damnation. The plot might be deemed unsatisfactory on precisely that account. When one becomes aware of the conflicts that exist between one’s social self and one’s inner self, those conflicts are often confused, and it really is not clear exactly how much control one’s powers of conscious reason have over the anarchic thrust of one’s appetites and emotions. It never is clear, even to those who commit horrible crimes, to what extent they were driven by forces outside their control. In admitting that the business of submitting to temptation is dreadfully confused, Hoffmann offers the reader an account of an inner life that, however luridly it may be supernaturalized, is psychologically accurate. It is possible to pity Medardus.

The double is a central motif in gothic fiction, particularly that of Germany. The German word frequently applied to the motif, doppelgänger, figures in a popular saying whose literal translation is: “He who sees his going double must go himself,” that is, die. The double of gothic fiction carries an implicit threat of impending death. In most stories involving doubles—of which the most famous American example is Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson”—the double becomes an externalized projection of the inner self, and takes into the social arena all the impulses and designs that must be eliminated from the social self in order to preserve the harmony of social relationships. Such “escapes” of the inner self inevitably cause embarrassment to the social self, whose falsity stands revealed.

Medardus’s double is the libertine aristocrat Victorin, the man Medardus might have become had he not been led by the ridicule of a gaggle of teasing girls to suppress his sexuality and take holy orders. Medardus thinks that Victorin has been destroyed, but he has not; he is merely submerged within Medardus’s personality, ready to resurface when the conditions are right. What Medardus tries to construe as an altogether proper regard for an image of St. Rosalia eventually reveals itself as sexual attraction. St. Anthony might have been able to rise above such temptations—as symbolized by the Satanic elixir—but Medardus is not. He tries to find a way back from his commitment to celibacy, following St. Paul’s advice that it is “better to marry than to burn.” Alas, his secret desires are no more tolerant of the prospect of monogamy than they are of the prospect of celibacy; instead of being the instrument of his salvation, Aurelia becomes one more aspect of his confusion.

In the end, Aurelia’s removal by the angry double permits Medardus a brief interval of peace. He is reassured by her dead body that he—that is, his social self—will be able to enjoy an untroubled union with her in heaven (a place from which unruly inner selves are banned). His own account of his tribulations, given in a written confession that is of necessity the product of his conscious, rational self, ends on a very hopeful note. The appendix added by Father Spiridion seems to tell a different tale, although Spiridion does not realize it: The reader will almost certainly conclude that the “horrible voice” that summons Medardus to his fate is that of the devil.

In concluding the story thus, Hoffmann perhaps sides with those who think that if a Last Judgment occurs, then people must answer for their secret thoughts and desires as well as their public speeches and actions. On the other hand, Hoffmann has piled layers of confusion so thickly upon his plot by making Spiridion as unreliable a narrator as Medardus that one hesitates to accept this idea as final. Perhaps the ending is to be read as a calculated ambiguity, signifying a genuine uncertainty as to where the limits of personal responsibility lie—or ought to lie.