Charles Robert Maturin’s novel has been called by many literary scholars the greatest of the novels of terror that were so popular in English fiction during the early years of the nineteenth century. Other writers have admired and have been influenced by Melmoth the Wanderer, partly because of the striking qualities of the plot and partly because of the theme of the never-ending life that it describes. Among the admirers of the novel were Edgar Allan Poe, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Charles Baudelaire. Oscar Wilde, after being disgraced in the 1890’s, took for himself the name of Sebastian Melmoth, which combined the idea of the wanderer with that of the arrow-pierced saint.
Maturin said in the book’s preface that he was ashamed of appearing as a novelist, but that his profession as a clergyman did not pay him enough to avoid such shameful activities as writing novels. Although Maturin lamented the fact that he was forced to write Melmoth the Wanderer out of economic necessity (he was out of favor with the Church hierarchy, deeply in debt, and the sole support of eleven people), it will be a mistake to regard Melmoth the Wanderer simply as a potboiler written only for money. Even in the “unseemly character as a writer of romances,” Maturin remained the preacher, and this novel stands as a profound social, moral, and religious statement—perhaps even a fictionalized sermon.
Structurally, it is the most complex of the important gothic novels. It is actually a series of stories set one into another like a nest of Chinese boxes. In the frame story, young John Melmoth visits his dying uncle and inherits, among other things, a vague story about a demoniac ancestor, also named John Melmoth; a picture of the man; and a manuscript, “The Tale of Stanton,” which is the first of the novel’s stories. Then he takes in a shipwrecked Spaniard, Alonzo Moncada, who tells his story, “The Tale of the Spaniard,” in the center of which “The Tale of the Parricide” occurs. After recounting his own story, Moncada then retells “The Tale of the Indians,” a story given to him for translation by an old Jew. Two additional narratives, “The Tale of Guzman’s Family” and “The Tale of the Lover” are inserted within “The Tale of the Indians.” These finished, Melmoth himself then returns to conclude the novel by paying his debt to the power of darkness.
Although different in substance, each narrative contains similar thematic elements; each tale, except “The Tale of the Parricide,” climaxes at the point at which Melmoth intrudes upon the suffering victim and makes his diabolical offer. Maturin presents an elaborate theme and variation structure that continually develops and reinforces his ideas while tantalizing the reader with new and different shocks, torments, and sensations. The brooding presence of Melmoth is always in the background, moving in and out of the narratives; his story and fate are revealed in bits and pieces as the novel progresses.
The overriding thematic motif of the novel concerns the ways in which one’s greatest natural inclinations—to worship God and to love—are perverted and distorted by individual weaknesses and institutional corruption. Several other notions reinforce these major ideas: the effects of an unchecked thirst for knowledge, the nature of madness and its relationship to fanaticism, the saving power of love, the family as a moral unit, the line between love and hate, human isolation and alienation, and the relationship between money and happiness.
In “The Tale of Stanton,” Maturin introduces a number of these themes. Stanton is made vulnerable to Melmoth’s appeal because he, too, has...
(This entire section contains 1646 words.)
an insatiable curiosity about the forbidden. Fortunately for his soul, he rejects this side of himself when put to the test. As a result of his erratic behavior, Stanton also is made the victim of a familial betrayal when an unscrupulous relative has him committed to Bedlam—the first in a series of such betrayals. All of the stories involve either the destructive cruelties present in a bad family or the positive strengths of a good one.
In the madhouse scenes, Maturin begins his exploration of the moral and psychological nature of insanity that continues throughout the book. Although some of the inmates of the asylum are pure victims, most are fanatics who have simply pushed their religious or political proclivities to their logical conclusions. Maturin shows little sympathy for such madmen, although he recognizes that they differ from the rest of society only in being socially inconvenient; when madness is brought into socially acceptable institutions, Maturin suggests, it becomes not only tolerable but also dominant.
