The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Melmoth the Wanderer (18)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

Melmoth the Wanderer was created by Charles Maturin. Maturin (1782-1824) was an Irish clergyman and novelist. He wrote a number of Gothics but is best-known for Melmoth, which is one of the two or three best-known Gothics as well as one of the most influential.

In 1816 John Melmoth, an Irish student at Trinity College, returns home to visit his dying uncle, John’s only surviving relative and a miserly old bastard. Before he dies Uncle Melmoth voices his fears about something, although he will not be specific. In his will he leaves John his estate and points him toward a packet of letters hidden in the attic. He also instructs John to destroy a painting in the attic. John asks around and finds out that Uncle Melmoth, though not superstitious, had in the months before he died insisted that a strange man kept visiting him. John destroys the painting and reads the letters, which tell a strange story about his ancestor, also named John Melmoth (hereafter “Melmoth”). Although he is supposed to have died one hundred and fifty years ago Melmoth is reported to have been seen many times since then. An Englishman named John Stanton also claimed that Melmoth, angered by Stanton’s questions, prophesied that Stanton would end up in an asylum in Bedlam despite being sane. This prediction came true, but in the depths of his despair Stanton was visited in Bedlam by Melmoth, who offered him freedom if he would sell his soul to the devil. Stanton refused, and Melmoth left.

John finishes Stanton’s account and goes to bed, only to be visited by Melmoth that night. Melmoth bruises John’s wrist as proof of his visit. The next night a shipwreck takes place on the coast near John’s estate. John and other locals try to save the sailors, but John sees Melmoth standing at the top of a cliff and laughing at the drowning sailors. John tries to climb up to get at Melmoth but falls. John is rescued by Alonzo Moncada, a Spaniard who escaped from the ship. Moncada and John become friends, and Moncada tells John that he, too, knew Melmoth, who is also known as “the Wanderer.” Moncada had been born out of wedlock to a noble family and had been sent into a monastery. Years later Moncada’s brother had tried to free Moncada from his monk’s vows, earning the Moncada family the hatred of the Church. Moncada’s brother arranged Moncada’s escape from the monastery, but the monastery officials had Moncada’s brother murdered, and Moncada was captured by the Inquisition. Melmoth visited Moncada in his cells and offered to free him in exchange for Moncada’s selling his soul. Moncada refused, but later escaped during a firestorm called down upon the Inquisition’s prisons by Melmoth.

Moncada then found refuge with an old Jewish doctor who knew the history of Melmoth. Immalee, the daughter of Don Francisco di Aliaga, a Spanish nobleman, was lost at sea in a shipwreck when she was only a baby. She washed ashore on a deserted tropical island and grew up there. As an adult she was visited by Melmoth, who tried to corrupt her into making the deal Stanton and Moncada had rejected. Immalee refused, but eventually she and Melmoth fell in love. She refused to marry him unless the marriage was consecrated by the Church. Before this could happen Immalee was found by her father and brought to Spain, where Melmoth met her again. He persuaded her to marry him secretly, in a ceremony that unbeknownst to her was Satanic. Not wanting Immalee to come to harm, Melmoth approached Don Francisco, who was on a business trip, and told him about a threat to her from the Church. Melmoth told Don Francisco about two other people who had been tempted to sell their souls in return for earthly happiness. Don Francisco understood Melmoth’s message but was too busy with business to act on it. Eventually Don Francisco returned home from his trip, bringing with him the young man who is Immalee’s intended husband. By this time, however, Immalee was many months’ pregnant with Melmoth’s child. Melmoth came to a masked ball to claim her. At the ball his identity was revealed, as was her connection to, and because he was Melmoth the Wanderer, of cursed reputation, Immalee was handed over to the Inquisition. She died shortly after giving birth to her child.

