Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 712

Acclaimed as the best-crafted novel by the most highly acclaimed romance novelist of her day, The Italian is a tale of revenge, remorse, and reversals in addition to being a gothicized sentimental story of true love. Schedoni, the villainous monk, is the most imposing character in all Ann Radcliffe’s work...

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Acclaimed as the best-crafted novel by the most highly acclaimed romance novelist of her day, The Italian is a tale of revenge, remorse, and reversals in addition to being a gothicized sentimental story of true love. Schedoni, the villainous monk, is the most imposing character in all Ann Radcliffe’s work and the only one continuously praised as a masterwork in the art of characterization in the gothic genre. It has been said that he is the prototype of the Byronic hero. In a sense, The Italian is Schedoni’s story because he is the character drawn with the greatest psychological complexity: He is the one who moves the action of the story and who undergoes significant change. In fact, he experiences a kind of illumination—or at least thinks he does when he sees the picture of himself in Ellena’s necklace and knows it to be himself in his former days, before he was guilty of rape and fratricide. Radcliffe’s development of the character of Schedoni makes The Italian unique among her works as well as among other horror gothics; here, the characterization creates the gothicism to a greater extent than does even the stock gothic paraphernalia.

Nothing supernatural happens in The Italian, so nothing needs to be explained away. Gothic effects derive from the specter of murder looming over the narrative and the instruments of murder, such as the gleaming dagger of Schedoni and the rack of the Inquisition, and from the motif of mysterious Catholicism, specifically, the Inquisition as a force as unreasonable to deal with as the supernatural. The Inquisition, in essence, becomes Schedoni’s antagonist, a force against which he cannot fight. Because he has contrived to have Vivaldi arrested by the Inquisition, he has woven a web for himself which even he cannot undo. It is ironic that he has earlier had Ellena arrested for pretending to be a nun, because he will have to face the Inquisition on charges of what amounts to impersonating a monk.

Radcliffe’s moral and aesthetic goal in writing The Italian was most likely to write a corrective to the base vulgarity of Matthew Gregory Lewis’ The Monk (1796), a novel which represents the pinnacle of depraved eighteenth century horror fiction, containing debased and debauched sexuality, matricide, and Satanism. Although it may seem that Ellena’s constant flight from the threat of murder constitutes a criminal, twisted, gothic situation, it seems normal when compared to the world of Lewis’ monk Ambrosio, who rapes his sister on a pile of rotting corpses.

The romance of the lovers was pleasantly familiar to the eighteenth century audience. Vivaldi is the hero of significant sensibilities who adores and weeps, although he is capable of outbursts of aggressive emotion. Ellena, like Emily in Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), is significantly affected by the sublime forms of nature, which lead her to a contemplation of the goodness of the Deity. She weeps and faints, but she always recovers and rises to the task before her, which is usually that of escaping from the imminent threat of death.

Scenery plays its part in showing the relative moral worth of the characters: Ellena can almost always be inspired, or at least be affected by, images in nature—Schedoni, never. Also, the whole of the novel is covered over with half-light, daylight serving only as its contrast. As in all Radcliffe’s work, the picturesque plays a significant role, with the poetry of Thomas Gray and James Thomson and the paintings of Salvator Rosa, Claude Lorrain, and Nicolas Poussin providing the inspiration for the imagery that becomes the backdrop against which the story unfolds.

The world of The Italian is one in which the innocent young lovers are confined, controlled, and threatened with murder by parental and religious forces, which are actually forces of evil motivated by avarice and pride. The goal of this sentimental heroine and hero is to escape the subterranean gothic world, which is as loaded with terrifying surprises as an abandoned mine field, and to emerge into the light of day with its promise for the future. Schedoni poisons himself, the Marchese condones the marriage, and at the wedding celebration, Vivaldi’s faithful servant Paolo exclaims, “O! giorno felíce!” (Oh, happy day!).

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Critical Evaluation