Melmoth the Wanderer
by Charles Robert Maturin
Fiction — Classic Lit / Gothic
Oxford University Press, USA; 2008
Melmoth the Wanderer is about Melmoth, a man who has traded his soul to the devil for an extra 150 years of life. Melmoth travels the world tempting people–all of whom are at a low point in life and looking for some respite–to take his place in exchange for the solving of their problems. If Melmoth’s offer is accepted, a person can have a life full of happiness…and eternal damnation when they die.
There is a lot going on in this book, and the format can be a little confusing if the reader doesn’t pay attention. There are five stories about Melmoth told in the book, and it’s important to remember who is telling which story. Melmoth the Wanderer opens with John Melmoth–a direct descendant of the Wanderer–visiting his dying, hermetic uncle in 1816. On his deathbed, John’s uncle asks John to destroy a painting and a manuscript after his (the uncle’s) death. During John’s visit, a strange man shows up to sit at the foot of the deathbed. The man doesn’t say a word, but John recognizes him instantly: he is the man in the portrait that is to be destroyed…but the date on the portrait is from 150 years in the past, and it is obvious that John’s uncle is terrified of him. The uncle dies soon after, leaving everything he owns to John.
That night, there is a shipwreck on the coast outside of the uncle’s house, and the only surviving member of the crew is brought to the uncle’s house to recover. John sees the strange man from the portrait again during the confusion of the shipwreck, and this leads John to read the manuscript his uncle has asked him to destroy. This is the first story of Melmoth the Wanderer, written in the late 1670′s by a man named Stanton.
When the survivor of the shipwreck recovers enough to sit up in bed and talk, he proceeds to tell his story of Melmoth–yes, this man knows of him, too. It is within this story that the other stories are told, and where the book can get a little confusing if the reader isn’t paying attention. I had no problem following the format of the book, but I couldn’t have read it if my mind had been on anything else.
Charles Maturin was an Irish Protestant clergyman, and it seems his main goal in Melmoth the Wanderer is denouncing Roman Catholicism. He does get preachy in the book–using the character’s voices, of course–but that was fine with me. I know lots of people who don’t like authors to get preachy, but it doesn’t bother me that much. I’m critical of many aspects of organized religion, and Maturin’s arguments are pretty sound. He also uses the book as a venue for his comments on social issues in England in the early 19th century.
I sympathized with Melmoth, in a way; he’s a scholar, and he just wanted more time to know things. Of course, the whole point of the book seems to be that we shouldn’t value knowledge over faith (I think), but what a crappy punishment for wanting to learn. Sure, he sold his soul and knew what he was getting into, but I still felt really bad for him. His whole, extra-long life was spent trying to get people to take over his pact with the Devil (in his defense, he was quite upfront with the people he came into contact with), and I’m sure you can imagine how lonely that would leave anyone. At the same time, he was taking advantage of people’s weaknesses during hardships, which obviously wasn’t very nice of him. But it’s not like he was unable to love or connect with people, either–there is a love story within the larger story of Melmoth. I don’t know–I definitely wouldn’t want to live for 150 years longer than normal (even if I could do it with without “selling my soul”), but I can understand Melmoth’s initial desire for knowledge and his ultimate wish to do whatever it took to get someone to take his place.
I enjoyed this book–it’s well written, it has a good storyline, I liked the social commentary, and I think the arguments about/for/against religion are interesting. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading classic gothic novels.
(Click here to learn more about Charles Robert Maturin.)
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