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Utterance and the Unutterable: Narrative Conditions

in Melmoth the Wanderer

Jeremy DeVito, 2011
Perhaps the most understandable reaction to Charles Maturin's gothic
novel,Melmoth the Wanderer, is that of confusion. The book is anything but
simple to digest as attempts at locating a narrative center from which to
scrutinize characters and events are repeatedly frustrated. In
fact, Melmoth is a novel constructed around multiple shifting and decidedly
decentred viewpoints. As storyline piles upon storyline the reader is left
struggling to keep up with rapidly changing narrative perspectives.
Ultimately, the narrative(s) is/are defined by what poststructuralist theorists
have termed 'enonciation' or, more broadly, 'utterance.' V.N. Volosinov
states that "The organizing center of any utterance, of any experience, is
not within but outside in the social milieu surrounding the individual
being" (60). That is to say, each utterance is coloured and qualified by the
conditions of its being uttered; communications are overtly tied to the
situations surrounding their transmission. As such, an utterance is not to be
seen as transmitting a static and self-contained communication that can be
repeated, but as an ever shifting dialogue that changes form with its
changing surroundings. In making meaning, the telling is as important as
the tale. It is this complexity that is reflected in the overtly
dialogic/polyphonic structure of Melmoth the Wanderer. As the novel
progresses, any hint of a centred and authoritative narrative stance
(whatever form it might take) gets confused with and obscured by the
several surrounding narrative conditions and the several narrative voices of
the tale's several narrators.
Certainly, one of the most significant conditions of utterance explored within
the pages of Melmoth the Wanderer is the factor of the speaker. The novel,
despite its intriguingly singular subtitle A Tale, is delivered by several and
various tellers. From the very outset, Maturin points up the importance of
this detail. A telling case in point occurs when the senior Melmoth, near
death, requests that one of the hired mourners at his bed will "get up a
prayer" for him (15). In compliance, one of the markedly Catholic women
begins to read, "with more emphasis than good discretion" a badly chosen
passage from Melmoth's "Protestant prayer book" (16). Here, the import of
the speaker's identity is underscored when John Melmoth, "hearing the
inappropriate words uttered by the ignorant woman" takes the book from
her hand and begins to read a more suitable selection "in a suppressed
voice" (16). What is notable about this incident is the fact that the prayer
book, the text itself, remains the same. The nature of the utterance,
though, is altered significantly, with regard to both tone and content, as a
result of shifting readers. Thus, it is clear from the very beginning of the
novel that who speaks is as important a feature of utterance as what is said
in that the speaker's distinctiveness invades and colours both form and
In effect, this episode serves as a reminder that there are no static and
authoritative accounts; utterance is always in flux, shifting as the origin of
vocalization shifts. Complicating this matter further within the novel is the
fact that it is constructed largely of embedded tales, layering narrative voice
upon narrative voice. The effects of this narrative mode are illustrated early
in the second chapter of the novel when John Melmoth summons an old
woman to explain the strange circumstances of his uncle's death; the
narrator, at this point, relays the information in "nearly" the woman's own
words but sparing "the reader her endless circumlocutions, her Irishisms,
and the frequent interruptions" (22). What remains is, thus, a hybrid report
collaboratively generated through the utterances of the old woman and the
narrator both. Hence, the absence of any single authoritative voice within
the novel is made overt as each account is the product of several various
This having been said, Maturin does begin his novel with a more or less
conventional third-person narration and even has his narrator refer back to
the "author of the tale" (12) at one early point as the implied authoritative
voice behind the text. However, this perspective does not last very long.