Maturin’s analysis of the perversion of the religious impulse and the corruption of institutionalized religion—especially Roman Catholicism in Spain—is developed most completely in “The Tale of the Spaniard.” Although anti-Catholicism, especially antimonasticism, had been a staple element of the gothic novel since Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796), Maturin’s treatment of the subject is probably the most intense and convincing, because he concentrates on the psychological damage of such institutional confinement rather than the more lurid and sensational accounts rendered by his contemporaries.
Under the rigid, arbitrary, artificial authority of such a life, all natural human capacities are stifled, the firmest faith is dissipated, the kindliest nature is thwarted, and the keenest intellect is stultified. The endlessly repetitious and absurd routine creates an ennui that is poisonous. Petty spite, gossip, and cruelty become the way of life. The smallest infractions of the silliest rules are treated as major crimes, and any person who exhibits the slightest trace of individualism becomes the monastery scapegoat.
The most blatant example of this institutional corruption can be seen in the parricide who is taken into the monastery in spite of, or because of, his criminal nature, and who works out his salvation by instigating the damnation of others. As a parricide, he represents the ultimate betrayal of the familial relationship; because, unlike Melmoth, he enjoys his deeds, he is the most extreme example of human evil. His sadism is the inevitable product of the social system he represents.
The extent of his diabolism and the most gothic scene in the novel is seen in the climax to his story. As he and Moncada wait huddled in the underground tunnel, he gleefully tells how he lured an errant couple into the same subterranean vault, nailed them in, and listened as, without food or water, their love turned to hate. It was on the fourth night that I heard the shriek of the wretched female—her lover, in the agony of hunger, had fastened his teeth in her shoulder—that bosom on which he had so often luxuriated, became a meal to him now.
Nowhere is Maturin’s theme of the perversion of the natural into the destructive presented with more gruesome clarity.
Although some of the individual scenes may be impressive, it is the central character of Melmoth that makes the novel memorable. He is, in many ways, the supreme gothic hero-villain. Melmoth is damned but, like Faustus, his damnation is not the product of an evil nature but of a questing spirit that simply cannot accept human limitations.
In “The Tale of the Indians,” Melmoth’s character is most clearly presented. The last two stories in the novel, “The Tale of Guzman’s Family” and “The Tale of the Lover,” add little to Melmoth’s saga and are the least gothic, most sentimental, and dramatically weakest in the book. In “The Tale of the Indians,” however, Melmoth himself assumes an active role and reveals truly human emotions. It is in this love affair between Melmoth and the native girl, Immalee, which resembles Goethe’s “Faust-Margaret” story, that Melmoth’s fate is actually decided: only the power of innocent love can save him from his chosen damnation—if he has the strength to accept it.
Since Immalee has grown up in an idyllic state of nature, she is ignorant of society’s corrupting influences. It is Melmoth who introduces her to human decadence, although he is ambivalent in his feelings toward her from the beginning. He is reluctant to tempt her consciously, and his teachings are more of a response to her eagerness than an attempt to ensnare her. For her part, Immalee’s spontaneous love for him causes her to desire further information about his world, even though this new knowledge proves painful. Therefore, Melmoth becomes the tormented lover as well as the Satanic tempter. He will love her, but he fears that such love will damn her also. So he alternately woos her and thrusts her away; he entices her and warns her against himself. In the end, he succumbs to his role as tempter, but not before he has struggled desperately with a soul that he no longer believes he possesses. When Melmoth makes his awful proposal to her, he is damned; because Immalee refuses, she is saved.
The central irony is that her love could have saved them both. There is no bargain with the devil that cannot be abrogated by love. Melmoth’s damnation comes, finally, not from his formal contract with Satan but from his disbelief in the power of the human spirit. Accepting the corruption he describes as the whole truth, he does not see the evidences of human worth around him: the love exhibited by the Walbergs in “The Tale of Guzman’s Family,” by Elinor Mortimer in “The Tale of the Lover,” and most of all, by Immalee.
As a result of his embracing evil, Melmoth’s condemnation is inevitable; but, because of his lost potential, it is tragic. Therefore, for all the sensationalism and crudity characteristic of the gothic novel, it contains the elements of classical tragedy. No writer of gothic romances came closer to realizing that possibility than Maturin in Melmoth the Wanderer.