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,...
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