“Terror is very fond of associations; we love to connect the agitation of the elements with the agitated life of man; and never did a blast roar, or a gleam of lightning flash, that was not connected in the imagination of some one, with a calamity that was to be dreaded, deprecated, or endured,–with the fate of the living, or the destination of the dead.” — Charles Maturin
It isn’t the easiest or most glamorous read, but Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer certainly proves to be a rewarding experience if you’re willing to take the time. Melmoth has captivated the minds of some of literature’s biggest names like Honore de Balzac, Oscar Wilde, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, and Baudelaire. Balzac was so enamored by Melmoth that he thought the character should assume a place among Goethe’s Faust and Lord Byron’s Manfred. Balzac went on to write Melmoth Reconciled, a follow-up story. And since we’re dropping tons of fun facts, here’s another: Charles Maturin was Oscar Wilde’s great uncle. Let that sink in. The Picture of Dorian Gray. (Ahem.)
Melmoth and Religion
Melmoth the Wanderer paints a damning picture of Christianity and the horrors of the Inquisition that devastated the lives of untold millions with its irrational cruelty. Dubious priests and bishops are the norms; there are monks who secretly hide both their atheism and contempt for all those who refuse to comply with the status quo. And the greater populace governed under the Inquisition operated within a hierarchy that included the Church of Rome. Those who have power are either under the thumb of Catholicism like the King of Spain, others are overcome by cynicism or tribalism and reject reason in favor of superstition and greed. Like many of history’s great witch hunts, the Inquisition was unreasonable and ruthless to the core.
Who was Charles Maturin?
It’s only too perfect that the novel, as well as its horrid titular character, was conjured up by none other than the Irish Protestant clergyman Charles Maturin. Maturin was a writer who wrote a string of stories and novels under the pseudonym Dennis Jasper Murphy — none of which had received any real notoriety. He enjoyed short-lived success with his play Bertram, but afterward, due to the play’s ultimate downfall and using the money he earned to assist his family, he didn’t benefit financially. This experience as a husband and father trying to feed four children with what little he had is strikingly reminiscent of one particular story within Melmoth the Wanderer — The Tale of Guzman’s Family.
After his death, Maturin was described by a writer in a university magazine as “eccentric almost to insanity and compounded of opposites — an insatiable reader of novels; an elegant preacher; an incessant dancer; a coxcomb in dress and manners.”
The Seeds of Melmoth and Gothic Literature
Melmoth the Wanderer is evocative of the Wandering Jew, the story of a Jewish man who taunted Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion and was subsequently cursed to walk the Earth until His Second Coming. In Melmoth’s case, he made a Faustian deal with the Devil, trading his soul for another 150 years of life. And if you haven’t guessed it yet, no matter how good of a deal that looks like on paper — you’re still making it with the Devil. In some way, there’s gonna be a catch. And with Melmoth, he indeed experienced more years of life than anyone else, but he walked the Earth the scourge of humanity, the whole time trying to find some hapless fool to trade places with him.
By taking a closer look at the evolutionary path of gothic literature, you’ll find Melmoth as, perhaps, the Homo Erectus to the fully functional Dracula that would come later in 1897 from the pen of Bram Stoker. Melmoth the Wanderer also encompasses the environment that has become associated with Gothic Lit. Secret underground labyrinths, dungeons, and cathedrals, dark and muddled timelines, and a plot that is as shadowy as its protagonist.
Stories within Stories
Like a matryoshka, there are plots inside of plots inside of plots. It can get pretty confusing keeping straight which story links to which, and when it comes to the passage of time, you’ll really need to dispense with reality as you would any other fairytale or legend. Because, to be honest, not all of it will make sense. But when it comes to Melmoth the Wanderer, the fact that time and space don’t add up isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
All the stories told are tied together by a single thread. Melmoth the Wanderer, with the abilities of the devil to pass quickly over the continent, float overseas, pass freely through dungeons, and strike fear into the hearts of humanity, appears in varying accounts over the centuries. In every instance, he discovers someone with an overwhelming dilemma and offers them salvation for the price of their soul.
The novel begins with the main framing story. The student John Melmoth visits his uncle on his deathbed. Think of the movie Inception and what transpires on the most outer layer of the story. Remember? Cobb (Leonardo Dicaprio) and the team are on the plane with the wealthy heir Robert Fischer. Much in the same way, the framing story centers on John Melmoth. Even though Melmoth’s uncle is his last remaining family, the old man is cold and miserly and leaves no emotional mark on John. His uncle’s wealth and possessions seem as empty as his soul. When his uncle dies, John inherits his estate but finds himself continually enamored by a horrible portrait of a man who is said to be his ancestor. The painting is dated 1646 and at the funeral, John hears a story about the ancestor who is still believed to be alive and known as Melmoth the Traveller.
From here the story tells the first of six tales. And just like the dream-in-dream concept used in the movie Inception, there are stories told within stories. In fact, it doesn’t hurt if you read the text through the lens of a dream, or maybe, in this case, a nightmare would be more appropriate.