Throughout the greater part of the novel there is an overt absence of any
singular authoritative voice in favour of a complex layering and
fragmentation of marginalized, disenfranchised, and often, as Julia Wright
notes, 'disinherited' voices. Thus, fewer than twenty pages into the novel,
the history of Melmoth the Wanderer is originally given by Biddy Brannigan,
at the request of John Melmoth. Of note here is the narrator's assertion that
Brannigan is sent for only as "Melmoth's last resource" (24). The initial
description of the "withered Sybil" (10), given upon Melmoth's having first
arrived at his uncle's home, presents Brannigan in a decidedly dismissive
light. Overtly associated with the folk traditions of the Irish peasantry as an
authority on "the 'evil eye,'" she is characterized as both a charlatan,
"practicing on the fears, the ignorance, and the sufferings of beings as
miserable as herself," and a superstitious believer who "probably felt a large
share of" her audience's enthusiasm (10). It is significant, then, that this
blatantly discredited source serves as the voice of the novel's earliest
account of the Wanderer. Moreover, Brannigan's narrative is couched in
terms consistent with her folk/oral traditional values and assumptions; it is
founded upon "strange reports," and what "was said" to be true (26), as
well as what "was therefore judged," and the teller's own "solemnly-
attested belief" (27). At this point the narrative has entered into uncertain
territory. On the one hand, both the voice and the narrative mode are
compromised through the preceding scepticism expressed by the third
person narrator. On the other hand, Brannigan's narrative is allocated a
certain degree of privilege here as the only account available to this point,
the third person narrator having, in essence, deferred to the sibyl.
Stanton's account, following closely after Brannigan's oral narrative,
displaces the authoritative centre in a comparable manner. Like Brannigan's
narrative, Stanton's is marked by the identity of its teller. Stanton, a
Protestant Englishman, is described as being "a man of literature,
intelligence, and curiosity" (28). Hence, in place of Brannigan's oral tale
grounded in folk legend and tradition, Stanton's narrative takes the apt
form of a written manuscript and is grounded in first-hand experience and
observation. The manuscript is, in essence, akin to a historical or scientific
report. It is a collection of data gathered by Stanton in his effort to satisfy
his curiosity about Melmoth. This reading is supported by Stanton's feelings,
upon having tracked Melmoth down in London, "of disappointment at the
futility of his pursuits, like Bruce at discovering the source of the Nile, or
Gibbon on concluding his History" (43-44). The surface implications here
are that Stanton's account, being based in fact and discovery rather than
superstition, will surpass Brannigan's in reliability and detail. This, of
course, is not the case. Where Brannigan offers a concise yet whole
depiction of Melmoth, Stanton offers fragmented details not only in that the
physical manuscript is disintegrating, but also in the fact that it ends with
Stanton asserting his "desire of meeting him once more" (59). Such is the
nature of Stanton's investigatory mode; synthesis is deferred as additional
data is sought out. Furthermore, there are indications that Stanton may be
unreliable; although he is a self-described "man of genius" (45), his
obsession with Melmoth suggests "to some prudent people that he was
deranged" (45) and he ends up in a mad-house as a result. Thus, as with
Brannigan's narrative, the conditions of utterance surrounding Stanton's
manuscript make it suspect. More important, though, is the fact that such
utterances are the only accounts of Melmoth that the novel provides as the
third-person narrator of remains detached, neither substantiating nor
refuting the first-person accounts as given.
However, the key move toward narrative distancing begins with the "Tale of
the Spaniard." Once again, the identity of the teller becomes a crucial
condition of utterance here as the distinctly Catholic voice of Alonzo
Moncada, the first person narrator of this tale and the framing voice of the
greater part of the novel, displaces a third-person narrative voice that has
been marked as unquestionably Protestant in its identification of a
"Protestant prayer book" as one of "our prayer-books" (16). This narrative
shift is significant in that, as Robert Kiely notes "Melmoth the Wanderer is
filled with satirical jibes at the Catholic preoccupation with active charity
and the competitive means by which Catholics try to attain heaven" (205)
and, for the most part, these anti-Catholic sentiments are presented either
directly or indirectly through Moncada. A striking example comes in the
form of a speech given by a dying monk who advises Moncada that "The
repetition of religious duties, without the feeling or spirit of religion,
produces an incurable callosity of heart" and, further, that he believes "half
our lay-brothers to be Atheists" (112). However, Moncada's cynicism is
balanced by his acknowledgment of such "just" Catholics as the Bishop who
comes to rescue him and even the guards of the Inquisition at the hands of
whom Moncada states "we were treated with great humanity and
consideration" (240) on the night of the fire. There can be little doubt that
the overall tone of the tale is both infected with and complicated by the
identity of its Catholic teller.
