Representations of the Devil in Nineteenth-Century Literature Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.