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Melmoth the Wanderer

Melmoth as Faust

Melmoth the Wanderer was written in 1820 by the Anglican priest Charles Maturin, twelve years after the publication of the first part of Goethe’s Faust. At this time, Gothic novels had begun to shift from their original form of romances, which depended on dark and terrible settings, to a more psychological brand of horror, such as can be found in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Maturin’s novel sits between the two styles, combining desolate dungeons and storm-wracked graveyards with passages of intense paranoia and claustrophobia. This dark style pervades the convoluted plot, which I will relate, with special attention given to Faustian elements, in the following three paragraphs. For people who wish to read the novel without having the story spoiled, they may continue reading from the fifth paragraph.

    The story begins in Ireland, and technically remains there until the end of the novel, as Maturin uses and over-uses the narrative device of characters telling stories within stories. A student, John Melmoth, travels to his uncle’s death-bed, and finds his uncle in fear of some mysterious stranger before he dies. In the night, a Spanish ship is wrecked against the rocks near the house of the student’s uncle, and the sole survivor is taken in by the student. The Spaniard, Monçada, then begins his tale, which includes many others, all of which centre upon the mysterious stranger, who turns out to be the student’s ancestor from centuries ago. In his thirst for knowledge, this ancestor, Melmoth, had studied the dark arts in order to learn more about the afterlife. He achieved his aim, lost his hope of salvation, and was reborn as a malevolent and powerful being, able to move freely through space like a ghost until such a time when Hell should claim him.
Melmoth stalks the earth in search of pure and good souls which he can taint, as well as those who have suffered great misfortune, in order to tempt them to join him in eternal damnation in exchange for freedom and an end to the sufferings that society casts upon them. However, he is rejected every time, even by the simple and innocent Immalee, who falls in love with him. She becomes pregnant with his child, and he persuades her to escape with him from her middle-class family. Her brother tries to stop them, and Melmoth kills him in a duel. Immalee is imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition, where her child dies, but it is unknown whether or not by her hand. Melmoth visits her in her cell and offers her freedom and a life of love with him, if only she revokes her soul so that they can escape together. She refuses, giving herself to God, and is executed.
The story returns to Ireland, where Melmoth intrudes on his descendant and Monçada, and informs them that his time of wandering is spent, and that he has returned home to be claimed by the infernal powers of Hell. He retires to his old room, and tells his two companions that they must not enter his room, no matter what noises they hear coming from within. After listening to his shrieks until the morning, they enter, but find the room empty. Following Melmoth’s tracks, they discover that he walked to the sea’s edge, and was apparently dragged into it by some unknown force. The night before, Melmoth had dreamed of Hell as an endless sea of fire.

    Judging from the plot, it seems likely that Maturin was very familiar with both the original versions of the Faust story, including Marlowe’s, and Goethe’s own variant. At first glance, it has more in common with the first versions in that it emphasises religion and the moral obligation to not stray from God. Maturin actually tells the reader the moral of his story in his preface (see quotes below), but then, whether intentionally or not, strays from it. This can be seen in the way that large sections of the book are anti-Catholic, and Maturin often combines his paranoid descriptions of despair and evil with what he considers the hypocrisies of Catholicism. Much of the novel is set in Spain, probably because Maturin wanted to distance his criticisms from his own country, Ireland, which was also predominantly Catholic. As well as Catholicism, Maturin uses a life no religion whatsoever – as in the case of his antihero Melmoth – as a source for his brand of Gothic horror. A notable difference between Faust and Melmoth is that, while Faust often finds great pleasures in the world that has been offered him, Melmoth seems to be constantly tormented, and only derives a bitter pleasure from the evil he spreads in the world.
    Melmoth is also a unique character on account of Maturin’s Gothic narrative style. The novel consists of several stories embedded within each other, all related by different characters, and yet the narrative voice remains the same throughout. The sameness of the narrator, despite the multitude of story-tellers, could be seen as a failing on the part of the author. A clear example of the implausibility that is raised by this style is when Melmoth is teaching Immalee about the horrors carried out in the name of different religions, and yet when he is questioned on Christianity, he grudgingly admits that it is the only religion where people are taught to love one another. This concession is extremely out of character, and it seems as though we are reading one of Maturin’s sermons rather than the words of his character.
However, Melmoth is not remembered for its plausibility – it is the overarching and morbid style which pervades the novel, and unites the consciousnesses of all the different story-tellers, that stays with the reader. In addition, the fact that Melmoth is not simply a villain, but sometimes sounds like the priest Maturin, makes his character more interesting, and even (at times) more realistic, as he struggles between his love for Immalee and the life of damnation that he has chosen. Just like Faust, he has to suppress his longings for a life of religion and love. Melmoth also has two sides in that he is both the tempted and the tempter, a union of Faust and Mephistopheles, the ego and the id. It is the contradictions in Melmoth’s character that make him memorable.
Contradictions are also evident throughout the novel, and are probably unintended by Maturin. For instance, the stated basis of the novel is that not one person would ever bargain his soul for worldly pleasures, and yet Melmoth has done it himself, undermining the moral message. It is the confusion of the novel, as well as its dark, melodramatic, and hysterical passages, that make it stand out as worthy of our attention. Before Goethe, the story of Faust had clear, simple morals: while Maturin purports to do the same, he clearly doesn’t, whether or not that was his intent all along. It seems more likely that, in writing his own version of the Faust character, Maturin created a character which assumed its own distinct personality, outside of the bounds of the author’s control. This very well may have been what led Balzac to say that Melmoth was one of literature’s greatest social outcasts, along with Byron’s Manfred and Goethe’s Faust.

Quotations from the Text

“The hint of this Romance (or Tale) was taken from a passage in one of my Sermons, which (as it is to be presumed very few have read) I shall here take the liberty to quote. The passage is this.

    ‘At this moment is there one of us present, however we may have departed from the Lord, disobeyed his will, and disregarded his word – is there one of us who would, at this moment, accept all that man could bestow, or earth afford, to resign the hope of his salvation? – No, there is not one – not such a fool on earth, were the enemy of mankind to traverse it with the offer!’” – Maturin, from the Preface

“I never desert my friends in misfortune. When they are plunged in the lowest abyss of human calamity, they are sure to be visited by me.” – Melmoth

“Stanton, think of your misery. These bare walls – what do they present to the intellect or to the senses?” – Melmoth

“You think that the intellectual power is something distinct from the vitality of the soul…” – Melmoth, in contempt

“I begin to comprehend what he said – to think, then, is to suffer – and a world of thought must be a world of pain! But how delicious are these tears!” – Immalee

“Yet for all his diabolical heartlessness, he did feel some relentings of his human nature, as he beheld the young Indian; her cheek was pale, but her eye was fixed, and her figure, turned from him, (as if she preferred to encounter the tremendous rage of the storm), seemed to him to say, ‘Let me fall into the hands of God, and not into those of man.’” – Monçada, on Melmoth and Immalee

“Mine was the great angelic sin – pride and intellectual glorying! It was the first mortal sin – boundless aspiration after forbidden knowledge!” – Melmoth