Representations of the Devil in Nineteenth-Century Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Representations of the Devil in Nineteenth-Century Literature


Representations of the Devil in Nineteenth-Century Literature

Known by a variety of names—Satan, Lucifer, Mephistopheles—the Devil remains one of the most intriguing and ubiquitous figures in western literature, with such literary luminaries as Dante, Milton, and Goethe finding in him the perfect personification of the human impulse toward evil. Since the advent of the Bible, the Devil has existed as the quintessential adversary, and the ultimate antithesis to goodness and morality. In the Medieval era, the Devil evolved from a relatively minor role in Holy Scripture to a dominant figure in the didactic mystery and morality plays of the day. During the Reformation and Renaissance, Luciferian figures continued to be abstracted and allegorized in literature, that is until the publication of John Milton's Paradise Lost in 1667. In the poem Milton drew a dynamic and supremely defiant Satan, whom subsequent interpreters would sometimes view as the epic's subversive protagonist. Meanwhile, in the eighteenth-century, the rising tide of Enlightenment rationalism prompted a decline in literary representations of Satan, with many considering the Devil as an inappropriate subject even of mockery or satire. All of this began to change by the end of the century and the new vogue of the Gothic novel in England. Writers, typified by Matthew Gregory Lewis in his popular Ambrosio the Monk (1796), seized upon Satan as a principal source of supernatural horror, creating a mania for spine-tingling terror among readers.

Also in England during the last decade of the eighteenth century, the nascent Romantic movement, led by William Blake, was about to embark upon a philosophical and poetic reinterpretation of the Devil. Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-1793) provided the groundwork for a reevaluation of Satan by figuring the Devil once again in Miltonic terms as an intractable and energetic individual who stood in opposition to an autocratic God. Miltonic and Blakean interpretations of Satan were furthered by Percy Bysshe Shelly and Lord Byron, poets who by the early nineteenth century had made the Devil into a representative icon of the Romantic movement. Rather than simply a symbol of pure evil, the Romantic Satan appeared as an embodiment of vitality, strength, boldness, and political and cultural rebellion. Indeed, the Romantics sought to treat the Devil as a tragic or heroic figure worthy of pathos, thereby inaugurating the tradition of the Promethean Satan, an indefatigable rebel, long since abused by the oppression of Heaven. This literal denunciation of Biblical morality did not sit well with numerous conservative commentators, including the outspoken poet and critic Robert Southey. Southey's vehement public attacks in print on Byron's atheism culminated in his suggestion that the Romantic poets should more accurately be dubbed the ‘Satanic School’—a term of derision that only added to the popular myths surrounding the literary personas of both Byron and Shelley. Consequently, the process of extolling the Satanic in verse continued; later in the century, the Symbolists Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud would choose to emphasize the dark, seductive power of the Devil indirectly in their poetry.

Another more traditional development in modern interpretations of the Devil had also begun by the early nineteenth-century with the appearance of the first part of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's drama Faust in 1808. The Faust-myth, a venerable legend drawn from Germanic folklore, treats an integral theme within diabolical literature, that of the devil-compact. In a prototypical deal with the Devil, the legendary Faust, often depicted as a sorcerer, offered up his soul in exchange for otherworldly pleasure and power. Goethe adjusted the story somewhat so that his Faust instead desired limitless knowledge, and, because his intentions were not purely selfish or evil, he was able to circumvent his contract with Mephistopheles and prevent his soul from being cast into hell. This subject of a mortal being who enters into a compact with the Devil became a common one in nineteenth-century American fiction. Washington Irving, in his story “The Devil and Tom Walker” (1824), employed the theme, and critics recognize Faustian elements in many of the tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Mark Twain, additionally, evoked folklore interpretations of the Devil in his satiric novel The Mysterious Stranger (1916), while numerous other examples of the formula appeared in popular fiction.

With the notable exception of Goethe, nineteenth-century European writers generally offered a more symbolic representation of Satan than their American counterparts. A tattered devil inhabits the dreams of Ivan Karamazov in Feodor Dostoevsky's novel Brat'ya Karamzovy (1880; The Brothers Karamazov). Ivan's devil exists as a slovenly, down-on-his-luck figure whom critics have viewed as both a manifestation of philosophical evil and a type of the late nineteenth-century Russian atheist. Nikolai Gogol presents an at once sardonic and metaphorical view of the Devil in human form as Chichikov, the unscrupulous gatherer of the dead in his Mertvye dushi (1842; Dead Souls). Such diabolical incarnations in literature as Gogol's additionally represent an important segment of fictional treatments of the Devil in human form, in a varied tradition that stretches from Medieval romance to the modern novel.