As with previous tellers, Moncada's identity would also seem to have an
influence upon the form that his tale takes. For all intents and purposes,
Moncada's narrative relating his experiences in the monastery might be
classified as a typical martyr's tale (excepting, of course, the fact that
Moncada survives). Although Moncada does describe the physical
deprivation and anguish to which he is subjected by his fellow monks
stating that he "had no food for many days" and was permitted "no water in
[his] cell" (152), his focus remains on the spiritual deprivation from which
he suffers. "[E]xcluded from the matins" (151), Moncada protests to his
Superior that he is "forbid to pray, they have stripped my cell of crucifix,
rosary, and the vessel for holy water" (153). However, Moncada makes clear
that, in spite of these conditions, he did "still continue to pray" (159). This
narrative, then, presents itself as something of a saint's tale of devotion in
the face of religious persecution. In keeping with this tradition Moncada
speaks of being tempted with the promise of relief from his suffering if he
will renounce his faith and "Rise from your bed, trample on the crucifix
which you will find at the foot of it, [and] spit on the picture of the Virgin
that lies beside it" (155). Ultimately, Moncada's refusal to reject his faith in
face of such great suffering casts the speaker as a devoted saintly figure. It
is significant, then, that Moncada prefaces his account of Melmoth with this
personal history, thereby affording his voice a degree of religious authority.
However, this authority is complicated by the fact that the tormenters in his
tale are Catholic monks and, although Moncada desires not to be a monk,
he remains always a Catholic. Moncada's position in offering a doubly
marginalized perspective (that of a Catholic excluded by Catholics) remains,
thus, in the foreground of his speech as a significant condition of utterance.
This foregrounding of the conditions of utterance is continued after
Moncada's escape from the Inquisition when he breaks off from his own
history to tell the "Tale of the Indians" that he has transcribed for the Jew,
Adonijah. Again, what is significant here is not only that there is another
level of narrative, but that this narrative comes from a Jewish source
(moving us further into the margins from the Protestant Christianity of
Maturin himself as well as the third-person narrator of his frame tale).
Making this narrative shift most intriguing, though, is that fact that with
Adonijah's manuscript Maturin provides what is essentially the closest that
the novel comes to supplying an omniscient narrative. Indeed, Adonijah's
account moves from "an island in the Indian sea" (272) to "a villa belonging
to [the Aliaga] family" in Madrid (330), to "a wretched inn" (395) where
Don Francisco stops for the night on his journey homeward. In each setting
the narrative presents the details of private conversations and even the very
internal thoughts of various characters. Whereas Moncada includes in the
telling of his own history explanations for his knowledge of events taking
place in his absence, more than once in the form of a confession from "a
monk who was on his dying bed" (164), Adonijah's manuscript offers no
such explanations. The implication here is that the true origin of the
manuscript is to be found beyond the limitations of human knowledge in the
divine. Hence, Adonijah takes on the characteristics of a prophet like figure
and his manuscript those of divinely inspired scripture. This portrayal is
reinforced by Adonijah's very language which is marked with the distinctive
verbal cues of the King James Bible: "thou shalt know the secret that hath
been a burthen to the soul of Adonijah" (269). In one sense, then, the
conditions of utterance surrounding Adonijah's words suggest a uniquely
authoritative perspective. However, this reading is complicated not only by
the fact that Adonijah occupies a marginal position as a Spanish Jew, but
also by the fact that the words of the manuscript are delivered through
Monsada's own layer of narrative and that their very accuracy relies heavily
upon Moncada's memory.
