Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 322

Although best known for his historical romance, THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII, Edward Bulwer-Lytton achieved literary prominence in a variety of forms. His account of English manners, ENGLAND AND THE ENGLISH (1833), and his account of English dandyism, PELHAM (1828), have gained an increasing number of appreciative readers. Bulwer-Lytton stressed sensationalism in his romances in order to win readers away from Walter Scott’s historical novels, but his own historical objectivity and almost clinical fascination with all kinds of psychological aberrations acted as a corrective to the vulgarizing tendencies of his lurid plots and occult themes.

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In writing THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII, Bulwer-Lytton carefully examined the ancient site and read closely in recent studies of antiquity as well as in the works of Pliny, the diarist; Vitruvius, the architect; and Strabo, the geographer. Similarly, when writing EUGENE ARAM, Bulwer-Lytton had access not only to the public records of the actual crime and trial but also could rely on his own family’s association with the historical Aram. The Eugene Aram of real life had been engaged by Bulwer-Lytton’s grandfather as an occasional tutor to his daughters. Bulwer-Lytton also established contact with Admiral Burney, who as a schoolboy had known Aram. The whole account of Aram’s relations with the Lester family in the novel was taken “word for word, fact for fact,” from Burney’s notes.

Bulwer-Lytton was intrigued by the opportunity of telling a story about a highly abnormal personality (Eugene Aram, the idealist scholar who could rationalize the act of murder; an anticipation of Dostoevski’s Raskolnikov in CRIME AND PUNISHMENT) based almost entirely on actual records. Bulwer-Lytton discovered the “dandy” as a literary type, and it is a short distance from social hedonism to a metaphysics of psychological superiority. Pelham and Eugene Aram, although such opposites in personality and character, provide a fascinating paradigm for the later theories of Oscar Wilde and Nietzsche on the superior or super man.

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