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Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Robert Maturin
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Mar 17, 09

bookshelves: gothic-lit, brit-lit
Read in March, 2009

Melmoth the Wanderer is considered one of the highlights in Gothic Literature. Noted as one of Maturin's finer works (most others were not so well received), the novel focuses on a series of characters who meet and are tempted by the title character, Melmoth the Wanderer, a man who has sold his soul to the devil in exchange for prolonged life. Cursed, he wanders the globe looking for one willing to give their soul in place of his.

The premise is fascinating and many sections of the tale are difficult to put down. As a Gothic novel, it hits many of the highlights of the genre. There dark and stormy nights aplenty; fantastical stories of escape and shipwrecks and depravity and gore; uncertain innocents beset upon by evil forces; a great mystery that is not fully resolved until the end; and an almost fanatical devotion to lambasting the Catholic Church. While the focus of this particular novel is on the emotions of those in Melmoth's grasp as they spiral downward through horrid situations, illness, and insanity, what struck me most was the heavy focus on anti-Catholicism. Not since Lewis' The Monk can I recall a Gothic novel having similar vehemency towards the institution.

Melmoth spends a great amount of time in Spain, focusing on the Catholic Church, corruption and heresy within monasteries, the evils of "the merciful and holy tribunal, the Inquisition." There are hints that this aversion to Catholicism comes from a Protestant background, but again, this is a frequent theme in Gothic Literature and cannot be laid solely upon the author. After all, the theme of the novel involves the struggle for man's soul, and the Catholic Church is the largest organization in the world at the time involved in precisely this theme. How terrifying would it be to suggest that sometimes, the good of man's soul is not something of interest to such and large and powerful group?

In the novel, however, Maturin does run into some difficulties. His prose gets weighted down with prevalent repetition. Particularly in the section titled "Tale of the Indians," Melmoth requires his central focus to repeat lines of devotion ad nauseum page after page. Maturin uses this as a way of conveying to the reader the intensity of Melmoth's desire and to highlight the uncertain stance of his victim, but the reader understands these emotions quickly and easily and the repetition becomes tiresome.

Another criticism, noted by Douglas Grant in the introduction to my edition, is that Maturin, as an author in general, has difficulty carrying a lengthy narrative without it becoming slow, frayed, and useless. However, while this might be true with some of his other works, there is little call for that critique here. The episodic nature of Melmoth the Wanderer allows for shorter, novella-ish segments that work as their own stories. At times, Maturin begins to lose his way through the story, but the short nature of each event helps to keep the prose focused and moving forward.

Melmoth the Wanderer is a good book to read if you're interested in the Gothic novel as a whole. When it comes to reading Gothic Literature, many of the works available can be an exercise in tedium when it comes to picking them up. Melmoth the Wanderer does better than that, and submits itself as worthy of inclusion in the notable works of this genre. It's no Frankenstein or Villette but it's an entertaining read if you're interested.
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