It has been pointed out by some critics, such as Chris Baldick, that despite
this layering and shifting of narrators, the narrative remains "tonally
continuous, so that the reader will often forget (as Maturin himself seems to
do) just who is speaking at any given point" (xii). However, this observation
ignores the distinct shifts in tone that often take place within the writings or
tellings of a single narrator, such as Adonijah. One of the more pronounced
examples of such a shift occurs in relation to Adonijah's change of setting
from Immalee's Island to her home in Madrid. Here, highly charged
melodrama invested with "emotion and terror" (324) gives way
momentarily. Taking its place is a comic satire on Catholicism as the self-
consumed Donna Clara expresses her baffled heartache to the gluttonous
Father Jose, "Maturin's only full comic character" (Harris 274), over Isidora's
(Immalee's) suggestion "that religion ought to be a system whose spirit was
universal love" (333). Later, Donna Clara has her "mind [made] easy" at
Father Jose's assurance that "all the inhabitants of those accursed Indian
isles [will] be damned everlastingly" (339). The shift to an overtly ironic
tone here is somewhat disorienting in that it seems ill-suited both for
Adonijah's prophetic script and Moncada's urgent narration. Rather, there is
the distinct sense in such passages that the voice of Maturin's narrator, or of
Maturin himself, is invading the text. A more intriguing instance of this type
of confusion occurs in chapter twenty-two in the form of a strangely out of
place defence, addressed "[T]o the mere reader of romance" (373), of the
narrative's seeming implausibility. As Linda Bayer-Berenbaum notes, "The
reader is suspended between perspectives when he reads such statements.
He finds himself wandering between realities in an eerie, undefined limbo"
(88). In short, Maturin's novel is anything but tonally continuous; tonal
shifts within the novel simply resist serving their expected purpose of
drawing clear distinctions between separate voices, instead working to point
up the layering of narratives and the cross contamination of narrative
stances (including that of the author) that results.
Tangled within these layers of narrative in Melmoth is "The Tale of Guzman's
Family" (which turns out to be the story of the Walberg family). Some critics
have dismissed this section as a throw away story, considering the marginal
and almost invisible role of Melmoth within the tale. Joseph Lew, however,
notes that the conditions of Walberg are those in the novel most easily
identifiable with Maturin himself who was, like Walberg, a poor Protestant in
Catholic surroundings, struggling to feed his family. What we might
otherwise read for clues as to the authoritative authorial stance of the novel
is ultimately obscured, though, as it is relayed back to us only through
several levels of enunciation and marginalization. The original teller of this
tale is described only as "a stranger" who is "willing to pass away some
hours [] in relating [] some circumstances relating to the wanderer"
(397). Although not verified, there are hints that this stranger, with his
"collections of facts relative to [Melmoth]" (396), is Stanton. The time
period is certainly correct as Moncada makes clear in his suggestion that
three years prior to this meeting Melmoth had divided his time between
Immalee's island and "the mad-house where the Englishman Stanton was
tossing on his straw" (298). Assuming that this is the case, it is interesting
to note that before reaching the ears of John Melmoth this narrative
concerning a Protestant family and originating form a Protestant orator
passes through Adonijah the Jew, and Moncada the Catholic. Simply put,
any temptation to identify the intermittently manifest Protestant stance as a
locus of authority within the novel is undercut by the inclusion of said
stance in the enonciative process. Even the assumed position of the author
himself, as represented by Walberg, is ultimately displaced by the
collaboration of several marginalized narrative voices.
Maturin makes it a point to continuously draw attention to these layers
through a number of different techniques. The most simple of these is his
use of punctuation, specifically the insertion of a single quotation mark (') at
the beginning of each paragraph not attributed to his third-person narrator.
It might be argued that this use of grammatical signposts is not so thorough
as it should be, in that Maturin overlooks indicating the position of
narratives within narratives with double and triple quotation marks.
