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Literature / Melmoth the Wanderer

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Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Robert Maturin was published in 1820, at the end of the "classic" period of Gothic Literature and Romanticism in literature.

In 1816, young John Melmoth returns to his dying uncle's house to hear the story of John Melmoth, his ancestor, who lived in 1664 and is still living. While he is rescued by a Spaniard during a storm, the Spaniard, Alonzo Moncada tells him his own story as a reluctant monk during the Spanish Inquisition and his efforts to escape from the violent priests, and how he is involved with old John Melmoth, the ancestor, also known as Melmoth the Wanderer. Old Melmoth had sold his soul to the devil in return for 150 years of life and supernatural abilities - to travel fast, through doors and prisons. There is one way he can get out of the contract: if he gets another person to exchange their soul for his. Melmoth preys on those in difficulties and offers to help them out if they sell their souls instead. However, he is unable to persuade any of his victims to do so and dies at the end in damnation.


Melmoth the Wanderer contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Immalee to the Wanderer. She can't live without him.
  • Animate Dead: the dead hermit who lives in the monastery performs a wedding ceremony between Melmoth and Immalee, the day after he is murdered.
  • Arranged Marriage: Isidora's father, Don Francisco, makes her marry a gentleman of rank. She opposes this as she is in love with Melmoth the Wanderer.
  • Babies Make Everything Better: Melmoth becomes happier and more gentle when his wife is pregnant. Averted, when the household scorns Isidora's child.
  • Bad Samaritan: Melmoth. He offers help on the condition his victim sells their soul. It doesn't work out.
  • Bedlam House: Stanton ends up in one of these. He was put there by his greedy cousin who wanted his fortune.
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  • Being Evil Sucks: Melmoth fails to corrupt anyone at all, and wastes his only chance at genuine happiness because of his greed and desire to flee from Hell.
  • Being Tortured Makes You Evil: Melmoth. He nearly relents because he genuinely feels compassion for Imnmalee, but deliberately makes her miserable so he can escape damnation.
  • Big Eater: Fra Jose. He spends much of the story asking for food and wine, even saying, "Your glasses, by the by, are the shallowest I ever drank out of: could you not find some means to get from Ildefonso glasses of the right make, with short shanks and ample bodies?" And every time Donna Clara pesters him with religion, he asks for food and drink.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Stanton's story ends with him being freed from imprisonment, but still obsessed with tracking down the Wanderer and bearing mental scars from their final encounter. His manuscript ends shortly after his visit to the Melmoth family, so it's uncertain whether he ever fully recovered in his lifetime. Ultimately, however, Melmoth's dream near the end of the book gives Stanton an Earn Your Happy Ending (or at least heavily implies that he'll get one).
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: The world is portrayed as evil, selfish and thoughtless. The monks repress anyone they consider heretics, Don Francisco is worldly and money-minded. But they can't beat Melmoth, who sells his soul to the devil and then persuades other people who are suffering to take his place.
  • Break the Cutie: Having lived in bliss on an island, Immalee's thoughts are disturbed by Melmoth, who tells her about the world of suffering he comes from. Then she becomes unhappy because she misses him every time he leaves the island. She can't even enjoy nature now. Then he tells her to marry her in darkness and in fury. Because she resists, he leaves her for three years. In the meantime she is rescued by a ship and sent to her family in Spain, where she yearns for her old life. Her mother is cold and unsympathetic and her father wants her to marry a man she doesn't love. Eventually Melmoth tempts her to marry him, who is shunned by people, without declaring their marriage to her family. She is grieved that she is not made an honest woman. At the wedding ceremony between her and the arranged bridegroom Melmoth kills her brother and she is sent to the Spanish Inquisition to be interrogated and imprisoned. She gives birth to a daughter who dies soon after. Then Melmoth visits her in prison to ask her to sell her soul, because she is vulnerable and more likely to do anything to become happy. She refuses and dies in prison afterwards.
  • Byronic Hero: Melmoth the Wanderer, though a deconstruction of one. He is cynical, worldly, intelligent and evil.
  • The Cavalier Years: In the Lover's Tale, John Sandal is a captain. There's also the enmity portrayed between the Royalists and the Puritans.
