The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Through a series of interpolated tales, Charles Robert Maturin presents the story of a man whose pact with Satan condemns him to live for nearly two centuries. John Melmoth, given supernatural powers that allow him to travel freely across the European continent, seeks to corrupt a number of individuals whose circumstances make them especially vulnerable to temptation. His efforts give him little solace.

The novel opens in 1816. John Melmoth, a young college student and namesake of the title character, returns to the family estate in Ireland to be with his uncle, who is dying. The uncle gives him a vague warning about the family history and leaves John instructions to destroy an old portrait. The young Melmoth discovers a manuscript written by a seventeenth century Englishman named Stanton, who reveals that the Wanderer offered him freedom from confinement in Bedlam mental hospital in exchange for his soul. Stanton refused, and the tale breaks off.

The evening he reads this tale, young Melmoth is visited by the Wanderer, who has come back to Ireland. Melmoth sees the Wanderer again the next evening, off the coast by his estate. Chasing after the strange figure, young Melmoth falls into the sea and is rescued by Alonzo Monçada, a Spaniard who has also encountered Melmoth the Wanderer.

Monçada relates to John Melmoth several tales that highlight the nature of the Wanderer and his special powers. In the first, the Spaniard tells his...

(The entire section is 580 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Spain. Charles Robert Maturin’s Spain is typically gothic, a bleak landscape of rough hillsides and poor and superstitious inhabitants lorded over by proud noblemen and hypocritical clergy. Several characters in the novel, including the titular character, traverse Spain; an English traveler tours the monasteries in Spain during the seventeenth century; Melmoth himself travels throughout Spain pursuing his unholy schemes; and a young Spanish lord travels throughout Spain trying to escape from incarceration in a monastery and from the dungeons of the Inquisition.

In each case, Spain figures as a place in which the characters are trapped by powers greater than themselves. For instance, the Spanish lord finds himself in the dungeons of the Inquisition, a setting that itself is highly attractive to writers of gothic literature. Narrating his characters through dark and terrifying prisons gives Maturin the opportunity to perpetuate a familiar English concept of Roman Catholicism. Many of the English gothic writers represented Roman Catholicism as a system of control, not of devotion. This novel gives this representation a highly powerful twist. The young Spaniard, for instance, is first locked in a monastery and is manipulated almost to the point of accepting religious vows. The monastery is at first presented as a place of peace and devotion. However, when he decides to refuse the forced vocation, the monastery becomes a place of imprisonment and torture. In one scene, set in the monastery, the Spaniard is subjected to psychological and physical torture.

Later, when he escapes the monastery with the aid of his younger brother, the Spaniard is pursued by the agents of the Inquisition and is eventually caught. Once again he escapes, this time...

(The entire section is 731 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Coughlan, Patricia. “The Recycling of Melmoth: A Very German Story.” In Literary Interrelations: Ireland, England, and the World, edited by Wolfgang Zach and Heinz Kosok. Vol 2. Tübingen, Germany: Narr, 1987. Demonstrates the imaginative impact of Melmoth the Wanderer on contemporary authors. Versions of the story by Honoré de Balzac and James Clarence Mangan are given a detailed analysis. Highlights some of the novel’s social and political implications.

Fowler, Kathleen. “Hieroglyphics in Fire: Melmoth the Wanderer.” Studies in Romanticism 25, no. 4 (Winter, 1986): 521-539. Focuses on the novel’s artistic methods and the relation between these methods and the novel’s religious preoccupations. Discusses the use of the Book of Job in Melmoth the Wanderer.

Kiely, Robert. The Romantic Novel in England. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972. A significant contribution to the study of genres of the novel. Includes a chapter on Melmoth the Wanderer, emphasizing its religious and political elements. The novel’s psychological interest and cultural implications are also assessed.

Kramer, Dale. Charles Robert Maturin. New York: Twayne, 1973. Succinct account of Maturin’s life and career, and an extended consideration of Melmoth the Wanderer. Discusses the novel’s folkloric dimension and the organizational principles governing the cohesiveness of the various tales.