Nevertheless, the result is a constant reminder that these tales originate out
of specific tellers under specific conditions. This point is made even more
overtly with occasional direct narrative intrusions through which the third
person narrator steps in as if to remind us of the complex conditions
surrounding the tale. Perhaps the most explicit example of this occurs
during the "Tale of the Indians" which, having been interrupted by John
Melmoth, is continued by Moncada only after the narrator has stepped in to
announce, "He proceeded with the story of the unhappy Indian, as recorded
in the parchments of Adonijah, which he had been compelled to copy, and
of which he was anxious to impress every line and letter on his listener, to
substantiate his own extraordinary story" (298-99). Here Maturin
underscores the importance to our understanding of meaning of not only
the tale itself and its several tellers, but also of the physical parchments,
the listener, and even Moncada's motivation for relaying the narrative. Such
passages, serve the function of bringing these conditions to the fore as a
reminder that utterance is not inert or fixed. It is constantly being
reassembled and enonciated through conditions of narration.
Although easily overlooked, one of the most significant of these conditions
in shaping the narration is the actual physical space in which utterances are
formed. Throughout the novel Maturin consistently provides a specific
setting for the transmission of each narrative, from Biddy Brannigan's oral
legend delivered from "the hearth-stone" (24) of a room in the Melmoth
home, to the manuscript transcribed by Moncada in Adonijah's subterranean
"chamber" (267). In each case, the setting itself, and the power relations
implied, established, and enforced by this physical space influence both
what is uttered and how utterance is received. Such material and spatial
factors become vital within the tales as well in defining the formation and
reception of such utterances as confessions, pleas, and doctrinal or political
declarations. Time and again situations surrounding communication within
the novel serve to underscore the fact that where something is said is often
as important as who says it.
Perhaps, the most telling illustration of the import of physical space as a
condition of utterance is evident in Stanton's account of his imprisonment
within the mad-house. Surprised to find himself alone behind the locked
door of a cell, Stanton calls out only to have his voice "echoed in a moment
by many others, but in tones so wild and discordant, that he desisted in
involuntary terror" (47). It is clear that in the context of a mad-house
Stanton's cries for help, which might be expected to demand attention
elsewhere, carry little significance. To Stanton's horror, this truth is only
reinforced when "a man of savage appearance" (48) does come to his cell.
Stanton, speaking in the distinct authoritative tone and language of a man
confident in his own rank as compared to that of his addressee, demands
"Release me, villain" and follows up by asking "Will you dare detain me?"
(48), to which "the ruffian" responds by "applying a loaded horse-whip to
his back and shoulders" (48). The circumstances of this incident
demonstrate the speech act theories of Pierre Bourdieu who has suggested
that "the use of language [] depends upon the social position of the
speaker, which governs the access he can have to the language of the
institution" (109). Simply put, in occupying the space of a madman, Stanton
is taken to occupy the social position of a madman and, as such, his words
are stripped of all claims to authority. Interestingly, Stanton reacts to this
situation with silence in hopes that the "appearance of submission and
tranquility" (49) will afford him an opportunity of escape. Even this
behaviour fails, though, as it is "interpreted by the callous ruffian [] as a
more refined species of that cunning which he was well accustomed to
watch and baffle" (53). This episode ultimately works to highlight the
impossibilities of utterance that is not informed and coloured by the physical
and social space in which it is voiced. Furthermore, Stanton's experience
within the claustrophobic confines of the mad-house offers a key to
understanding the enonciative workings of power relationships within the
several similarly enclosed spaces in which so many of the novel's tales are
given utterance.