  • Character Development: Melmoth. Ordinarily an evil, cynical murderer with no pity for his victims, he nevertheless faces conflict while trying to tempt Immalee. After falling in love with her, he keeps on telling her not to love him as he is a bad person hated by the world. This is so he doesn't get tempted to make her sell her soul. This conflict tears him apart, as it actually makes him cry for her (something unusual for him) while he wipes away his tears. Usually a misanthrope he is tamed to a pensive gloom with his wife, and actually looks forward to their child's birth. Even before she is seized by the Inquisition, he offers to take her back to her paradise island and live with her to make her happy.
  • Christianity Is Catholic: In Spain in the 17th century according to Melmoth. Isidora protests she found out she didn't like Christianity after all having expected a benignant religion described by the Protestant Melmoth.
  • Chronic Villainy: Melmoth keeps trying to persuade people to take his place and be damned.
  • The Confidant: Immalee serves as this to Melmoth. She is the only person he has actively unburdened his troubles to after his death and rebirth.
  • Corrupt Church: Moncada's monastery has a Director who forces Moncada to remain a monk against his inclinations. When Moncada protests, the monks make a mess of his room every day and he is locked up in a dungeon without light and only bread and water at certain intervals. A bishop receptive to Moncada's plight has his questions evaded by the Director who blackens Moncada's name. When another reluctant monk and his lover (disguised as a monk) tried to escape years ago, a murderous monk locked the lovers up for days until they died out of pure sadistic delight.
    • In Guzman's Tale, a forged will left everything to the church instead of the starving relatives.
  • Cultured Badass: Melmoth. He's conversant in politics and culture, and doesn't hesitate to murder to get his way
  • Cynical Mentor: Melmoth is this. He keeps on telling Immalee how evil the world is.
  • The Dark Arts: Melmoth can pass through locked prisons and avoid death. He can also reanimate the corpse of a priest to perform his wedding ceremony.
  • Deal with the Devil: Old John Melmoth sells his soul to the devil for 150 years of life and supernatural powers that enable him to cross oceans easily and quickly, and disappear through doors and prison cells.
    • Selling your soul to the devil was a common Gothic trope. Maturin was a latecomer in this: the theme had been explored in Matthew Lewis' The Monk and Goethe's Faust.
  • Derelict Graveyard: Melmoth and Immalee marry in a graveyard at the dead of night in secret. The priest who performs the wedding ceremony is a hermit living in an abandoned monastery. The creepy thing? The priest had died the day before. "She felt that the hand that united them, and clasped their palms within his own, was as cold as that of death."
  • Destructive Romance: Immalee and the Wanderer. She was happy until she met Melmoth. Melmoth seeks her partly because he wants her soul to save his, and though Immalee is unaware of his real evil yet, she is upset that he will marry her only in secret and will not declare his intentions to marry her openly to her family and make her a respectable woman. They marry in secret and Immalee becomes pregnant with a half-demon child. When Melmoth turns up at her arranged marriage, he kills her brother, and Immalee is sent to the Inquisition as she is the wife of their enemy, Melmoth. She is starved in prison, her baby dies, she is accused of infanticide and she dies in agony. Not long before her death, she tells her priest that Melmoth asked her to sell her soul, just when she was at her most vulnerable.
  • Duel to the Death: Don Fernan di Aliaga tries to kill Melmoth with a sword but Melmoth ends up killing Fernan with his sword.
  • Dying Alone: Melmoth does this after jumping from a cliff.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Everyone who rejected Melmoth's offer. In a dream near the end of the book, Melmoth sees them all happily ascend to Heaven while he, alternatively, is descending into Hell.
  • Emotion Eater: The monk who murdered his father deliberately threw a couple into a dungeon and locked them in to witness their sufferings and eventual hatred for each other for pleasure. He then pretends to rescue Moncada but sends him to the Inquisition prison because he likes to see him suffer for breaking his vows.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Melmoth warns off Immalee, because he actually loves her and she's the only person who cares for him. He leaves her for three years to find other victims.
  • Faking the Dead: Wahlberg's children do this to prevent their insane father from killing them.
  • The Farmer and the Viper: Immalee is the only person to give friendship of Melmoth but he ends up killing her brother, damaging her reputation and asking her to sell her soul.