After Moncada finishes his tale Melmoth appears in the room and tells John and Moncada that he has returned home to die. Melmoth explains that he had sold his soul to the devil for 150 years of life and various supernatural powers. But he had been commanded to win souls for Satan, and everyone Melmoth had tempted had refused. And now time has caught up with him, and he has begun to age. Melmoth asks to be left alone, and a short while later Moncada and John hear awful noises and strange voices from Melmoth’s room. The next morning the room is empty, and there are tracks leading to a cliff, indicating that Melmoth was dragged over the cliff. All that’s left behind is his scarf, caught on a bush next to the place where he was thrown into the sea.

Melmoth the Wanderer is generally viewed was the ne plus ultra of Gothic novels, and consequently has attracted significantly more critical attention than other Gothics. It certainly deserves it. Melmoth was the dernier cri of the original phase of Gothics. There were Gothics published after Melmoth—nearly a decade’s worth—but Melmoth was the apex of the original form, and after Melmoth came decline and decrepitude, in quality if not in quantity. Melmoth was not financially successful–Maturin died poor and depressed–but it was hugely influential. John Melmoth is in many ways both the epitome of the Hero-Villain and the quintessential Gothic doomed wanderer, and both characteristics were widely imitated by other authors in their Gothic novels. Although the character of Melmoth drew on the figure of the Wandering Jew, Melmoth was striking enough to alter how the Wandering Jew was later portrayed in fiction. The influence of Maturin, Melmoth, and John Melmoth can be seen across much nineteenth century literature, in the work of authors as different as Goethe, Byron, Pushkin, Hawthorne, Poe, Baudelaire, Wilde, and Melville. Honoré de Balzac was even inspired to write an unofficial sequel, Melmoth Reconciled (original: Melmoth Réconcilié, 1835).

But purely as a reading experience the modern reader is not likely to find Melmoth more than mildly enjoyable. Although words like “lyric” have traditionally been used to describe Melmoth, most of the novel is heavy-going, slow and tedious. The novel is not completely without interest. There are readable passages, some compellingly so, and Maturin has an undeniable talent for creating intense moments. The scene in which the firestorm destroys the Inquisition’s prison is one such moment. A second is a wedding which both Stanton and Melmoth attend. Melmoth’s presence so disturbs the presiding priest that he begins raving before dropping dead. A third moment is the party at which Melmoth’s identity and Immalee’s ties to Melmoth are revealed. And Maturin makes use of just about every Gothic trope imaginable, from the crumbling mansion to the malignant Inquisition to the cursed inheritance to the dead bride to the creepy portrait to the shipwreck to the nightmares to evil monks. There are so many Gothic tropes, in fact, that the book is, at times, as over-the-top as Eugène Sue’s The Wandering Jew. But Maturin’s prose is dense and told in an old-fashioned manner. The extremes of emotion which some critics see as one of Melmoth’s strengths are histrionic and turgid rather than affecting. Prose that Maturin meant to be evocative is instead bombastic. The anti-Catholicism of the novel quickly becomes shrill and repetitive. And the individual stories-within-stories take forever to reach the point of Melmoth’s appearance and infernal offer. Melmoth is a compelling character, but Maturin’s decision to keep the focus on other characters rather than Melmoth–perhaps to increase the dramatic impact of Melmoth’s appearances–is a mistake. The stories are substantially less interesting when Melmoth is not around. The modern reader should be able to appreciate Maturin’s achievement and will probably appreciate, in a dispassionate way, the individual elements which work well in Melmoth, but the modern reader is also likely to find most of the novel a dreary slog.

Even though Melmoth is not particularly enjoyable, there are aspects to it which are more than a little interesting. Melmoth has five stories-within-stories, each an encapsulated Gothic, which use classic Gothic themes and tropes: denied inheritance, monastic cruelty, the evil vengeance of the Inquisition, and so on. Melmoth ranges in a disjointed fashion across time and space, so that the experience of reading Melmoth the Wanderer can be disorienting, no doubt a sensation Maturin wished to convey. Melmoth is also a late-period Gothic and has a few amusingly self-reflexive moments, as in this comment:

Romances have made your country, Sir, familiar with tales of supernatural horrors. All these, painted by the most eloquent pen, must fall short of the breathless horror felt by a being engaged in an enterprise beyond his powers, experience, or calculation, driven to trust his life and liberation to hands that reeked with a father’s blood.1 

And there is Melmoth himself, a figure of towering intensity, one of the two or three greatest Hero-Villains. He is miserable, but is too proud to change or admit his own error; evil, for Melmoth, is a way of asserting his independence. Melmoth's quest for knowledge and his inability to accept the limitations of mortality and morality lead to his downfall. When offered the chance for salvation in his love affair with the innocent Immalee, Melmoth is too proud to accept it and becomes a tormented lover, another aspect of the Hero-Villain.

