Melmoth the Wanderer

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Melmoth the Wanderer
Title page of Volume 1, First edition
AuthorCharles Maturin
GenreGothic novel, Romanticism
Published1820 (in four volumes)
Media typePrint (novel)

Melmoth the Wanderer is an 1820 Gothic novel by Irish playwright, novelist and clergyman Charles Maturin. The novel's titular character is a scholar who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for 150 extra years of life, and searches the world for someone who will take over the pact for him, in a manner reminiscent of the Wandering Jew.[1]

The novel is composed of a series of nested stories-within-stories, gradually revealing the story of Melmoth's life. The novel offers social commentary on early-19th-century England, and denounces Roman Catholicism in favour of the virtues of Protestantism.


The structure of the book as a series of short stories joined together reflect its initial conception as such.[2] In reality, Maturin was under pressure from his publisher to fulfil a contractual obligation, which goes some way to explaining the "chaotic and haphazard process by which (he) wrote".[2] Maturin spent many hours researching the novel in Marsh's Library, Dublin, Ireland's first public library (opened in 1707), which was a short distance from his home on York Street and place of work on Aungier Street.[3] In the library, Maturin took inspiration from countless sources for the inspiration and formulation of the novel, including the King James Bible, the Anglican liturgy, the works of William Shakespeare, Virgil's Aeneid, polemical books and pamphlets of the English Revolution of the mid-17th century, and various literature and theatre from the 16th and 17th centuries.[3] Maturin spent so much time reading in Marsh's each day that he eventually constructed a special desk for himself there.[3]


John Melmoth, a student in Dublin, visits his dying uncle. He finds a portrait of a mysterious ancestor called "Melmoth"; the portrait is dated 1646. At his uncle's funeral, John is told an old family story about a stranger called Stanton, who arrived looking for "Melmoth the Traveller" decades earlier.

A manuscript left by Stanton describes his first finding Melmoth laughing at the sight of two lovers who have been struck by lightning, and hearing of a wedding at which Melmoth was an uninvited guest: the bride died and the bridegroom went mad. Stanton's search for Melmoth is deemed to be madness and he is sent to a madhouse. Melmoth visits him there, and offers to free him, but Stanton refuses and escapes.

Following his uncle's wish, John burns the Melmoth portrait. He is visited by Melmoth in a dream, and later sees Melmoth laughing at a shipwreck. John tries to approach him, but slips and falls into the sea. He is saved from drowning by the sole survivor of the wreck, a Spaniard named Alonzo Monçada.

Alonzo Monçada tells his story (The Tale of the Spaniard), in which his family confines him to a monastery. He is mistreated by the monks, and his brother Juan arranges for him to escape with the help of a fellow monk, a parricide. The escape plan is a trap and Juan is killed. Monçada is taken to the prison of the Inquisition. There he is visited in his cell by Melmoth, who says he will help him escape. A fire breaks out, and in the confusion Monçada escapes. He meets a venerable Jewish scholar, Adonijah, who lives in a secret chamber decorated with the skeletons of his own family. In exchange for food and shelter, Adonijah compels Monçada to transcribe a manuscript for him: the Tale of the Indian.

Monks drag a young man across the floor of a vaulted room, presenting him to a seated bishop.
Melmoth, or Interior of a Dominican Convent in Madrid, illustrating Alonzo Moncada's story from the novel. Eugène Delacroix, oil on canvas, 1831

The Tale of the Indian tells of an island in the Indian Ocean which is rumored to be haunted by a white goddess named Immalee. In reality, Immalee is a castaway who grew up alone on the island, isolated from humanity. She is visited by Melmoth, who tells her he comes from "the world that suffers". He tries to destroy her innocence, showing her the shortcomings of human societies and religions. She falls in love with him and begs him to stay with her, but he departs. Three years later, Immalee, now named Isidora, has been restored to her family in Madrid. Melmoth reappears and he and Isidora elope by night; he leads her to a remote chapel where they are married by an undead hermit.

Isidora's father encounters a stranger at an inn who tells him the Tale of Guzman's Family. Guzman is a wealthy Spanish merchant whose sister marries a poor German musician, Walberg. Guzman decides to make Walberg's family his heirs, but his will leaves everything to the church, and the family sinks into poverty; almost insane, Walberg decides to end their poverty by killing them all — but before he does so news arrives that the true will has been found and the family is saved. By this point in the story, Isidora's father has fallen asleep, and wakes to find the stranger at the inn replaced by Melmoth.

Melmoth tells him the Lovers' Tale, about a young woman in Yorkshire named Elinor, who is jilted at the altar and is subsequently tempted by Melmoth, but refuses his help.

The Tale of the Indian resumes: Isidora returns to her family, but she is pregnant with Melmoth's child. She has a presentiment that she will not live, and gets Melmoth to promise that the child will be raised as a Christian. Isidora's father finds a husband for her, but in the middle of the wedding celebrations, Melmoth tries to abduct Isidora. Her brother tries to intervene, and Melmoth kills him. Isidora falls senseless and Melmoth escapes. Isidora reveals that she is already married, to Melmoth. She gives birth, but she and her baby daughter are imprisoned by the Inquisition. The inquisitors threaten to take away the child, but find that it is already dead. Isidora, dying of grief, remembers her island paradise, and asks if "he" will be in the heavenly paradise.

