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Melmoth the Wanderer – Book Review

Melmoth the Wanderer

Written by: Charles R. Maturin
Published by: Oxford University Press

Melmoth the Wanderer, published in 1820, is a prototypical Gothic novel. It is a fairly simple story on the surface: the titular Melmoth is a scholar who, a la Faust, trades his soul to the devil in return for knowledge and 150 more years to live. If, in that time, he can find someone willing to trade his or her soul for his, he is free–but the volunteer is doomed to hell. The novel also references the legend of the Wandering Jew, doubling the tragedy of Melmoth’s life. The finding of someone to take his place and what he does when he succeeds in this quest is nothing short of fascinating, as well as an interesting psychological study. Is redemption even possible for such a lost soul?

The tale is not straightforward–its complicated structure has been the death of many an English major, but is well worth the unraveling. The book folds in upon itself, playing havoc with the reader’s sense of chronology, working backwards through time. The novel’s complex structure is reminiscent of the layers upon layers within Melmoth’s mind and soul; while he wants out of his deal with the devil, he still possesses some human morality. It is also a commentary upon the complexity of social conditions in England at the time of its writing. The author, Reverend Charles Maturin, was greatly concerned with what he saw as the breakdown of contemporary religion between the excesses of Catholicism and the pride of his own Protestantism.

[ad#longpost]For a novel that has shown up so often in pop culture and literary history, Melmoth is relatively unknown and unjustly overlooked. Writers from Nabokov to Simon R. Green to Grant Morrison have referenced Melmoth in their own work. If you’re a lit geek or just a geek in general, you owe it to yourself to read, conquer, and enjoy this great and genuinely fascinating work. This book is highly recommended for anyone who enjoys complex novels, supernatural tales, or literary puzzles. If you enjoyed Faust, try this for another take on a similar theme. Sure, it’s caused at least two grad students in literature to swear off novels forever and one other to quit school entirely, but surely you won’t be so easily defeated. Besides, Lovecraft loved this novel–who are you to disagree?

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