Maturin’s story of temptation and agony is generally considered the last great novel in the gothic tradition, which was popular for more than a half century after the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764). The last complete novel Maturin published, it contains almost all the trappings of gothic fiction: foreboding settings, castles with hidden passageways and underground tunnels, a sinister villain, and suggestions of supernatural intervention.
Dominating the work, though not always in the forefront of the many stories that make up the novel, is the title character, a Faustian figure whose pact with the devil has given him an extended life—and extended misery. Unlike many villains in gothic fiction, however, the Wanderer is an exceedingly complex character. Although he is clearly evil and is committed to winning over souls for Satan, he is nevertheless capable of human sympathy and even of love, as revealed in his relationship with the maiden Immalee. Although their marriage ceremony is described as a Satanic ritual, Melmoth seems to waver in his determination to win over the young woman for the Prince of the Damned. He suffers genuine pangs of conscience over this relationship. Conscience is an unusual trait for a gothic villain, suggesting that Maturin was interested in producing more than a simple potboiler.
In Melmoth the Wanderer, Maturin aims at portraying ways evil invades the lives of men and women of all walks of life. Central to Maturin’s story is his strident attack on Catholicism. Driven to writing because a series of personal misfortunes took away his opportunities to make a living as a minister, Maturin nevertheless remained deeply concerned with what he considered the hedonist, corrupt practices of the Roman Catholic church. Setting a part of his tale in the period of the Spanish Inquisition, the author is able to highlight the most extreme depravity of a religion he found inimical to the practice of Christian faith. Although some readers may find these attacks offensive, the evil behavior of the monks who keep Alonzo from his family are important examples of ways humanity can pervert even its most sacred rituals and lifestyles. Further, the strong hint that Melmoth purchased some form of forbidden knowledge in exchange for his immortal soul places him in a tradition that extends backward to the great medieval portrayals of Faust and forward to the many demoniac manipulators that are the staples of fantasy literature.