The Tales of Melmoth
The tales in the novel are not told in any specific order. Instead, they jump around with as little explanation as to the Wanderer himself. They include the manuscript left by Stanton, The Tale of the Spaniard, The Tale of the Indian, The Tale of the Guzman Family, and The Lovers’ Tale.
Stanton’s story begins as he witnesses two lovers struck by lightning and beholds a laughing man who we discover to be Melmoth. After hearing this same Melmoth was the uninvited guest of a wedding where the bridge died and the groom descended into madness, it would only foreshadow Stanton’s own committal to a madhouse as his obsession with Melmoth intensified. In his time of need, Melmoth shows up and offers to free Stanton. But only for a price. Stanton refuses.
The Tale of the Spaniard
The next story is told by a survivor of a shipwreck, The Tale of the Spaniard. After burning Melmoth’s portrait, John is visited by his ancestor in a dream. The next day, John sees Melmoth looking off the cliff at a shipwreck. John falls into the water but is saved by the Spanish shipwreck survivor Moncada who himself resides with John as he recovers. As Moncada tells his story, we find that he is of royal origins but fled his native Spain as he was forced into a monastery at the behest of his family and their advisors. He struggled for years and as he unveils his story it’s revealed he undertook a daring escape and took refuge with an old Jewish man Adonijah, who compels him to translate a manuscript as he waits.
The Tale of the Indian
The manuscript Adonijah wishes to be transcribed is the next story, The Tale of the Indian. Natives to neighboring islands in the Indian Ocean believed a god haunted an island named Immalee. However, when Melmoth visited the island it’s revealed that the god is none other than a shipwrecked Spanish girl. Melmoth tries to corrupt her but instead, she falls in love with him. When she is eventually rescued and restored to Spain, she assumes a new Christian name, Isidora. However, Isidora is homesick and dreams of returning to her island free from the woes of humanity and the binding irons of Christianity. Melmoth tracks her down and they eventually elope in an unholy wedding and she is subsequently impregnated by Melmoth.
The Tale of the Guzman Family
Meanwhile, another story transpires from Isidora’s father, a wealthy Spanish merchant returning from a years-long journey. He is visited by a stranger who tells him The Tale of the Guzman Family. The tale begins with a wealthy Spanish merchant, much like Isidora’s father. He has a sister Ines who marries a Protestant German musician named Walberg, and they have four children together. One day the family is treated with news that they are to inherit Ines’s dying brother’s vast fortunes. And they enjoy the riches for some time, even relocating Walberg’s parents to Spain. However, when news comes that priests were able to get the dying merchant to leave his fortunes to the church instead, the family is left with nothing in a foreign land, starving with no one to help them because they don’t share the same religion or language. Again, Melmoth appears. But even after Walberg suffers horrible misfortunes, and each one is more grating than the last, he still refuses Melmoth. And eventually, his fortune is restored.
The stranger who tells the Spanish merchant (Isidora’s father) the tale abruptly dies but is replaced by Melmoth himself, who accompanies the merchant on his trip back home. And quite ironically, the merchant returns home with news that he found a suitable husband for Isidora, all the while not knowing that the man accompanying him is actually his son-in-law.
The Lover’s Tale
In the meantime, Melmoth tells him The Lover’s Tale, which is about a royal Yorkshire woman who was jilted at the altar due to a lie that destroyed the life of her and her soon-to-be husband. For sake of space, this description is a highly abbreviated version of this tale. When Melmoth visits the woman after she suffered greatly, again he is fended off — this time by the luck of someone who recognized him and knew his true origins.
Eventually, the Tale of the Indian comes back around, where at a party Isidora’s brother challenges Melmoth to a duel where he is killed. Upon the revelation that Isidora married Melmoth in an unholy union, a pregnant Isidora is cast into the dungeons where she faces the atrocities of the Inquisition. While imprisoned, she gives birth to Melmoth’s child. Stuck alone in prison with her child, Isidora loses her mind. Her child dies in what appears by her hands and she dies soon after of despair. But before she does, Melmoth, her husband, visits her and offers her his hand to leave and to be like him. She refuses him and dies.
Melmoth’s Fateful End
Melmoth’s targets are left to make a particularly dangerous decision under the most extreme of circumstances. Accept Melmoth’s help and trade him places in his pact with the Devil, or face certain doom.
Ultimately, every single person Melmoth tries to sway defies him and, by association, a deal with the devil. This would mean, as Maturin would almost certainly have meant, that the human soul knows no bounds, can take on whatever sorrows and woes, no matter how horrible they are, and if they hold out for the sake of truth and decency, they will be saved in the end.
The only one to suffer eternal damnation is Melmoth as the enemy of mankind is not successful in tempting one soul. Despite his batting average, Melmoth still remains one of Gothic Horror’s most terrifying figures — and his depiction survives on to inspire classic horror figures. Even today, you can find inspiration in such films as It Follows, as a way of trading places with others in order to spare one’s self of doom.
In the end, Melmoth says:
“I have traversed the world in the search, and no one to gain that world, would lose his own soul!”