Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 494
The novella Nightmare Abbey is a piece of Gothic literature written as an attempt to mock the conventions in writing that were popular in Peacock's time. Because of this, it has clear themes and an exaggerated plot that serve to parody the Romantic literature that was prevalent in the early nineteenth century.
The Parody of the Melancholy Hero
Gothic literature was typified by the inclusion of melancholy or macabre elements, especially in the disposition of its heroes. Nightmare Abbey exaggerates this convention to the point of absurdity. For example, there are characters with names like Raven and Deathshead, whom Mr. Glowry employs in order to utterly immerse himself in a world of despondency. This strange predilection not only illustrates a complete obsession with the appearance of (or appearing to be) melancholy but is also completely absurd—as the names of servants have no real impact on the disposition of their master. Thus the oversaturation of the idea of melancholy reaches such a high degree in this novella that the subject becomes ridiculous and darkly humorous.
The Irony of Misanthropy
Central to the events of the novella is a pervasive kind of misanthropy, which is also characteristic of Gothic literature. For example, there is the poet Mr. Cypress, whose poetry revolves mainly around his distaste for humanity and all of its negative attributes. Furthermore, when the main character, Scythrop, decides to write a treatise on how to save the human race, it largely revolves around changing it completely or placing it under the absolute control of the Illuminati.
These characters reject the idea of inherent good in humanity and are utterly convinced that they know how the state of humanity can be righted. This, however, reveals the central irony—that, in perceiving an evil in humanity and wishing to change it, these characters have rejected participation in humanity and are therefore unable to enact the changes they wish to see. Thus the idea of misanthropy is tempered in the novella by the idea that these characters' withdrawal from humanity has only served to distance them from material reality and has allowed their warped perspectives on existence to grow more extreme.
The Discourse Required by Philosophy
Nightmare Abbey employs and revolves around a great deal of moral philosophy. It was common in most Gothic novels for characters to read or espouse different schools of moral or social philosophy, and Peacock also centralizes these discussions in his work. Characters ranging from preachers to fish scientists dole out philosophies regarding the nature of ethics. While there is a satirical element to these characters, Peacock is also making a case for the constant critical discourse of philosophical ideas, as the characters meet and discuss ideas about the nature of existence that are both ancient and contemporary. Any philosophical idea may be tenable in the mind of a misanthrope, but it is only when it comes into tension with conflicting philosophies through discussions with other characters that these ideas can be truly tested.