Monçada and John are interrupted by the appearance of Melmoth himself. He confesses to them his purpose on Earth, that his extended life is almost over, and that he has never been successful in tempting another into damnation: "I have traversed the world in the search, and no one to gain that world, would lose his own soul!" Melmoth has a dream of his own damnation, and of the salvation of Stanton, Walberg, Elinor, Isidora and Monçada. He asks John and Monçada to leave him alone for his last few hours of mortal existence. They hear terrible sounds from the room, but when they enter, the room is empty. They follow Melmoth's tracks to the top of a cliff, and see his handkerchief on a crag below them. "Exchanging looks of silent and unutterable horror", they return home.


Honoré de Balzac wrote a follow-up story (Melmoth Reconciled) and considered Maturin's novel worthy of a place among Molière's Dom Juan, Goethe's Faust and Lord Byron's Manfred as one of the supreme icons of modern European literature.[4]

Oscar Wilde, during his travels after release from prison, called himself Sebastian Melmoth, deriving this pseudonym from the title character in his great-uncle's novel and from Saint Sebastian.[4]

Historian of English literature Walter Raleigh, in his book The English Novel (1905), stated "in Frankenstein and Melmoth the Wanderer, the Romantic orgy reached its height".[5] The novel was described by H. P. Lovecraft as "an enormous stride in the evolution of the horror-tale",[4] and Maurice Richardson also wrote an essay for Lilliput magazine praising Melmoth.[6] Melmoth the Wanderer was cited by Karl Edward Wagner as one of the 13 best supernatural horror novels.[7] Thomas M. Disch placed Melmoth the Wanderer at number four in his list of classic fantasy stories.[8] Devendra P. Varma described Melmoth the Wanderer as "the crowning achievement of the Gothic Romance".[9] Michael Moorcock has described Melmoth the Wanderer as "one of my favourites".[10]

Literary critic John Strachan notes the fact that much of the novel is set in contemporary Ireland and Spain is not surprising, considering the extent to which both countries haunted Maturin's imagination.[11] Ireland, despite its adherence to Catholicism, at least had the perceived "benefit of the Union and the blessings of a free or mixed government to prevent it sliding into tyranny and oppression", whereas Spain "had no such good fortune and was a country where the untrammelled efforts of Catholicism were displayed".[11]


Marsh's Library held an exhibition celebrating the bicentenary of the book in 2020, entitled "Ragged, Livid & On Fire: The Wanderings of Melmoth at 200".[3]

References in other works[edit]


  1. ^ Tichelaar, Tyler R. The Gothic Novel: From Transgression to Redemption, Modern History Press 2012, ISBN 978-1-61599-139-6 (hardcover), ISBN 978-1-61599-138-9 (paperback), ISBN 978-1-61599-140-2 (eBook)
  2. ^ a b "CHARLES ROBERT MATURIN, MELMOTH THE WANDERER: A TALE, 4 VOLS, (EDINBURGH, 1820)". Retrieved 2 August 2023.
  3. ^ a b c d "Ragged, Livid & On Fire: The Wanderings of Melmoth at 200". Retrieved 2 August 2023.
  4. ^ a b c Lovecraft, Howard Phillips (2010). Supernatural Horror in Literature, The Modern Library, p. 119. ISBN 0-8129-7441-7
  5. ^ Walter Raleigh, "The Revival of Romance" in The English Novel Reprinted in Jason Colavito, ed. A Hideous Bit of Morbidity: An Anthology of Horror Criticism from the Enlightenment to World War I. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008. ISBN 0786452242 (p. 58)
  6. ^ James Cawthorn and Michael Moorcock, Fantasy: The 100 Best Books. Xanadu, 1988, ISBN 0947761241 (pp. 139-140)
  7. ^ N. G. Christakos, "Three By Thirteen: The Karl Edward Wagner Lists" in Black Prometheus: A Critical Study of Karl Edward Wagner, ed. Benjamin Szumskyj, Gothic Press 2007.
  8. ^ Thomas M. Disch, 13 All-Time Classics of Fantasy. Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone Magazine, May–June 1983, TZ Publications, Inc.
  9. ^ Devendra P. Varma, "Maturin, Charles" in Jack Sullivan, ed. The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural. Viking Press, 1986, ISBN 0-670-80902-0 (p. 285).
  10. ^ Michael Moorcock, Wizardry and Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy. Austin, MonkeyBrain Books, 2004. ISBN 1932265074 (p. 40).
  11. ^ a b Maley, Willy, ed. (2013). Charles Robert Maturin, Roman Catholicism and Melmoth the Wanderer. Reimagining Ireland (Volume 38). Bern: Peter Lang. ISBN 978-3-0343-0214-2.
  12. ^ Banville, John. The Book of Evidence, New York: Vintage International, 2001. pg. 98.
  13. ^ Eugene Onegin. Reading, Berkshire, Great Britain: Cox and Wyman Ltd., 1998. 62. Print.
  14. ^ Michel Remy, Surrealism in Britain. Aldershot, Hants, England; Brookfield, Vt. : Ashgate, 1999 ISBN 1859282822 (p.331-33).
  15. ^ Garrison, Peter. "Melmoth the First". Retrieved 2018-03-22.

External links[edit]