Representative Works

Honoré de Balzac
Le centenaire; ou, les deux Beringheld (novel) 1822
Melmoth réconcilié (novel) 1835

Charles Baudelaire
Les Fleurs du mal [Flowers of Evil] (poetry) 1857

William Blake
Marriage of Heaven and Hell (poetry) 1790-1793
Milton (poetry) 1800-1804

Robert Burns
“Address to the Deil” (poetry) 1785

Lord George Gordon Byron
Manfred (verse drama) 1817
Cain: A Mystery (verse drama) 1821
The Deformed Transformed (unfinished verse drama) 1822

Giosue Carducci
Inno a Satana (poetry) 1865

Marie Corelli
The Sorrows of Satan (novel) 1895

Feodor Dostoevsky
Brat'ya Karamzovy [The Brothers Karamazov] (novel) 1880

Théophile Gautier
Albertus (poetry) 1832
La larme du diable (poetry) 1839

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Faust. 2 vols. (drama) 1808-1832

Nikolai Gogol
Mertvye dushi [Dead Souls] (novel) 1842

Nathaniel Hawthorne
“Young Goodman Brown” (short story) 1837

Victor Hugo
Le fin de Satan (poetry) 1886

Washington Irving
“The Devil and Tom Walker” (short story) 1824

Frederick Maximilian Klinger
Fausts Leben, Taten und Höllenfahrt (novel) 1791

Mikhail Lermontov
Demon (poetry) 1856

Matthew Gregory Lewis
Ambrosio the Monk (novel) 1796

Leconte de Lisle
“La tristesse du Diable” (poetry) 1866

Charles Robert Maturin
Melmoth the Wanderer (novel) 1820

Gérard de Nerval
Nicolas Flamel (drama) 1830
Le Prince de sots (drama) 1830

Charles Nodier
Le nouveau Faust et la nouvelle Marguerite; ou, comment je me suis donné au Diable (drama) 1832
“La combe de l'homme mort” (short story) 1833

Frederick Beecher Perkins
“The Devil-Puzzlers” (short story) 1871

Arthur Rimbaud
Une saison en enfers [A Season in Hell] (poetry) 1873

Sir Walter Scott
“Wandering Willie's Tale” (short story) 1824

Percy Bysshe Shelley
The Cenci (verse drama) 1819
On the Devil, and Devils (essay) 1819*

William Gilmore Simms
Paddy McGann; or, the Demon of the Stump (novel) 1863

William Makepeace Thackeray
“The Devil's Wager” (short story) 1833
“The Painter's Bargain” (short story) 1840

Mark Twain
The Mysterious Stranger, a Romance (novel) 1916

Paul Verlaine
“Crimen Amoris” (poetry) 1873

Alfred de Vigny
Eloa (poetry) 1823

*Likely date of composition.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Maximilian Rudwin (essay date 1931)

SOURCE: “The Salvation of Satan in Modern Poetry,” in The Devil in Legend and Literature, AMS Press, 1970, pp. 280-308.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1931, Rudwin considers the sympathetic portrayal of Satan in nineteenth-century poetry.]

The reversal of poetic judgment with regard to the Devil is among the most striking characteristics of the modern period. The popular medieval conception degraded Diabolus from the former high potentate of paradise to a powerless and ludicrous personage, who served our ancestors as the butt of such laughter as still rings across the ages. The modern period, on the other hand, has clothed the Devil with the...

(The entire section is 11439 words.)

Hannes Vatter (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “Romantic Satanism: Blake, the Gothic Novel, Shelley and Byron,” in The Devil in English Literature, Francke Verlag, 1978, pp. 148-78.

[In the following essay, Vatter surveys figures bearing qualities of the Miltonic Satan in the writings of English Romantic poets and Gothic novelists.]

The first step towards a freer development of the devil figure had been made, as we have seen, with the abandonment of Biblical subject matter in the first Moralities. A next, and more decisive step could be taken when the dogmatical tenets of theology were no longer accepted as binding and unquestionable realities. The Age of Reason, itself hostile to Satanism—who would...

(The entire section is 11112 words.)

Criticism: The Devil In American Fiction

Robert Bush (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: “Paddy McGann, William Gilmore Simm's Devil Story,” in Bulletin of the New York Public Library, Vol. 69, No. 3, March, 1965, pp. 197-204.

[In the following essay, Bush explicates Paddy McGann, a picaresque dialect novel that features a comical and symbolic representation of the Devil.]

William Gilmore Simms's most notable wartime publication, Paddy McGann; or, The Demon of the Stump, was published in 1863 in a Richmond weekly, The Southern Illustrated News. The novel has never been published in book form, probably because of the element of Southern patriotism that Simms included in it. There is elation over the Confederate...

