History: This book was published in 1820. Charles Robert Maturin was Oscar Wilde’s Great uncle. 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.
The novel was cited by Karl Edward Wagner as one of the 13 best supernatural horror novels, and by H. P. Lovecraft as "an enormous stride in the evolution of the horror-tale". The novel also offers social commentary on early 19th century England and, throughout the novel, denounces Roman Catholicism while expounding the virtues of Protestantism.
Plot: The central character, Melmoth, is a scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for 150 extra years of life; he spends that time searching for someone who will take over the pact for him. The novel actually takes place in the present, but this backstory is revealed through several nested stories-within-a-story that work backwards through time.
The story opens in 1816: John Melmoth, a student in Dublin, visits his dying uncle. He sees a portrait of his namesake dated '1646' and catches glimpse of 'the Traveller'. His uncle eventually dies, and at the funeral, Biddy Brannigan tells John the family story. A stranger called Stanton arrived looking for the Traveller, and left behind a manuscript. His uncle leave John a letter in which he directs John to read Stanton's manuscript, which narrates as follows:
Stanton's story opens in Spain in the 1670's. Stanton encounters the Traveller laughing at the sight of two lovers who have been blasted by lightning. An old Spanish woman tells him the story of the Cardoza wedding at which the Traveller was an uninvited guest. The bride died on her wedding night and the bridegroom went mad. Stanton pursues and finds the Traveller in a theatre in London. The Traveller tells him they will meet again. Stanton's obsession with the Traveller is judged madness and he is tricked into a madhouse. There, the Traveller appears and offers to free him if he .... but Stanton refuses. Somehow, Stanton does eventually escape and goes to look for him in Ireland, but never meets the Traveller again. Following his uncle's wish, John burns the portrait, but later that night dreams he is visited by his ancestor.
The following stormy night, John witnesses a shipwreck and sees the Traveller looking on laughing and saying 'Let them all perish!' John tries to approach him, but slips and falls into the sea. John recovers from near drowning, saved by a Spaniard, the sole survivor of the wreck. Alonzo Monçada begins to tell him his story, set in Spain.
He is confined unwillingly to a monastery by his family.His appeal to leave the monastery is rejected, his brother Juan sends messages saying he will help him escape.He attempts to escape with the help of a fellow monk, a parricide. The parricide monk tells his story. They escape, but it is a trap and Monçada's brother is killed. Monçada is held and examined in the prison of the Inquisition. He is visited in his cell by the Traveller, who says he will help him escape. A fire breaks out, the prison is evacuated and in the confusion Monçada escapes.
He finds his way to the house of a Jew, but officers of the Inquisition arrive searching for him. The Jew helps Monçada escape through a secret trapdoor into an underground passage. He finds himself in a secret chamber with a venerable Jewish scholar, Adonijah. The chamber is decorated with the skeletons of members of Adonijah's family.
Monçada is almost out of his mind with terror, but Adonijah gives him food and drink, and says he must transcribe a certain manuscript for him. This contains The Tale of the Indians: an island in the Indies which has been devastated and depopulated by a storm is said to be haunted by a white goddess. A pair of Indian lovers discover the white goddess on the island and worship her. (The story is announced as 'The Tale of the Indians', but at its conclusion this is altered to 'The Tale of the Indian'.)
The Tale of the Indians. Immalee, the name the natives have given to the 'white goddess', encounters the Traveller. He tells her he comes from 'the world that suffers', but she is immediately fascinated by him. Immalee is again visited by the Traveller who starts to try to destroy her innocence, showing her the shortcomings of various religions. Immalee decides she will be a Christian. The Traveller returns and shows Immalee the failings of human societies and human relationships. Immalee despairs of her love for him. She reiterates her love for him and begs him to stay with her and not to go back to his world of 'evil and sorrow', but he will not. During a great storm, the Traveller and Immalee reach a crisis in their relationship. She falls senseless to the ground and the Traveller departs. Three years later in Spain: a young woman faints at the sight of a stranger (Immalee and the Traveller). The long-lost Immalee, now Isidora, has been restored to her family in Madrid. Melmoth appears beneath her window and once more attempts to seduce her. Melmoth continues to appear beneath Isidora's window, but loses patience and renounces her. Isidora is sanguine, knowing Melmoth will not abandon her for long. Isidora's father writes to her mother revealing he has found a husband for his daughter: Isidora and Melmoth plan to elope. Isidora's father is visited by his daughter in a dream, asking him to save her. Isidora and Melmoth elope by night, and he leads her to a remote chapel where they are married by a mysterious hermit, whose hand was 'as cold as that of death' (in a later chapter it is revealed that the hermit was already dead).
Isidora's father, traveling home, catches a glimpse of the Traveller, and encounters a stranger at an inn who tells him 'The Tale of Guzman's Family'.