Serving as what is certainly the most overtly gothic of such tales is the
story of the parricide embedded in Moncada's own tale of his escape from
the monastery. What is significant about this narrative, aside from the fact
that it offers yet a further level of marginalization in being relayed by an
outcast of society, is the notable similarity between the circumstances of the
tale and the circumstances surrounding its transmission. Alone with his
parricide accomplice "in the vault of a convent, beyond the help or reach of
man" (203), Moncada initially has his companion forbear telling his tale
feeling, "by the narrator that it must be something horrid" (203). However,
when the narrative is picked up, at the request of Moncada, it soon becomes
clear that the tale's horror does not originate out of the narrator alone. In
relating the fate of the tunnel's "last inhabitants" (203), the parricide
reveals his (ostensibly) former role as an instrument of the Superior, leading
his unwitting victims "through the very passages you have traversed
tonight" (208). Here, the uncanny repetition of the setting of the tale in the
setting of its vocalization adds an unsettling layer of meaning to the
narrative prompting Moncada to demand the parricide to "Stop," observing
that he is "tracing my course this night step by step" (208). Thus, the
parricide (and Maturin for that matter) builds up the horror of the tale
through its enonciation; the conditions surrounding his utterance are as
significant in Moncada's reception of the narrative as are the words being
Contributing further to the effects of physical space on the reception of the
parricide's narrative is the overt power relationship between speaker and
listener. Unlike Stanton whose own speech is rendered powerless through
his position as a captive orator, Moncada finds himself a captive listener
powerless in relation to the horrific speech of the parricide. This dynamic is
duly noted by the parricide himself who confronts Moncada's objections
asking, "what good would your suspicions do you, you are in my power?"
(208), before continuing on with his tale to its sensationalistic and homicidal
conclusion. In effect, the parricide's position of power within the enclosed
space of the tunnels allows him to utter the unutterable, even implicating
himself in murder as a means of provoking horror in Moncada while
experiencing no fear of reprisal for himself.
Ultimately, the conditions of utterance surrounding the parricide's tale and
Stanton's experience in the mad-house are important not only in what they
reveal about these particular incidents, but also in the light they shed on
Moncada's various utterances. An examination of Moncada's speech, taken
on the whole, exposes an intriguing detail: Moncada invariably receives and
conveys his tales in the context of enclosed physical spaces, often in the
position of a captive. This detail is especially significant in light of the fact
that the greater part of the novel is voiced either by or through Moncada.
Moncada's experience in the prison of the Inquisition serves as a useful
illustration here. Brought before the inquisitors for examination, Moncada is
questioned on his visitation from Melmoth and, responding that a person
had indeed "appeared in my dungeon," is interrupted by the Supreme who
instructs him "You must call it a cell" (230). While this may seem a trivial
semantic quibble, it is important to note that the Supreme here is actively
redefining both Moncada's physical space and his very discourse. The
utterance that Moncada communicates in the prison of the Inquisition, it is
clear, is as much a product of where he is and of his captive position as it is
of Moncada, the orator himself. Thus, speaking of Melmoth's own
communication Moncada states "he uttered words that it would not be
respectful to repeat" (230). With this Moncada points up the very dissimilar
positions of Melmoth, who being unconfined by the enclosed physical space
of the prison is free to vocalize similarly unrestrained utterances, and
himself, who being confined by the prison must consciously restrain his own
utterances even in repeating the speech of another. When one of the judges
visits Moncada in his cell this restraint becomes absolute as Moncada begins
to defend his behaviour and is silenced by the judge's observation "that he
came to speak and not to listen" (231). This pattern is repeated throughout
the prison episode wherein Moncada's speech is always qualified and
coloured by his position as a captive.
