Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Unprepared for Sudden Transformations": Identity and Politics in 'Melmoth the Wanderer.' (the Romantic Novel)

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Unprepared for Sudden Transformations": Identity and Politics in 'Melmoth the Wanderer.' (the Romantic Novel)

Article excerpt

The choice of your new name must be

your own--you must, for the future,

either adopt the name you have heard,

or another ... That of parricide.(1)

Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) continually presents characters with more than one identity: Immalee is also Isidora and Antonio, Manasseh. Conversely, the name "John Melmoth" brings together two apparently opposed characters: the rather non-descript young man of the opening sequence, and the dreadful Wanderer himself. At the same time, the structural similarities among the novel's embedded tales suggests strange affinities among characters as diverse as Moncada, Guzman, and Elinor Mortimer--a strategy resembling that which Owenson uses to critique colonialism in The Wild Irish Girl; Woman, or Ida of Athens; and The Missionary.

This comparison may seem arbitrary until one notes just how often Maturin attempted to jump upon literary bandwagons, particularly Sydney Owenson's. After producing a Gothic novel, The Fatal Revenge, or the Family of the Montorio in 1807, he imitated Owenson's immensely popular Wild Irish Girl (1805) with The Wild Irish Boy (1808); after the success of Porter's The Scottish Chiefs, he wrote The Milesian Chief (1812). In Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), he combined the Gothic and Byronic modes with yet another imitation of Owenson--the second half of Maturin's novel resembles, in many ways, Owenson's spectacularly successful The Missionary (1811).

Owenson's heroines share a certain cosmopolitanism, an ability to adjust to different milieu while maintaining a strong sense of a core self. Luxima, for example, compromises upon externals because of her love for Hilarion; as she dies, however, she reveals that she has always been a Hindu at heart. It was immediately recognized that Owenson's heroines were idealized versions of the author; the triumphs of her female protagonists even in death surely owe something to the unprecedented success of their creator. Autobiography enters equally into Melmoth the Wanderer; as Lougy notes, Guzman's wife is a portrait of Maturin's, and the pervading darkness of this novel, especially of the "Tale of Guzman's Family," can be linked to Maturin's financial extremities after 1816.(2)

Autobiography enters Melmoth on the political level as well. Melmoth the Wanderer, particularly in its analyses of questions of identity and its persistent glorification of personal integrity, springs directly from Maturin's own compromised position as an Anglo-Irish curate out of political favor. In the guise of its Spanish Gothic and exotic East Indian settings, Melmoth explores problems of cultural and personal identity and assimilation--a problem particularly acute for the English in Ireland during Maturin's lifetime, but also becoming increasingly important in Great Britain's colonial holdings.

This paper examines the political implications of Maturin's most famous work. As he is not very well-known and did not write a memoir, I shall begin with a summary sketch of his life. From there, I proceed to examine the novel itself. As Melmoth's structural peculiarities prevent the ease of exposition which more straight forwardly chronological narratives allow, I have tried to organize this paper thematically. I discuss the importance of the narrative's violent wrenchings of chronology, recreating within the reader the same divisiveness the narrative depicts in its major characters. These wrenchings then find a structural analogue in the generic disturbances which occur among and even within the novel's embedded tales. On yet another level, they occur again in blatant distortions of history. I concentrate upon the "Tale of the Indians," hoping to show that its various components, such as the themes of confinement and flight, the historyless heroine, the mingling of education and seduction, and the links between commerce and empire work with and against the Tale's outer frame in a way that is both a critique and subversive of that critique. …

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