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Posted August 4, 2000
Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin
Maturin's novel relates the story of Melmoth, a scholar who traded his soul to Infernal powers in return for answers to all of his questions about the Universe. He has 100 extra years to live; in that time, if he can find someone to volunteer to take his place in Hell, he is free. Otherwise, at the end of the 100 years, Melmoth will be damned. Melmoth the Wanderer is a Gothic novel in the highest tradition of the Romantic period. It's structure, however, makes it unique. It folds in upon itself, beginning with the present and ending with the future, but somewhere in between moving progressively backwards as the narrator tries to unlock the secrets of Melmoth's life, just as Melmoth tried to unlock the secrets of the Universe. The characters, Melmoth, Emmalee, the many Jews who help Melmoth, are beautifully written and engaging. The novel is worth reading for Maturin's virtuoso touch with structure alone, but also for the wonderful touches and passages, particularly where Melmoth struggles with his conscience and reveals that even fiends have a soul. The novel questions what it means to search for knowledge, to have a family, to be in love, and to accept responsibility for your own fate. Melmoth the Wanderer asks questions about why mercy is so hard to find, why supposedly pious people often cause the most suffering, and what it might take to redeem a minion of Hell. An ambiguous ending caps off the novel and allows you to answer these questions for yourself.
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