The central character, Melmoth (a Wandering Jew type), 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 takes place in the present but the backstory is revealed through several nested stories-within-a-story that work backwards through time.
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Charles Robert Maturin
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Balzac likens the hero of one of his short stories to “Moliere’s Don Juan, Goethe’s Faust, Byron’s Manfred, Maturin’s Melmoth—great allegorical figures drawn by the greatest men of genius in Europe.”
“But what is ‘Melmoth’? Why is HE classed as ‘a great allegorical figure’?” exclaimed many a surprised reader. Few had perused—few know at this day—the terrible story of Melmoth the Wanderer, half man, half devil, who has bartered away his soul for the glory of power and knowledge, and, repenting of his bargain, tries again and again to persuade some desperate human to change places with him— penetrates to the refuge of misery, the death chamber, even the madhouse, seeking one in such utter agony as to accept his help, and take his curse—but ever fails.
Why this extraordinary tale, told with wild and compelling sweep, has remained so deep in oblivion, appears immediately on a glance at the original. The author, Charles Robert Maturin, a needy, eccentric Irish clergyman of 1780–1824, could cause intense suspense and horror—could read keenly into human motives—could teach an awful moral lesson in the guise of fascinating fiction, but he could not stick to a long story with simplicity. His dozens of shifting scenes, his fantastic coils of “tales within tales” sadly perplex the reader of “Melmoth” in the first version. It is hoped, however, that the present selection, by its directness and the clearness of the story thread, may please the modern reader better than the involved original, and bring before a wider public some of the most gripping descriptions ever penned in English.
In Volume IV of these stories comes a tale, “Melmoth Reconciled,” which Balzac himself wrote, while under the spell of Maturin’s “great allegorical figure.” Here the unhappy being succeeds in his purpose. The story takes place in mocking, careless Paris, “that branch establishment of hell”; a cashier, on the eve of embezzlement and detection, cynically accedes to Melmoth’s terms, and accepts his help—with what unlooked-for results, the reader may see.
John Melmoth, student at Trinity College, Dublin, having journeyed to County Wicklow for attendance at the deathbed of his miserly uncle, finds the old man, even in his last moments, tortured by avarice, and by suspicion of all around him. He whispers to John:
“I want a glass of wine, it would keep me alive for some hours, but there is not one I can trust to get it for me,—they’d steal a bottle, and ruin me.” John was greatly shocked. “Sir, for God’s sake, let ME get a glass of wine for you.” “Do you know where?” said the old man, with an expression in his face John could not understand. “No, Sir; you know I have been rather a stranger here, Sir.” “Take this key,” said old Melmoth, after a violent spasm; “take this key, there is wine in that closet,—Madeira. I always told them there was nothing there, but they did not believe me, or I should not have been robbed as I have been. At one time I said it was whisky, and then I fared worse than ever, for they drank twice as much of it.”
John took the key from his uncle’s hand; the dying man pressed it as he did so, and John, interpreting this as a mark of kindness, returned the pressure. He was undeceived by the whisper that followed,—“John, my lad, don’t drink any of that wine while you are there.” “Good God!” said John, indignantly throwing the key on the bed; then, recollecting that the miserable being before him was no object of resentment, he gave the promise required, and entered the closet, which no foot but that of old Melmoth had entered for nearly sixty years. He had some difficulty in finding out the wine, and indeed stayed long enough to justify his uncle’s suspicions,—but his mind was agitated, and his hand unsteady. He could not but remark his uncle’s extraordinary look, that had the ghastliness of fear superadded to that of death, as he gave him permission to enter his closet. He could not but see the looks of horror which the women exchanged as he approached it. And, finally, when he was in it, his memory was malicious enough to suggest some faint traces of a story, too horrible for imagination, connected with it. He remembered in one moment most distinctly, that no one but his uncle had ever been known to enter it for many years.
Before he quitted it, he held up the dim light, and looked around him with a mixture of terror and curiosity. There was a great deal of decayed and useless lumber, such as might be supposed to be heaped up to rot in a miser’s closet; but John’s eyes were in a moment, and as if by magic, riveted on a portrait that hung on the wall, and appeared, even to his untaught eye, far superior to the tribe of family pictures that are left to molder on the walls of a family mansion. It represented a man of middle age. There was nothing remarkable in the costume, or in the countenance, but THE EYES, John felt, were such as one feels they wish they had never seen, and feels they can never forget. Had he been acquainted with the poetry of Southey, he might have often exclaimed in his after-life,
“Only the eyes had life,
They gleamed with demon light.”—THALABA.
From an impulse equally resistless and painful, he approached the portrait, held the candle toward it, and could distinguish the words on the border of the painting,—Jno. Melmoth, anno 1646. John was neither timid by nature, nor nervous by constitution, nor superstitious from habit, yet he continued to gaze in stupid horror on this singular picture, till, aroused by his uncle’s cough, he hurried into his room. The old man swallowed the wine. He appeared a little revived; it was long since he had tasted such a cordial,—his heart appeared to expand to a momentary confidence. “John, what did you see in that room?” “Nothing, Sir.” “That’s a lie; everyone wants to cheat or to rob me.” “Sir, I don’t want to do either.” “Well, what did you see that you—you took notice of?” “Only a picture, Sir.” “A picture, Sir!—the original is still alive.” John, though under the impression of his recent feelings, could not but look incredulous. “John,” whispered his uncle;— “John, they say I am dying of this and that; and one says it is for want of nourishment, and one says it is for want of medicine,—but, John,” and his face looked hideously ghastly, “I am dying of a fright. That man,” and he extended his meager arm toward the closet, as if he was pointing to a living being; “that man, I have good reason to know, is alive still.” “How is that possible, Sir?” said John involuntarily, “the date on the picture is 1646.” “You have seen it,—you have noticed it,” said his uncle. “Well,”—he rocked and nodded on his bolster for a moment, then, grasping John’s hand with an unutterable look, he exclaimed, “You will see him again, he is alive.” Then, sinking back on his bolster, he fell into a kind of sleep or stupor, his eyes still open, and fixed on John.
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