The Romance of the Forest

by Ann Radcliffe

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Critical Evaluation

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The Romance of the Forest, a popular eighteenth century romance, marks Ann Radcliffe’s contribution to the development of the novel genre. In each of her gothic tales, a damsel in distress must usually endure various trials involving danger, terror, and mystery. Underlying the plot is the opposition of good and evil. Radcliffe may employ such traditional elements of gothic fiction as dungeons, decaying castles, ghosts, and villains, but the conflict she portrays is between virtue and vice, and the novel sets up a fixed system of punishments and rewards. Powers of evil, whether natural or supernatural, are ultimately overruled.

Radcliffe’s characters represent varying degrees of good and evil. Adeline, the heroine, is the most virtuous. She does not rebel against the evil forces that seek to destroy her but trusts her safety to divine providence. Her moral strength enables her to triumph despite her feminine vulnerability. Adeline, who faces both physical and emotional isolation, has mysterious origins; she spent her childhood in a convent, apart from family. Later, her supposed father rejected her and placed her in the hands of strangers. Radcliffe does not reveal Adeline’s heritage and the facts regarding her father’s identity and murder until the close of the novel.

Adeline is also isolated physically. Each time she tries to escape disaster, she is somehow imprisoned. After leaving the convent, she is first locked in a dark chamber with barred windows, then sent away with strangers to live in exile in the abbey ruins of the forest. There she is abducted from a black tomb by the marquis’s servant and eventually returned to confinement in the abbey towers.

She escapes these physical barricades only when she flees France to seek asylum in the mountains of Savoy. Her new location is not only at a higher altitude but also on higher moral ground. The darkness of the forest and the plots to abduct her are here replaced by sunlight, open scenery, and the kindness of the la Luc family. Even here, however, her emotional isolation continues. The la Lucs care for her, but she remains separated from the knowledge of her true identity and from the man she loves.

Theodore, Adeline’s lover and rescuer, is a virtuous young man who left home to study for the ministry but finds himself ill suited for the role of clergyman. He seeks a more active vocation (and perhaps a less devout life) by joining the military and finds himself in service to the villainous Marquis de Montalt. Theodore attempts to save Adeline, but because he leaves his military post and later physically attacks the Marquis de Montalt he is arrested for desertion and assault. He cannot rely on his innocence and virtue to save him because he has broken the law. Theodore faces a death sentence more imminent than the threats Adeline has endured, but since Theodore’s motives were honorable, he is eventually released from prison and rewarded with the love of the heroine.

Unlike Theodore, who breaks rules to save Adeline, Pierre de la Motte and his wife often commit wrongs for selfish ends. La Motte, who lost the family fortune through self-indulgence, finds that he is capable of ever greater evil—cheating, stealing, and finally attacking and robbing innocent victims—to preserve his own welfare. Thus he conspires to deliver Adeline into the hands of the marquis to save himself. La Motte is not totally depraved, however; Radcliffe asserts that his heart was betrayed by “weakness rather than natural depravity.” He had fallen victim to the temptations of the “dissipations of Paris.” Madame de la Motte too is weak. She at...

(This entire section contains 929 words.)

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first befriends Adeline but then rejects her when she succumbs to jealousy and suspicion. Later, when she learns of the Marquis’s plot to abduct Adeline, she acquiesces in the scheme even though she knows that Adeline is innocent of any offense.

The la Mottes have a capacity for both good and evil. Their natural inclination toward politeness and pity is their redeeming quality, which surfaces when they are called on to save Adeline’s life. Radcliffe rejuvenates the couple’s moral reputations by using them to resolve the plot, for it is their information that leads to Theodore’s acquittal and the marquis’s demise. Ultimately, the la Mottes cannot be pardoned as Theodore is because their transgressions are more serious. The couple escape prison sentences and the death penalty, but they must face exile.

The greatest evil is embodied in the character of the Marquis de Montalt, who has no redeeming qualities. Unlike the la Mottes, the marquis is not capable of good impulses. He is the antithesis of Adeline, who possesses no title, birthright, or position but is virtuous. The marquis has the appearance of virtue but is evil. His “elegance of manners” merely “veiled the depravity of his heart.” He identifies Adeline as his niece and restores her inheritance, but these actions reflect defeat rather than repentance.

Radcliffe’s tale presents a picture of a fallen world. Original sin has fostered moral decay, temptation, and death. The wild, overgrown forest resembles the corruption of Eden. The lost manuscript and rusty dagger that Adeline finds in the abbey are symbols of the excesses that eventually destroy the marquis. Even Adeline is affected by her fallen world. She is deceived about her own identity and becomes a victim of those who are less upright. Virtue ultimately triumphs, however, and each character receives a proper reward. Radcliffe thus assures her readers that justice, however long delayed, will overtake the guilty.