Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)

life | reviews | influences

background in German literature | English influences | anti-Catholicism | Calvinist pessimism | finally -- faith

points for analysis

"The drama of terror has the irresistible power of converting its audience into its victims." (Melmoth, p. 257)



Coleridge on Bertram (1817), several pages in Ch. 23 of Biographia, including:

I want words to describe the mingled horror and disgust, with which I witnessed the opening of the fourth act, considering it as a melancholy proof of the depravation of the public mind. The shocking spirit of jacobinism seemed no longer confined to politics. The familiarity with atrocious events and characters appeared to have poisoned the taste, even where it had not directly disorganized the moral principles, and left the feelings callous to all the mild appeals, and craving alone for the grossest and most outrageous stimulants. (Princeton UP, 1983, II, 229)

Melmoth: largely slated by reviewers. While one reviewer in Blackwood's concludes Maturin transcends his forebears --

Mr Maturin is, without question, one of the most genuine masters of the dark romance. He can make the most practised reader tremble as effectually as Mrs Radcliffe, and what is better, he can make him think as deeply as Mr Godwin. (Blackwood's Magazine 8, No. XLIV (November, 1820), p. 168)

-- another finds Maturin's use of his talents dangerous:

There is a burning eloquence--a sarcastic bitterness--an insidious plausibility about all Mr. Maturin's murderers and demons which well might have been spared. The taunts against religion are too keen, the invectives against society too terrible, the spirit of malignant discontent against the order of things established, is too subtle, too ascetic, and too sustained, to be quite affected; and though we believe that this author, both in his heart and in his life, contradicts such doctrines, he may rest assured that the eloquence with which he enables his devils to enforce them must offend, though it cannot do harm, the virtuous; and may, perhaps, but too fatally, mislead many who are as yet hesitating upon the Rubicon of crime. (London Magazine 3 (May, 1821), p. 518)

Melmoth teems with this unsightly progeny--there is scarcely a page on which crime is not written in letters of blood, and in language of desperate and ferocious exultation. (ibid, p. 522)

But redeeming feature is its powers of expression:

Its merit is not in the idea, which is compounded from the St. Leon of Godwin and the infernal machinery of Lewis -- nor in the plot, which is ill-constructed -- nor in the characters, which are for the most part impossible -- but in the marvellous execution of particular scenes, and in thickly-clustered felicities of expression, which are spread luminously over the darkness of its tenor, like fire-flies on a tropical ocean. (The New Monthly Magazine and Universal Register 14 (December, 1820), p. 662)


In letter of 1813 to Scott, Maturin speaks of writing a romance novel:

I am writing at present a poetic Romance, a wild thing that has a Chance of pleasing more than Regular performances . . . tales of superstition were always my favourites, I have in fact been always more conversant with the visions of another world, than the realities of this, and in my Romance I have determined to display all my diabolical resources, out-Herod all the Herods of the German school, and get the possession of the Magic lamp with all its slaves from the Conjuror Lewis himself. I fear however they will never build a palace of Gold for me as they did for their Master Aladdin. (The Scott-Maturin Correspondence, p. 14)

Maturin thus hoping to outdo both Lewis and the Germans -- many parallels of Monk and Melmoth.

Background in German literature

e.g., Faust. Goethe's first fragment published in 1790, innovation on earlier versions (e.g., Marlow), love story involving Gretchen, simple middle-class maiden, Faust seduces then abandons her; leads to child murder, imprisonment, madness, death. Cf. Immalee

-- both novels deal with pact with the devil, although Lewis's monk only makes this at the end of the novel -- but has difficulty in signing, like Goethe's (and Marlow's) Faust.

Novel described by reviewers as of the German school: e.g.,

in horror, there is no living author, out of Germany, that can be at all compared with Mr Maturin (Blackwood's Magazine);

His cast of invention and composition is foreign and meretricious, with much of the murky extravagance, and a full share of the corrupt and exaggerated sensibility of the German school. (Eclectic Review).

Melmoth a kind of Mephistopheles on Goethe's model, evil, but a sophisticated traveller, witty, ironic, has his own sensibilities.