Melmoth is, as mentioned, the subject of substantial critical attention, with three common scholarly statements/assumptions about it:

Much of the scholarship and criticism concerned with the novels of the Anglo-Irish curate Charles Robert Maturin (1780–1824) appears to agree on three of the central issues that mark him out as one of the major writers in the Gothic tradition. To begin with, though he wrote five novels and three plays, his literary reputation rests solely on Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), which critics generally name the “greatest” Gothic novel in English. The scholarship also tends to assert that Maturin’s work embodies the English-Romantic ambivalences regarding revolution, particularly when translated into a Catholic or Irish-colonial setting. The final and most illuminating of these issues derives from the fact that as most critics see it, nearly all of Maturin’s novels borrow their basic plot and thematic machinery from female-authored models such as Anne Radcliffe’s The Italian, Lady Morgan’s The Wild Irish Girl, and Edgeworth’s Belinda. Hence, the author of the most lauded of Gothic novels was at once deeply troubled by nationalist politics and an appropriator of the female-Gothic form.2 

But, as Jack G. Voller writes,

It is with Charles Robert Maturin’s greatest work, Melmoth the Wanderer, published in 1820, that the “classic” Gothic novel is said to end. While this oft-repeated claim is debatable, it clearly connotes the landmark textual and cultural status accorded to this novel. In fact, Melmoth may be not so much the last of its kind but among the first of a new kind, for in its disturbing fascination with human suffering and the voyeurizing of that suffering, Maturin’s best-known novel declares its primary interest to be in human psychology rather than a supernaturalism real or supposed. There is supernatural incident, to be sure, for John Melmoth has indeed made a Faustian pact with the devil, but neither Melmoth himself nor any other supernatural agency is the cause of the suffering and emotional despair that the Wanderer repeatedly, even greedily, seeks out. The cause of human suffering in this novel is humanity itself: its sectarianism, its greed, and its pride and prejudice.

It is not too much to say that Melmoth marks the ne plus ultra of the Gothic, not by being a final participant in its customary tropes and techniques (although it does not eschew them entirely), but by marking the point beyond which no prior “Gothic” work had managed to pass, where to pass meant to become something new, something distinct from the conventional Gothic. By 1820, if not much sooner, the Gothic had become a tradition increasingly unable to come to terms with the shifting sociocultural landscape of the nineteenth-century West. As the poetry of the Romantics had already begun to demonstrate, the conventional Gothic was a limited form, unable to deal effectively or compellingly with the psychological complexities emergent from the Romantic reappraisal of self construction and personal autonomy. While a few later novelists and playwrights would continue to work the diminished Gothic vein, Melmoth, we see in retrospect, signaled the shift to a new and deeper stratum of exploration, a moving away from, if not yet a complete abandonment of, Gothic horror toward a “psychological” horror as it would be developed by Le Fanu and other mid to late Victorian writers and elevated to a tragic status in the writings of Hawthorne and Melville, two American admirers of Melmoth the Wanderer.3 

Recommended Edition

Print: Charles Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer. London: Penguin, 2000.



1 Charles Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer, volume 2 (London: R. Bentley & Son, 1892), 33.

2 Jim Hansen, Terror and Irish Modernism: The Gothic Tradition from Burke to Beckett (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2009), 31.

3 Jack G. Voller, “Charles Robert Maturin (1782-1824),” in Douglass H. Thomson, Jack G. Voller, and Frederick S. Frank, eds., Gothic Writers: A Critical and Bibliographic Guide (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002), 284-285.