(The entire section is 3615 words.)

Charles G. Zug III (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: “The Construction of ‘The Devil and Tom Walker’: A Study of Irving's Later Use of Folklore,” in New York Folklore, Vol. 24, No. 4, December, 1968, pp. 243-60.

[In the following essay, Zug traces folklore elements in Washington Irving's “The Devil and Tom Walker,” viewing the story as a masterful blending of German and American folk motifs.]

Although it is unquestionably one of Washington Irving's finest tales, “The Devil and Tom Walker” has never attracted much critical attention. First published in 1824 in Part IV of Tales of a Traveller, the tale recounts the fate of an avaricious New Englander, who sells his soul to the Devil in return...

(The entire section is 5751 words.)

William Bysshe Stein (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: “The Devils of Hawthorne's Faust Myth,” in Hawthorne's Faust: A Study of the Devil Archetype, Archon Books, 1968, pp. 67-86.

[In the following essay, Stein investigates Nathaniel Hawthorne's use of the Faustian myth in his short stories to examine man's ability to profit morally from an encounter with evil.]

With renewed sincerity Hawthorne declares in Twice-Told Tales that the achetypal covenant with the devil most persuasively symbolizes the enigma of human destiny.1 This statement occurs in “The Haunted Mind,” a narrative that defines the creative patterns of Hawthorne's imagination. In a few words he unbosoms the secret inspiration...

(The entire section is 7267 words.)

James L. Williamson (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “‘Young Goodman Brown’: Hawthorne's ‘Devil in Manuscript,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 18, No. 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 155-62.

[In the following essay, Williamson studies multiple devil figures in Nathaniel Hawthorne's satirical tale “Young Goodman Brown.”]

When Hawthorne commented on the vocation of authorship, he was often drawn to analogies between writing and damnation. “… authors,” he wrote with tongue-in-cheek in 1821, “are always poor devils, and therefore Satan may take them.”1 The pun is on “devil,” which can mean a literary hack; and the meaning is clear: to write conventionally and without integrity is to...

(The entire section is 4077 words.)

Terence J. Matheson (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “The Devil and Philip Traum: Twain's Satiric Purposes in The Mysterious Stranger,” in Markham Review, Vol. 12, Fall, 1982, pp. 5-11.

[In the following essay, Matheson concentrates on Mark Twain's ironic treatment of Satan in The Mysterious Stranger.]

It is now generally known that the version of Mark Twain's The Mysterious Stranger familiar to most readers is the product of considerable editorial liberties taken by the author's literary executor, Albert Bigelow Paine, and his publisher Frederick A. Duneka, who worked extensively on Twain's unfinished manuscripts in order to create a marketable product. Paine and Duneka, it has been...

(The entire section is 6102 words.)

Criticism: English Romanticism: The Satanic School

Charles E. Robinson (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: “The Devil as Doppelgänger in The Deformed Transformed: The Sources and Meaning of Byron's Unfinished Drama,” in Bulletin of the New York Public Library, Vol. 74, No. 3, March, 1970, pp. 177-202.

[In the following essay, Robinson probes the Faustian and other sources and thematic implications of the diabolical double in Lord Byron's The Deformed Transformed.]

Byron's The Deformed Transformed is a complex, fragmentary, and uneven drama which has received little critical attention and less praise since its publication in 1824; yet the potential effect of this drama prompted Montague Summers in an unguarded moment to express “infinite...

(The entire section is 11441 words.)

Ross Woodman (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “Milton's Satan in Wordsworth's ‘Vale of Soul-making,’” in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring, 1984, pp. 3-30.

[In the following essay, Woodman discusses subtle echoes of the Miltonic Satan in William Wordsworth's poetry.]

By our own spirits are we deified:
We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;
But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.

(“Resolution and Independence.” ll. 47-49)


In several of Wordsworth's lyrics, “We Are Seven” and “Anecdote For Fathers” among them, an adult narrator confronts a small child and, like the “homely Nurse”1 of the...

(The entire section is 10914 words.)

William D. Brewer (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “The Diabolical Discourse of Byron and Shelley,” in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 47-65.

[In the following essay, Brewer asserts that a complimentary interest in Satan as a literary presence inspired a number of the great poetic works of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley.]


Shelley's praise of Byron's Cain was immediate and enthusiastic. In a 12 January 1822 letter to John Gisborne, he asked: “What think you of Lord Byron now? Space wondered less at the swift and fair creations of God, when he grew weary of vacancy, than I at the late works of this spirit of an angel in the mortal paradise of a...

(The entire section is 6647 words.)