Influence also of Schiller's Der Geisterseher: similar to story of Melmoth as visitor at wedding, told to Stanton, death of Father Olavida (pp. 34-5); and rather similar story much later, when Melmoth attends the wedding of his own bride (pp. 519-22);

-- fearful eyes of Melmoth; ability to change lives of those around him; abilities taken from Schiller

-- Melmoth's character as like the Wandering Jew of German literature, more central than incidental appearance of this character in The Monk

English influences

Other influences: Milton's Paradise Lost, for Garden of Eden image of Immalee on her island; temptation of Melmoth/Satan -- but also mediated by use of this myth in Frankenstein (1818): Melmoth as Immalee's tutor, educates her in human society and history as the creature is educated by his reading.

And Marlow's ending for Faust, the noises in the closed room, etc., drawn on for Melmoth's ending.

The Monk: scene of mob violence, killing of abbess; cf. Maturin's use of similar scene, more alarming because more universalized: Moncada as witness, shares the fury of the mob, p. 256.

But Maturin's interest in overcoming the crudities and gratuitous shocks of The Monk: no libidinous love scenes, or crude hauntings: more realistic (compare fate of the lovers in the abbey locked up to starve), greater psychological accuracy and mythical resonance.

Byronic outcast, inexplicable but heroic suffering:

Yet must I think less wildly. I have thought
Too long and darkly till my brain became,
In its own eddy, boiling and o'erwrought,
A whirling gulf of fantasy and flame;
And thus, untaught in youth my heart to tame,
My springs of life were poisoned. 'Tis too late!
Yet am I changed, though still enough the same
In strength to bear what time cannot abate,
And feed on bitter fruits without accusing fate.

-- Childe Harold's Pilgrimage Canto III (1816), Stanza 7 (and cf. Manfred)

Anti-Catholicism of novel

Maturin's own experience in the West of Ireland; in his novel, institutions of Catholic church as a cover for power, hypocrisy, and assassination. Cf. Moncada's resistance to the Director (ex-Jesuit), p. 83: rests on his conscience, sees Director as mouthpiece . . . Victor Sage's comment on this passage:

Appropriately, it is the issue of conscience which sparks off the rebellion, for the child is a Lutheran puppet here in the author's hands. The externalizing of conscience into institutions like the confessional, leaves the individual Catholic 'free.' Like the Android of modern science fiction, he looks human enough; but he is completely cold, unscrupulous and devoid of any real feelings. (Horror Fiction in the Protestant Tradition, p. 34-5)

Maturin, Sage points out, a part of a Protestant tradition which depended on demonizing Catholicism. Pointed out by Cardinal Newman in a lecture of 1850, referring to Fox's Book of Martyrs and similar productions:

we must have a cornucopia of mummery, blasphemy, and licentiousness -- of knives and ropes, and faggots; and fetters, and pulleys, and racks, -- if the Protestant Tradition is to be kept alive in the hearts of the population. (cited, Sage, p. 28)

Flourishing of Gothic genre from 1780s onward in part a reaction to struggle for Catholic emancipation in England (recall anti-Catholic Gordon riots of 1780): e.g., Radcliffe and Lewis writing at a time when Catholics forbidden to assemble within doors, priests unable to wear their robes, etc. Fears of being subverted, somewhat like paranoid fear of communism after WW II. (Sage points out that Emancipation Act of 1829 didn't end the paranoia.)

Calvinist pessimism

So, influence of both German and English predecessors, including Radcliffe and Lewis: but -- distinctive to Maturin: his pervasive pessimism: evil not just a disorder in the world; it is pervasive and ineradicable; we can be saved only by faith . . .

Contrast of grinding ordinariness (e.g., Isadora's daily life, p. 372), with moments of sublime terror or horror (e.g., her marriage, pp. 391-4)

Radical pessimism: Penetrating social commentary, e.g., Melmoth's long speech educating Immalee, pp. 300-308; Swiftian disgust (and cf. defensive footnote: author dissociates himself from Melmoth's views, p. 303).

Gothic dimensions: once inside system, no escape. Moncada's story, each time he escapes, finds himself in a worse state: as parricide monk tells him, there is no escape from power of church: pp. 219-20

Insecurity of grasp on reality --

Deliberate fragmentation of narratives: often interrupted, gaps from incomplete records, missing pages, etc. Makes narratives unreliable. Frequent intrusion of dreams, to the point that reality and dream begin to seem interchangeable: e.g., p. 218-9.

