Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Melmoth Affirmed: Maturin's Defense of Sacred History

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Melmoth Affirmed: Maturin's Defense of Sacred History

Article excerpt

FEW WIDELY KNOWN BOOKS HAVE BEEN SO OFTEN MISCONSTRUED AS Charles Robert Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). The novel has earned the Anglo-Irish Maturin his reputation as a "conscious inheritor" of eighteenth-century gothic tropes, (1) but this assimilation into the genre of gothic romance has largely obscured its central focus. Critics of Melmoth tend to fixate unhelpfully on the novel's two longest episodes, the Spaniard's Tale and the wild affair between the title character and the innocent Immalee/Isadora. This selective attention has produced a rather narrow understanding of the novel, and has failed to highlight its ambitiousness. I shall argue that Melmoth is not so much a thundering gothic as an inquiry into the social imposition of religion, an anxiety no doubt heightened by the conflicts in Ireland during the early part of the nineteenth century.

The standard account of Melmoth describes the novel as an anti-Catholic screed, and its eponymous hero as the diabolical "enemy of mankind." Focusing heavily on the persecution central to the two most studied episodes, critics have argued that Maturin has little sympathy for the religious impulse, and that in Melmoth religion does not save, but instead "dehumanizes." (2) Serious attention to all of its component stories produces a radically different interpretation.

Maturin's attack on religious institutions is not an attack on the devotional impulse. The virtuous protagonists suffer most at the hands of the families, communities, and nations that demand adherence to a particular doctrine as a social duty, but their experiences of persecution ultimately confirm the strength of genuine spiritual conviction. In fact, the real villains of the novel are far more treacherous in their perversions of religion than is the allegedly satanic Wanderer in any of his deeds. Maturin does not attack individual faith in his novel, but he does relentlessly expose the heavy-handed application of dogma as insidious and reprehensible. He defends liberty of conscience, implying a specifically Puritan sensibility--perhaps unsurprising given his Huguenot and Calvinist upbringing, but hardly the most orthodox position for an Anglican clergyman. Melmoth can be read as "Puritan gothic": the novel's relentless iconoclasm calls into question all forms of programmed worship; the noblest characters are those who insist upon private devotion; and indeed Maturin shows little respect for institutional or other types of mediation between God and believer. The catalytic figure of Melmoth himself seems an agent of destiny, one whose temptations of the novel's virtuous figures are always doomed to fail.

Melmoth's dynamism remains unexplored and unexplained by standard accounts; I shall argue that, looked at with the religious agenda in mind, Melmoth plays a complex role. He is not the novel's most menacing character, and neither is he a wholly malevolent wraith. He is in fact a teacher as much as a tormenter of lost souls. Through the wandering hero, whose mid-seventeenth century origins are crucial to our understanding of the novel, Maturin appears interested in reinvesting the sacred with its spiritual component--a process that takes precedence in the novel over forms and institutions. Moreover, he also seeks to reinvest seemingly worldly affairs with cosmic significance. Terry Eagleton's claim that the "driving force behind Melmoth the Wanderer is not metaphysics but money" (3) performs the very denial of sacred motives that Maturin assails in his novel. A fairer verdict would be that although money and the material world are omnipresent in Melmoth, Maturin's more fundamental concerns are metaphysical. I will argue that the underlying thrust of this complex novel, and the connective that holds its seemingly disparate pieces together, derive not from worldly practicalities but from philosophical and religious principle. This principle, moreover, allows Maturin to comment on the gothic as a genre, and on the religio-political turmoil of his own Ireland. …

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