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 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...
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