'The Tale of Guzman's Family'. Guzman. a wealthy Spanish merchant, has a younger sister who marries a poor German musician, Walberg. Guzman decides to make them his heirs and brings them and their children, and Walberg's parents back to Spain. The Walberg family have got used to living in style and comfort when Guzman dies. His Will leaves everything to the church. A friendly priest tries to help them but the case is thrown out of court. The family sinks into desperate poverty, the grandmother dies, the son sells his blood, the daughter almost becomes a prostitute. At last, almost insane, Walberg decides to end it by killing them all, and thinks he has, when news arrives that the true Will has been found and the family is saved. Isidora's father falls asleep and wakes to find the teller of the Tale replaced by the Traveller. The Traveller shows him the corpse of the story-teller.
Isidora's father continues his journey, but again encounters the Traveller who tells him 'The Lovers' Tale', about the three grandchildren of Sir Roger Mortimer: Margaret (Sir Roger's heir), Elinor and John. 'The Lovers' Tale' continued. Elinor and John fall in love, but John jilts her at the altar, and Elinor flees to Yorkshire. Elinor returns to live near Margaret and John, hoping to regain his affections, but he remains strangely aloof. Elinor sees the hopelessness of her situation and returns to Yorkshire. Margaret marries John. Margaret dies in childbirth and John's mother confesses she invented a story that Elinor and John are brother and sister. John becomes insane with grief, and Elinor takes care of him. Elinor is tempted by Melmoth the Traveller, but turns to a local clergyman for help. John dies, and soon after Elinor also.
Isidora's father complains about the length of the Tale. The Traveller then tells him the tale of Isidora and her father, urging him to save his daughter. But Isidora's father, strangely distracted, is called away on business to another part of Spain.
Isidora is discovered returned to her family, but she is secretly pregnant with Melmoth's child. She has a presentiment that she will not live, and gets Melmoth to promise the child will be brought up a Christian. Isidora's father returns home with the bridegroom. In the middle of the wedding celebrations Melmoth appears and tries to abduct Isidora. Her brother tries to intervene and is killed. Isidora falls senseless and Melmoth the Wanderer escapes. Isidora reveals she is married. She gives birth to a daughter. Isidora and her baby are taken away by the Inquisition.
Isidora is examined by the Inquisition. They cannot break her so threaten to take away her child. When they come for the child they find it is dead. Isidora, herself dying of grief, remembers her island paradise. She asks if 'he' will be in the heavenly paradise.
Monçada tells John that he will relate the story of Adonijah's family, but they are interrupted by the appearance of the Wanderer. He confesses to them his purpose on Earth, 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!' The Wanderer sleeps and has a vision of his own damnation, and of the salvation of Stanton, Walberg, Elinor, Isidora and Monçada.
John and Monçada approach the Wanderer the next morning, but he asks them to leave him alone for his last few hours of mortal existence. They hear terrible noises coming from the room, but when they again enter, it is empty. They follow the Wanderer's tracks to the top of a cliff. They see his handkerchief on a crag below them, and, 'exchanging looks of silent and unutterable horror', return slowly home.
Review: One hundred years after Jonathan Swift, Maturin takes up his Irish predecessor's gift for harsh, even malevolent satire against any and all offenders - organized religion, government, lovers, warriors - even making broad, devastating comments on humanity in general. Maturin and his characters are quick to point out that this is not 'Radcliffe-romance' gothic, in the direct style of works like "The Mysteries of Udolpho". They are right. Rather than the seemingly landscape-obsessed, rationalistic Radcliffe, Maturin takes his direct gothic influences from the claustrophobic psychological terrors of Godwin's "Caleb Williams," Lewis' "The Monk," and M.W. Shelley's "Frankenstein."
Unlike "The Monk," however, Maturin's novel does not rely heavily on Lewis' supernatural machinery (ghosts, demons, bleeding nuns, etc.). Instead, he offers several apparently unconnected stories that concentrate on families in desperate straits and individuals in extreme crises, pushing the limits of man's inhumanity to man. The connecting element, the wild card with the wild eyes, that pops up just when the characters most/least need him, is Melmoth the Wanderer.
"Melmoth" also draws heavily from Cervantes' "Don Quixote," which provides a great point of comparison for the main character. Where Don Quixote was a wandering knight, pledged to help the helpless, Melmoth is a wandering agent of evil, whose mission is to prey on the helpless. Melmoth has 150 years to tempt the indigent and desperate into selling their souls for wealth, power, or simple relief, and trading places with him.
Again looking backward to "Quixote" and forward to Stoker's "Dracula," "Melmoth" is also heavily concerned with it's own construction as a text. The various stories are pieced together by eyewitnesses, interviewers, and ancient manuscripts, often at several removes from their originals. There is even one gentleman in the novel who is collecting material to write a book about Melmoth the Wanderer.
Opening Line: “In the autumn of 1816, John Melmoth, a student in Trinity College, Dublin, quitted it to attend a dying uncle on whom his hopes for independence chiefly rested.”
Closing Line: “Melmoth and Monçada exchanged looks of silent and unutterable horror, and returned slowly home. “
Quotes: “There is no error more absurd, and yet more rooted in the heart of man, than the belief that his sufferings will promote his spiritual safety.”