Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 655
In A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794 Through Holland and the Western Frontier of Germany (1795), an account of a trip through Holland and Germany with her husband in 1794, Ann Radcliffe told of her trip up the Rhine River, where she encountered two Capuchins “as they walked along the shore, beneath the dark cliffs of Boppart, wrapt in the long black drapery of their order, and their heads shrouded in cowls, that half concealed their faces.” She saw them as “interesting figures in a picture, always gloomily sublime.” This vision is commonly believed to have inspired the character of Schedoni, one of the most sinister villains in the genre of the gothic novel. As in her other books, The Italian mingles the wild or idyllic beauty of nature with scenes of nightmare and terror.
The Italian is one of the most skillful and successful examples of the gothic novel, a literary genre whose aim is to astound, to terrify, and to thrill its readers. More controlled and convincing than her earlier The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Radcliffe’s novel is filled with such conventional gothic qualities as a highly melodramatic (and unlikely) plot set in the remote past, a minimal degree of character development, and a painstakingly developed setting and atmosphere.
The plot is a familiar one to readers of the gothic: A mysterious and black-hearted villain, Schedoni, plots against a beautiful damsel, Ellena, who spends most of the novel either imprisoned or in imminent danger of death, while her chivalrous and faithful lover, Vivaldi, struggles against incredible odds to rescue her. The character delineation is crude, and, predictably, the villainous monk Schedoni is much more fascinating than the somewhat vapid hero and heroine. The air of mystery and terror in the monk is strikingly described: “A habitual gloom and severity prevailed over the deep lines of his countenance; and his eyes were so piercing that they seemed to penetrate, at a single glance, into the hearts of men, and to read their most secret thoughts.”
Setting is crucial to The Italian. Here are gloomy monasteries, the dank dungeons of the Inquisition, and the dizzying precipices and crags of Abruzzo. There are also scenes of quiet but spine-tingling terror, as the one between Ellena and Schedoni on the deserted beach. Just as the evil characters are made even more menacing by their contrast to the good characters, the wild landscapes and brooding interiors are made more threatening by their contrast to the descriptions of Naples’s beauty at the beginning and the end of the novel.
The excesses and improbabilities of the lurid plot are tempered in a number of ways. Despite the manifold mysteries and hints of ghostly or demoniac forces pervading the work, nothing supernatural or magical actually occurs; unlike the events in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1765), for instance, there is ultimately a rational explanation for everything. Further, Radcliffe’s handling of suspense, mystery, dramatic pacing, and realistic detail and description is expert and gripping throughout. The author also shows a serious concern for the main gothic theme of man’s inhumanity to man, as seen, for instance, in Vivaldi’s outburst against the brutalities of the Inquisition: “Can this be in human nature!—Can such horrible perversion of right be permitted! Can man, who calls himself endowed with reason, and immeasurably superior to every other created being, argue himself into the commission of such horrible folly, such inveterate cruelty, as exceeds all the acts of the most irrational and ferocious brute . . . !”
Such novels as The Italian were adroitly satirized by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey (1818). Radcliffe’s novel, however, is significant not only for its literary qualities but also for the influence it had on such later writers as Sir Walter Scott, Charlotte Brontë, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, and Edgar Allan Poe, all of whom drew on mysterious, threatening gothic settings and atmospheres in many of their own works.