Analysis

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Last Updated on September 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 480

Nightmare Abbey, written in the early 1800s, is a satire of the conventions of Gothic novels as well as the Romantic movement in general. The character of Scythrop, who was named after an ancestor who killed himself out of boredom, is based on Thomas Love Peacock's good friend Percy Bysshe...

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Nightmare Abbey, written in the early 1800s, is a satire of the conventions of Gothic novels as well as the Romantic movement in general. The character of Scythrop, who was named after an ancestor who killed himself out of boredom, is based on Thomas Love Peacock's good friend Percy Bysshe Shelley. Scythrop shares several key traits with the young Romantic writer; his work dwells on obscure subjects, and he spends his life in pursuit of romance, much like a Byronic hero. (Shelley, far from being offended by his friend's caricature, loved the portrait that Peacock painted of him. In fact, Shelley later named a tower—where he wrote the poem "The Cenci"—Scythrop's Tower.)

Moreover, the poet Mr. Flosky is generally believed to be a satirical representation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge; Mr. Flosky shares poetic idiosyncrasies with Coleridge as well as his personal philosophies and habits. By evoking these caricatures of famous figures in the Romantic movement, Peacock situates his work in relation to the minds that typified the genre that he is satirizing.

Central to Peacock's treatment of Romantic and Gothic ideals is the centrality of philosophical discourse in the novella. The characters discuss art, literature, history, and politics, and in one scene, Mr. Flosky discusses the nature of art and the artist and how truth is something that can be sought but not found. This is a central tenet of Romanticism, which was in part reactionary to the optimism of the Enlightenment—characterized by the belief in humanity's perfectibility and the ability to attain empirical truth.

Flosky explains that the mind, rather than accepting the tenets of Enlightenment, fled to the conventions of Romanticism—which was typified by the inscrutability of truth as evident in the workings of the natural and supernatural world. Flosky argues that the imagination is thus proven to be drawn to the darkest part of human nature. These discussions of the nature of truth and of the workings of the human mind can be seen as Peacock's evocation of contemporary philosophy in the early nineteenth century, and Nightmare Abbey thus becomes a backdrop for both explicit and implicit discourse on these ideas.

By pointedly evoking popular literary figures through his characters and placing them in constant philosophical dialogue, Peacock invites his reader to critically examine the doctrines that they espouse by situating these discussions in relation to material reality. For instance, while Flosky wholeheartedly sustains his belief in the supernatural, the novel itself disperses the fear of supernatural elements. The characters become convinced that there is a ghost in the abbey, but this figure is later revealed to be nothing more than a sleepwalking servant. Thus, Peacock uses his satire of Gothic tropes and Romantic ideals to call out the contrast between these literary conventions and the material reality of the world (and the absurdity that arises when one is applied to the other).

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 653

Nightmare Abbey

Nightmare Abbey. Dilapidated mansion in England’s Lincolnshire County; a former monastery whose state of sad disrepair reflects the plight of its residents, the deeply dysfunctional Glowry family. The house is not far from the sea, being separated therefrom by a tract of low-lying fenland dotted with windmills.

There is nothing unrealistic about an early nineteenth century English family living in what once had been an abbey; many English religious houses became secular residences following King Henry VIII’s dissolution of England’s Roman Catholic monasteries in the sixteenth century. The abbey’s address reveals something about the Glowry family’s problematic social status—they are products of social upheavals that were still considered recent by the English landed aristocracy—but its real significance is that Nightmare Abbey is symbolic of a nation and a world whose secularization has left it uncomfortable and desolate. The road that connects the abbey to the nearest town, Claydyke, is a narrow causeway raised above the fen, from which carriages are all too easily dislodged.

The abbey itself is square in shape, its four walls facing the four points of the compass. It has a tower at each corner, and is surrounded on every side but the south by a moat. The northwestern tower is the domain of Christopher Glowry, the abbey’s owner. The southeastern tower, which is home to Christopher’s son, Scythrop, opens up onto a terrace which is called the garden, but nothing grows there except weeds. The abbey’s southwestern tower is in ruins, inhabited only by owls. The northeastern tower houses the servants, who have all been chosen for the lugubrious quality of their names and faces. The main body of the building contains numerous reception rooms, dining rooms, and guest bedrooms, all of which are underused. The rare guests entertained there are well fitted to the surroundings, especially the connoisseur of the macabre, Mr. Flosky, and the Manichean Millenarian, Mr. Toobad.

Scythrop Glowry longs to transform this doom-laden scenery with the aid of “transcendental technology,” but his father is a considerable obstacle to this ambition, as is the place itself—whose distinctive atmosphere is explicitly identified in chapter 9 as “the spirit of black melancholy.” Scythrop’s cause is not greatly advanced by his romantic association with his formidable cousin Marionetta O’Carroll. When he secretly offers sanctuary to the mysterious Stella—who is briefly mistaken for a mermaid by the ichthyologist Mr. Asterias—the life-enhancing presence that gradually begins to transform his apartments soon turns out to have been an illusion. Fortunately or unfortunately, he is saved from the necessity of marrying either woman, and is thus liberated to return his full attention to his progressive plans for the regeneration of Nightmare Abbey—and hence, symbolically if not actually, the redemption of human nature.

At the end of the novel, Scythrop is still alone in his dreary tower, having failed to make the least material difference to his surroundings—which strongly suggests that readers should not be optimistic about the future reconstruction of Nightmare Abbey.

*London

*London. Great Britain’s capital city is not featured as a setting in the novel; however, there are repeated references to it in the text. For example, when Christopher Glowry is absent from the abbey, it is because he has gone to London, and it is from London that most of the guests featured in the story have come. There, London is not an opposite extreme of English life, to be contrasted with the lonely abbey, but a macrocosm symbolically embodied in the microcosm of the abbey: the same collation of nightmares, writ slightly larger. The city offers no possibility of escape, to either the complacently gloomy Christopher or his ambitiously disaffected son. If any salvation is to be found, it has to begin within the abbey’s nightmarish heart and grow outward; the causeway to Claydyke is no highway to Heaven.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 225

Butler, Marilyn. Peacock Displayed: A Satirist in His Context. London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1979. Makes Nightmare Abbey a focal point, positing that as finely drawn as the gentlemen characters are (all of whom are satirically based on real-life personages), the novel is actually the story of two women, Marionetta and Celinda/Stella.

Cunningham, Mark. “‘Fatout! Who Am I?’ A Model for the Honourable Mr. Listless in Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey.” English Language Notes 30, no. 1 (September, 1992): 43-45. Discusses the possibility of who may have been the model for the character of Mr. Listless, who spends whole days on a sofa in perfected ennui.

Schwank, Klaus. “From Satire to Indeterminacy: Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey.” In Beyond the Suburbs of the Mind: Exploring English Romanticism, edited by Michael Gassenmeier and Norbert H. Platz. Essen, Germany: Blaue Eule, 1987. Discusses the effectiveness of Peacock’s satire, placing Peacock’s novel in a category of works that defy satire.

Wolf, Leonard. “Nightmare Abbey.” Horror: A Connoisseur’s Guide to Literature and Film. New York: Facts On File, 1989. Compares Peacock’s satirical verse as a precursor to Oscar Wilde’s similar style.

Wright, Julia M. “Peacock’s Early Parody of Thomas Moore in Nightmare Abbey.” English Language Notes 30, no. 4 (June, 1993): 31-38. Discusses Peacock’s use of Thomas Moore as, possibly, a template for a character in Nightmare Abbey.

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