  • First Love: Isidora tells Melmoth, "I loved you because you were my first."
  • Gentleman Adventurer: Stanton has no need for a job, but having seen Melmoth in Spain and shocked by his malevolence, resolves to spend his life tracking down Melmoth for no apparent reason. He goes to Ireland to see Melmoth's relatives who want nothing to do with him.
  • Gentleman and a Scholar: Stanton and Moncada. Stanton is well-travelled and well-read and owns some property. Moncada is well-read, writes ancient Greek and is fluent in English, something that wasn't common among Spaniards in the early 19th century. Moncada is also the son of a duke. The Wanderer, to some extent. His family has property and he is intelligent and well-read in politics and fluent in Spanish.
  • Gothic Fiction: Published in 1820, the end of the Early Gothic era, two years after Frankenstein. It's actually advanced for a Gothic novel, focusing on the inner torment of an individual instead of mere adventure and suspense. Elements include a mysterious ancestor who is still alive after 140 years, who brings pain whereever he goes...
  • Half-Human Hybrid: Immalee/Isidora and Melmoth get married and have a child. Everyone refuses to be the sponsor of the child of a demon (Melmoth is arguably a creature, as he looks like a dead man, has supernatural powers and is kept alive by unnatural means).
  • Have a Gay Old Time: "From my window I saw them [i.e., the monks] running through the garden in every direction, embracing each other, ejaculating, praying, and counting their beads with hands tremulous, and eyes uplifted in extacy."
  • The Idealist: Immalee. She thinks she can alleviate the world's sufferings by smiling at them and being good.
  • Idle Rich: Don Fernan di Aliaga. He doesn't do any work unlike his merchant father and does little except take siestas and play chess with Fra Jose. Hie purpose in life is to attain higher rank by getting his sister married off to someone of an old noble family.
  • I Have Many Names: Immalee is called such by her worshippers on the island where she landed as a child. When she is rescued and returned to Spain she is referred to by her birth name, Isidora di Aliaga. The Wanderer's real name is John Melmoth, but his eerie reputation causes the guests at Isidora's aborted wedding to shriek out "Melmoth the Wanderer!" which is the title of the novel.
  • The Heretic: Melmoth is this to the Inquisition.
    • Moncada is treated as once for trying to annul his vows.
    • The Spaniards in the 17th century consider non-Catholics as heretics.
  • The Ingenue: Immalee is a clear example of this. She lives alone on a deserted island in India, with only the trees and flowers for her companions. She is happy in her nature until she meets Melmoth the Wanderer whom she falls in love with. Melmoth seeks her soul because she is vulnerable and innocent while at the same time hating himself for destroying a sweet innocent girl. Unlike other people who shun Melmoth, sensing something is wrong with him, Immalee loves him more than anyone else on earth, even her biological parents she is reunited with. Although Melmoth can enter her house despite the barricades, and also the fact he married her at the dead of night in a graveyard, she does not suspect he is a supernatural creature who sold his soul. After being rescued from the island she is unhappy in urban Madrid and misses the old times.
  • Intrepid Merchant: Don Francisco.
  • Jungle Princess: Immalee, the only white woman on a remote island, is worshipped as a goddess by the natives of neighbouring islands.
  • Lack of Empathy: The Wanderer, who refuses to help the shipwrecked victims. They all die except for Moncada. Averted, when he feels sorry for being the cause of Immalee's possible destruction and warns her against himself.
  • Locked Away in a Monastery: Alonzo the elder son is sent to become a monk in a monastery against his will because he is illegitimate whereas his younger brother enjoys the life of a gentleman.
  • Locked in the Dungeon: Moncada is locked in one when he appeals against his monk's vows, in the darkness with only bread and water, and reptiles around. Later he is put in an Inquisition dungeon where he is visited by the Wanderer.
  • Loners Are Freaks: old John Melmoth has strange eyes like of a dead man's which turns people off, even though he doesn't do evil deeds in front of them. This persuades them he's evil. Because of this, he is friendless and cast off by society until he meets Immalee on a deserted island. People's dislike of him is justified, however, as he does freaky things like selling his soul to the devil and committing murder to get his way.