Peter A. Schock (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “The ‘Satanism’ of Cain in Context: Byron's Lucifer and the War Against Blasphemy,” in Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. 44, 1995, pp. 182-215.

[In the following essay, Schock views Lucifer in Lord Byron's Cain as an ambiguous figure—at once both “the traditional tempter” and “the Promethean metaphysical rebel”—and discusses Byron's purposes in manipulating the Satanic myth.]

In Cain: A Mystery (1821), Byron offers the reader the enigma of his Lucifer, a demonic figure who oscillates between traditional diabolism and all that is implied by “Romantic Satanism.” On the one hand, Byron seems to introduce a conventional if...

(The entire section is 13438 words.)

Criticism: Luciferian Discourse In European Literature

Nicolae Babuts (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “Hugo's La fin de Satan: The Identity Shift,” in Symposium, Vol. 35, No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp. 91-101.

[In the following essay, Babuts analyzes Victor Hugo's imaginative identification with the demonic protagonist of his La fin de Satan.]

Many critics approach La Fin de Satan with the growing realization that there are striking similarities between Satan and the poet, and that the original aspects of the myth can be seen as a sublimation of Hugo's predicament in exile. Baudouin points out the kinship between “sa fille bien-aimée Léopoldine” and the angel Liberté.1 Reinforcing this point of view, Zumthor calls Léopoldine...

(The entire section is 4961 words.)

Marilyn Georgas (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “Dickens, Defoe, the Devil and the Dedlocks: The ‘Faust Motif’ in Bleak House,” in Dickens Studies Annual, Vol. 10, 1982, pp. 23-44.

[In the following essay, Georgas claims that Mr. Tulkinghorn in Charles Dickens's novel Bleak House is a devil figure and the symbolic embodiment of absolute evil.]

While Dickens' Bleak House is greatly admired, the character of Mr. Tulkinghorn has posed a serious problem for most readers. Studies of Bleak House have focused rather exclusively on Chancery and the law as the novel's symbolic center, and on the story of Jarndyce and Jarndyce as its significant plot. Such studies may regard Mr....

(The entire section is 9342 words.)

Robert Godwin-Jones (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Where the Devil Leads: Peasant Superstitions in George Sand's Petite Fadette and Droste-Hülshoff's Judenbuche,” in Neohelicon, Vol. 10, No. 1, 1983, pp. 221-38.

[In the following essay, Godwin-Jones details peasant superstitions related to the Devil in representative works by George Sand and Annette von Droste-Hülshoff.]

Both George Sand and Annette von Droste-Hülshoff belonged to aristocratic families who owned landed estates. Each spent the majority of her youth in the country and remained firmly attached to the particular region in which she was brought up, Sand in Berry, Droste in Westphalia. Both women ultimately rejected the lure of...

(The entire section is 6170 words.)

Kevin Corrigan (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “Ivan's Devil in The Brothers Karamazov in the Light of a Traditional Platonic View of Evil,” in Forum for Modern Language Studies, Vol. XXII, No. 1, January, 1986, pp. 1-9.

[In the following essay, Corrigan highlights parallels between the devil of Ivan's dream in Feodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov and Plato's philosophical conception of evil.]

In striking contrast to the dramatic power of the Mephistopheles of Goethe or Marlowe and the Satan of Milton or Dante is the devil who appears to Ivan Karamazov. On the threshold of the twentieth century, the devil is depicted as a down-at-heel gentleman, a sponger, a shirker, agreeable...

(The entire section is 4492 words.)

Adam Weiner (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “The Evils of Dead Souls,” in By Authors Possessed: The Demonic Novel in Russia, Northwestern University Press, 1998, pp. 57-92.

[In the following excerpt, Weiner describes the demonological elements of Nikolai Gogol's novel Dead Souls and their relationship to the novelist's authorial persona.]


The Devil acquired national characteristics in this first great Russian demonic novel [Dead Souls] through Gogol's creative use of two religious demonologies that antedate the christianization of Rus, but endured in legend and literature until Gogol's day and beyond. These are...

(The entire section is 7416 words.)

Further Reading


Butler, Marilyn. “Romantic Manichaeism: Shelley's ‘On the Devil, and Devils’ and Byron's Mythological Dramas.” In The Sun Is God: Painting, Literature and Mythology in the Nineteenth Century, edited by J. B. Bullen, pp. 13-37. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

Analyzes the religious and mythological claims of the two nineteenth-century poets, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, most frequently associated with Satanism in the popular mind.

de Montluzin, Emily Lorraine. “Southey's ‘Satanic School’ Remarks: An Old Charge for a New Offender.” In Keats-Shelley Journal 21-22 (1972-73): 29-33.


(The entire section is 468 words.)