Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Melmoth the Wanderer is a classic of the gothic fiction genre, written by Charles Maturin and published in 1820. The titular character has made a pact with the Devil to win the Devil more souls in exchange for an extension to his (Melmoth’s) life. One of the principal themes of the novel is thus the mutability of evil, expressed through the unusual structure of stories nested within stories. A large part of the novel’s uncanny appeal comes from this Russian doll–like approach—at the center of every story we find Melmoth once again, a mortal stand-in for Satan himself. Melmoth tells stories to manipulate those around him into doing what he wants, in spite of the fact that this is always against their best interest. Melmoth is a shapeshifter capable of molding others’ perceptions of him to meet their own desires, and thus his amorality is shown to be the essence of evil. The ability to shift the source of evil from Satan to Melmoth to those bewitched by him is a hallmark of the tale, suggesting a truly godless universe (a typical preoccupation of gothic horror). This merciless viewpoint is aptly represented by the following quotation:
There is no error more absurd, and yet more rooted in the heart of man, than the belief that his sufferings will promote his spiritual safety.
This blasphemous view chimes with the narrative denouement, as Melmoth both causes others to suffer horribly and meets a ghastly fate at Satan’s hands (in spite of his own suffering through most of his ultimately undesirably long life) at the climax of the story.
Another theme which permeates the novel is family ties and inheritance. The story begins with John Melmoth learning of his mysterious ancestor while visiting his dying uncle. Throughout the novel, family ties are seriously threatened by Melmoth, as when as he kills Isidora’s brother and interferes with her father’s plans to marry her to another man. Guzman’s family seem near to meeting a terrible fate at Walburg’s hands, but they are saved just in time by money—strangely, when it turns out that the will leaving all Guzman’s money to the church was not the true will. (This suspicious little tale, sharing the Satanic bent of Melmoth, posits the church as a source of evil and counterposes money, which religion has always railed against as evil, as savior.) This story also repeats the theme of deception and trickery, here nearly causing familicide by virtue of a forged will. We also find the scholar Adonijah living in a chamber decorated with the skeletons of his family, disrupting Christian traditions around burial and implying an excessive, unnatural familiarity with death. The novel suggests that family ties are impossible to escape, both beyond the grave and beyond personal choice or morality.