  • Love Martyr: Immalee. she marries a murderer who is trying to get her soul.
  • Love Redeems: To some extent with Melmoth. After falling in love with innocent Immalee, he insists on not seeing her again because he is scared he will corrupt her into selling her soul.
  • Loving a Shadow: Immalee states she loves her ideal of Melmoth, but when she meets him she feels upset because he shatters her illusions.
  • Mark of the Beast: Melmoth's eyes are of a dead man's that people who look at him feel scared.
  • My Secret Pregnancy: Isidora hides her pregnancy from her family after her marriage to Melmoth.
  • Mysterious Past: We still don't know the circumstances which led Melmoth to sell his soul or how he was in his younger days before he sold his soul.
  • National Stereotypes: Both present and averted. Wahlberg is said to be choleric like a German, and his Spanish wife Ines said to be calm as a Spaniard. But it was common in the 19th century to perceive the Spaniards as hot-blooded and passionate and the Germans as cold.
  • Nature Lover: Immalee loves nature so much she is contented to live among the trees and the flowers. She calls a palm tree her father, and adorns herself with flowers and shells. Reminiscent of Rousseauan ideals taken to an extreme, which was in vogue in the Romantic era.
  • Nested Story: The first character, young John Melmoth, goes to his uncle's house, where he sees a mysterious painting. He reads the story of that man in an old parchment. Then a Spaniard comes to the house to tell the story of the Spaniard's life and the man in the painting. Young John Melmoth is not the centre of the story, the man in the painting is.
  • Noble Bigot: Fra Jose. While essentially kind-hearted, he insists that all non-Catholics are condemned to hell. Unlike the rest he listens to Isidora's pleas and blesses her.
  • Nouveau Riche: Don Francisco to some extent. While his family was previously quite exalted they fell into hard times. So he has to work as a merchant to support their lifestyle. Unlike the other society persons in the novel who form the Idle Rich.
  • One Steve Limit: Averted. The first character's name is John Melmoth. His ancestor's name is also John Melmoth.
  • Parental Neglect: Don Francisco neglects his daughter. After she is rescued from an island, he doesn't go to see her straight away or write at once, but just carries on his business in other places. When the Wanderer warns him about the danger his daughter faces Don Francisco neglects this and goes on with his trade. Because of this Melmoth marries Isidora and brings misery to her. Donna Clara also doesn't wish to hear her own daughter's feelings.
  • Passed-Over Inheritance: The Wahlbergs are believed to have been cut out of Guzman's will.
    • John Sandal will not get most of his grandfather's estate if he marries Elinor.
    • After his wife dies, he loses his inheritance to a distant relative according to the will.
  • Phenotype Stereotype: Averted with Isidora, a Spaniard. Instead of the dark hair and eyes associated with Spaniards she has auburn hair, fair complexion and blue eyes.
  • Plot Threads: The Spaniard's Tale, The Indian's Tale, The Tale of the Guzmans, The Lovers' Tale ... it finally returns to the Indian's Tale and then the story of young John Melmoth in Ireland.
  • Portent of Doom
    • An early example, possibly Ur-Example? of Musical Spoiler: Every time Melmoth wants to strike a particular victim, people can hear strange music around them. A group of cavaliers hear this when they pass by Isidora, his future victim.
    • Dreaming of Things to Come: The Wanderer's dream of falling. He is eventually dragged off a cliff where he dies.
  • Property of Love: Melmoth asks Isidora to be his own and forsake her family, her position and religion. Isidora agrees to everything except the last. Otherwise she keeps on insisting she is his.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Maturin originally intended for Moncada to tell the story of Adonijah the Jew's family members and how he got to Ireland, but his publishers hurried him. That's why the book appears to be fragmented and incomplete.
  • The Reveal: It is not stated what Melmoth the Wanderer asked Stanton, Immalee and his other victims to do in return for helping them, only that they are horrified by the evilness. The manuscript by Stanton saying what happened is illegible. Only at the end does The Wanderer inform young Melmoth and Moncada that he sold his soul to the devil. This can make the story confusing. On the other hand, the summary at the back of the book is spoiler, saying he sold his soul when the fact isn't mentioned till the end.
