Places: Melmoth the Wanderer

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1820

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Gothic

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Spain

*Spain. Melmoth the WandererCharles Robert Maturin’s Spain is typically gothic, a bleak landscape of rough hillsides and poor and superstitious inhabitants lorded over by proud noblemen and hypocritical clergy. Several characters in the novel, including the titular character, traverse Spain; an English traveler tours the monasteries in Spain during the seventeenth century; Melmoth himself travels throughout Spain pursuing his unholy schemes; and a young Spanish lord travels throughout Spain trying to escape from incarceration in a monastery and from the dungeons of the Inquisition.

In each case, Spain figures as a place in which the characters are trapped by powers greater than themselves. For instance, the Spanish lord finds himself in the dungeons of the Inquisition, a setting that itself is highly attractive to writers of gothic literature. Narrating his characters through dark and terrifying prisons gives Maturin the opportunity to perpetuate a familiar English concept of Roman Catholicism. Many of the English gothic writers represented Roman Catholicism as a system of control, not of devotion. This novel gives this representation a highly powerful twist. The young Spaniard, for instance, is first locked in a monastery and is manipulated almost to the point of accepting religious vows. The monastery is at first presented as a place of peace and devotion. However, when he decides to refuse the forced vocation, the monastery becomes a place of imprisonment and torture. In one scene, set in the monastery, the Spaniard is subjected to psychological and physical torture.

Later, when he escapes the monastery with the aid of his younger brother, the Spaniard is pursued by the agents of the Inquisition and is eventually caught. Once again he escapes, this time when he is just about to be burned alive, and makes his way to Ireland in pursuit of the villain Melmoth.

Indian Ocean island

Indian Ocean island. Unnamed edenic island populated only by a young princess, Immalee, and a satanic tempter, Melmoth. This setting is introduced in the middle of the novel and breaks the Spaniard’s narrative into two halves. It repeats the representation of the Spanish monastery by first appearing as a place of beauty and peace, which later turns terrifying. Although the island is edenic and deserted, it is close enough to the mainland to allow Immalee to watch the various goings-on of the Indian people.

As he does with his fictional Spaniards, Maturin represents the Indian people as superstitious to the point of stupidity and depicts their religion as little more than superstition. For instance, Immalee watches Indian worshipers willingly being crushed beneath the wheels of a cart that carries the image of the god Juggertha. As is the case with the young Spaniard’s progress through the dungeons of the Inquisition, this setting implies that most religions are systems of mental and physical force crushing the spirit and sometimes the body of the worshiper.

*Bedlam

*Bedlam. Famous London insane asylum used to show Melmoth’s power to entrap and crush those who would oppose him. This setting twists the familiar gothic anti-Catholicism and xenophobia by introducing a domestic version. Like few other English gothic novels, this part of Maturin’s novel shows that England can also be a place in which religious madness has run amok. In this case, an Englishman who has learned of Melmoth while traveling in Spain finds himself locked in a madhouse in London. There, he is trapped between a maddened Anglican and an insane Puritan; the two engage in pointless and tiresome dogmatic arguments, thereby, the novel seems to suggest, proving their madness and extending Maturin’s argument of religious madness to the heart of England and not simply the margins of Europe.

Limbo

Limbo. Desolate and dark cliff that serves in this novel as a brief stopping point before the soul of the departed goes on to its eventual destination. This setting is presented in the final chapter, after Melmoth has lived out his period of lengthened life and must fulfill the terms of his satanic pact. In the midst of the desolation, Melmoth perceives the souls of those he has wronged ascending to an eternity of bliss, even as his own soul sinks to a place of eternal torment. This setting is important because it shows that Melmoth is himself at the mercy of a higher power and has been trapped despite his own attempts to escape the consequences of his choices.

BibliographyCoughlan, Patricia. “The Recycling of Melmoth: A Very German Story.” In Literary Interrelations: Ireland, England, and the World, edited by Wolfgang Zach and Heinz Kosok. Vol 2. Tübingen, Germany: Narr, 1987. Demonstrates the imaginative impact of Melmoth the Wanderer on contemporary authors. Versions of the story by Honoré de Balzac and James Clarence Mangan are given a detailed analysis. Highlights some of the novel’s social and political implications.Fowler, Kathleen. “Hieroglyphics in Fire: Melmoth the Wanderer.” Studies in Romanticism 25, no. 4 (Winter, 1986): 521-539. Focuses on the novel’s artistic methods and the relation between these methods and the novel’s religious preoccupations. Discusses the use of the Book of Job in Melmoth the Wanderer.Kiely, Robert. The Romantic Novel in England. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972. A significant contribution to the study of genres of the novel. Includes a chapter on Melmoth the Wanderer, emphasizing its religious and political elements. The novel’s psychological interest and cultural implications are also assessed.Kramer, Dale. Charles Robert Maturin. New York: Twayne, 1973. Succinct account of Maturin’s life and career, and an extended consideration of Melmoth the Wanderer. Discusses the novel’s folkloric dimension and the organizational principles governing the cohesiveness of the various tales.
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