And even what Melmoth says of himself, wrapped in indeterminacy: e.g., pp. 537-8.

And leads Maturin to perpetrate interesting slips:

e.g., story of lovers walled up to starve: on nailing up the door, p. 210 and p. 213;

e.g., story of haunted man at point of death: is he in a chair or a bed? p. 199-200 (see complaint of Quarterly Review 24 (Jan., 1821), 308).

Makes ordinary flow of consciousness, feeling, questionable: e.g., ennui of monk's life, pp. 101-2:

-- important and trivial given same weight, p. 101

-- interest from malignant passions, p. 102

on sensibility as self-destructive: old monk, p. 115;

cf. Immalee when first in Spain, p. 340

cf. Elinor's wish for life without sensibility, p. 476

But underlying thematic parallels between the stories: viz,

-- the disintegration of the family -- one member betrays another, from greed, guilt, etc.;

-- religious persecution, denial of universal love (and charity) allowing rule by intolerance and hatred;

-- that no one will put an end to suffering by surrendering their soul;

-- the horrors of isolation, e.g., Stanton in the madhouse, Moncada in his cell (Godwinian theme, also Frankenstein)

Finally -- faith

His underlying thesis, that only by faith can man triumph over evil, face God. That while suffering is incomprehensible, there is a hidden meaning:

"We shall be told why we suffered, and for what; but a bright and blessed lustre shall follow the storm, and all shall yet be light." (p. 323)

Only have faith . . .

Story of Immalee: child of nature -- creation of 18th C, of Rousseau and sensibility; but --

-- following education by Melmoth, becomes devotee of the sublime: p. 312

Melmoth is Immalee's mentor, giving her that education of sensibility through suffering which to Maturin was the criterion of being human. -- Howells, Love, Mystery, and Misery, p. 146.

-- then returns to Spain as Isadora; from Innocence to Experience; her increasing dependence on Melmoth, delusions of her love;

-- but with final abandonment to Inquisition, then rejection of Melmoth's temptation, finds true, saint-like innocence again as she dies;

-- thus, Immalee's humility vs. Melmoth's egotism -- even Melmoth forgets himself momentarily with her, e.g., p. 360

-- Immalee's love, as humility, p. 364; her final moments, submission to God, p. 531

-- Reflects on meaning of other stories: Stanton's curiosity, Moncada's desperate attempts to escape and find meaning, etc.: that man is more than his natural endowment and surroundings -- need for a spiritual dimension -- hence purpose of suffering:

Imagination (cf. Radcliffe's terror) situated under the sign of pain:

As the victim's suffering is prolonged, he becomes, once again, a thinking and complicated being, but his mind is no longer a register filled with approved and familiar ideas, but a new world shaped by and shaping the misery it encounters. As he traces in each of the narratives the history of a mind newly made by misery, Maturin illustrates a whole phase of romantic psychology and the creative process. -- Kiely, The Romantic Novel in England (1972), pp. 192-3.

Maturin on the value of the romance/gothic tale, setting realities of this life in perspective. In a sermon:

Where is the being who does not feel that restless consciousness of immortality within him that forbids him to sit down to the banquet of life while the sword of destruction impends over him? Man bears witness to the feeling in every stage of existence. The very first sounds of childhood are tales of another life -- foolishly are they called tales of superstition; for, however disguised by the vulgarity of narration, and the distortion of fiction, they tell him of those whom he is hastening from the threshold of life to join, the inhabitants of the invisible world, with whom he must soon be, and be for ever. (Sermons, 1819, p. 358; cited in Eggenschwiler, 1975)

Points for analysis


Consider role of imagination, rhetoric of sentence construction. Implosions? Withdrawals of meaning? The necessary alternative.

Withheld knowledge

Forbidden knowledge? Incommunicable? Beyond comprehension?

Religious nihilism

The final paradox: neither obedience nor grace; neither power nor sacrifice. No law but that of suffering.

return to Gothic course

Document created October 31st, 2000