  • Romanticized Abuse: Melmoth to Immalee. While he tries to get her to sell her soul, he does love her genuinely. Like Heathcliff, modern readers may see him as a Byronic Hero
  • Runaway Bride: When Isidora is forced to marry a man she hasn't met, Melmoth agrees to take her away during the wedding ceremony. It ends badly.
  • Secret Passage: The murderous monk leads Moncada through a secret passage to escape from the convent. Later Moncada ends up in a secret subterraneous region, the abode of a scholarly centenarian Jew to hide from the Inquisition.
  • Secret Relationship: Melmoth and Isidora.
    • a more fraternal version with Juan and Alonzo Moncada, though only through correspondence.
  • Serenade Your Lover: Isidora plays the lute hoping to entertain Melmoth. It doesn't.
  • Shipwrecked on an Island: Immalee and her nurse are shipwrecked on an Indian island and separated from Immalee's family. She is only sent back after many years of having lived in nature.
  • Shout-Out: Numerous allusions to contemporary culture. Immalee, the island maiden who lives in nature and is secluded from the world, is a shoutout to Rousseau, who proposed this philosophy of raising children. Every chapter has an epigraph in the form of poetry (like Southey and Scott, Romantic poets) or classic quotes foreshadowing the themes of the novel e.g. hell, even though it's not stated till the end that Melmoth sold his soul to the devil. The titular character is also a Shoutout to Goethe's Faust, as he trades his soul for knowledge and supernatural powers, like Faust.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: In B. West's 1823 stage adaptation, Immalee isn't killed. Because the play removes the book's framing device and thus removes the Time Skip between her story and Young John's story, she doesn't even die of old age.
  • Spooky Painting: The portrait of Melmoth in 1664. His eyes seem to burn and frighten you.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Immalee. She is undoubtedly pure and innocent she charms those who see her. She dies young, having been captured by the Spanish Inquisition for marrying Melmoth. She doesn't even know how evil he is until it's too late.
  • Tragic Villain: Melmoth
  • Villain Protagonist: Melmoth the Wanderer. Actually Moncada is the real protagonist, as the story is from his perspective, but everything centres around Melmoth's attempts to get others to sell their souls. He is undoubtedly a villain as everyone shuns him and he does not hesitate to murder his bride's brother, her servant and whoever is in his way. When he is around, people die of fright. It's possible he drains their souls to feed his long life. Maturin must have had a little sympathy for this villain, because Melmoth feels sorry for one of his intended victims, Immalee, and even tries to warn her from loving him as he is evil and will destroy her.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Normally a calm, logical person, Melmoth has one of this while trying to tempt Immalee to protect her from himself. He threatens to disannul their engagement and even breaks into tears a few times.
  • Wandering Jew: Melmoth the Wanderer. Though he gets to live for 150 years and gets to cross boundaries inaccessible to man, his existence is unhappy. People never welcome him wherever he stays and accuse him of misfortune and devilry. Because of this he wonders from place to place, from France to Spain during the Inquisition to a remote Indian island.
  • World of Symbolism:
    • Whoever heard of a girl living alone in a mysterious island in happiness without speaking to a single person? The fact Immalee is fluent in Spanish even though she last spoke it as a small child is incredible. She represents a Rousseauan ideal: a child of nature, uncorrupted by the world. See William Wordsworth's Lucy poems. Immalee asks Melmoth to marry her by the moonlight, which represents goodness. Melmoth on the other hand asks her to "wed me by this light!" when clouds darken the moon, representing evil. The Tale of the Indian could be seen as an allegory of the evil world corrupting the innocence of nature, something the Romantics were concerned with.
    • The monks' brutality to Moncada is too ludicrous to be true for such a psychologically complex novel. It represents the way the Catholic Church curbed people's natural inclinations and practised hypocrisy.
  • You All Meet in an Inn: Someone who has been gathering stories about the Wanderer meets Don Francisco at an inn and tells him the story of Guzman. The storyteller is then murdered by Melmoth the Wanderer.
    • To some extent, with Don Francisco and the Wanderer. The Wanderer tells Francisco the story of Isidora so Francisco can protect her. Also the tale of an English family is told in an inn.


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