The pattern continues, though, even after Moncada has escaped the prison
and found a place "of refuge" (268) from the Inquisition in Adonijah's secret
room. Moncada's position in this room, alternately referred to as a
"chamber" (267) and a "vault" (270), shares much in common with his
positions within the prison and even within the tunnels of the monastery
that he shared with the parricide. In each case he is subject to the control
of others, as evidenced in Adonijah's eerie echoing of the parricide with his
statement "Thou art in my power" (265). As Julian Moynahan suggests,
"Moncada has not, after all, found his way to freedom. He has only
exchanged cell for cell" (126). Moncada's utterance is, in accordance,
notably restrained in the context of this latest enclosed space. In response
to Adonijah's command "thou wilt hearken to me, and heed my words,"
Moncada recalls that "[he] could not speak" (268). What Moncada does do
within the confines of Adonijah's room is write or, more accurately, he
transcribes. The distinction here is an important one as it accentuates the
fact that Moncada's primary lingual activity within this setting is to scribe
the words of someone else. Further, Moncada makes a point to specify that
he conducted this activity "Involuntarily" (272). If Moncada's
communication is restrained or silenced within the context of the prison, it
is essentially hijacked at this point. As a captive scribe Moncada has his
authorial control compromised and made subject to the conditions of his
captivity and, in the end, to Adonijah's text itself. Ultimately, Moncada's
"Tale of the Spaniard," well over half of which is comprised of the contents
of Adonijah's manuscript, is inundated with the impact of such physical and
social conditions of utterance defined by enclosure and confinement.
In this light, the conditions under which the "Tale of the Spaniard" is
transmitted to John Melmoth are illuminating. Confined to bed in "a low,
mean, wretchedly furnished apartment" (72) of the Melmoth house,
Moncada is once again essentially a captive. While the power disparity
between the two parties is somewhat more subtle within this space than
those explored above, it is no less real. Due to his illness, Moncada cannot
leave and it is this circumstance, in combination with John Melmoth's
prodding "into the motive of his voyage to Ireland" (72), that leads him to
disclose the tale that "a few days past I believed it was not in mortal power
to compel me to disclose" (72). Further, it is evident in Moncada's
deferential language, with which he addresses his listener as "Sir"
throughout the tale (177, 209, 226, 268, et cetera), that he regards John
Melmoth as a superior, at least in the context of the Melmoth home. This
condition is crucial to the form that Moncada's narration takes. When
Moncada responds to a portion of his narrative concerning his brother with
passionate emotion inconsistent with John Melmoth's "uncontinental
feelings," he is entreated "to spare the description of his feelings, and
proceed with his narrative" (131). Not only does Moncada oblige here, but
when the focus of the narrative comes back to his brother at a later time he
declares "I will spare you, Sir, the detail of the feelings" (177). Clearly, then,
Moncada's position as a guest/captive within John Melmoth's house is a
factor of restraint in the enunciation of his tale.
There are clues, moreover, that this factor may be even more crucial than it
first appears. Moncada's "stately politeness" (71) serves as a reasonable
explanation for the otherwise inexplicable lacunae that interrupt even his
own first-hand accounts. Indeed, it is interesting that these gaps occur at
points of extreme emotion or horror within the narrative. An example of
such a narrative break follows the parricide's sinister announcement, "they
knew their doom" (211), concerning the husband and wife that he betrays
and locks into a room beneath the monastery. As Moncada hears this story
first hand, rather than reading it from a damaged manuscript, the sense is
that he is intentionally leaving something out in relating the tale to John
Melmoth. Of course, this is not the first time he has done this; Moncada's
selective omissions in speaking to John Melmoth bear a striking
resemblance to his omission, when speaking to the judges of the
Inquisition, of "words that it would not be respectful for me to repeat"
(230). Throughout the novel, then, Moncada's privileged position as the
primary orator is compromised by the restrictive physical and social spaces
in which his utterances are often restrained, silenced, and even taken over.
Standing in stark contrast to Moncada, interestingly enough, is Melmoth the
Wanderer. As noted earlier, Melmoth is not so easily contained within
enclosed physical spaces and thus, his utterance is likewise unrestrained.
Time and again within the course of the novel Melmoth is said to be the
source of speech that others, such as Walberg, "cannot utter" (427).
However, in "The Tale of the Indian" Melmoth takes his place as a central
figure, and is given a central voice as he works to educate and then to
tempt Immalee. The setting of this episode is worthy of notice. Unlike
Moncada, who receives and vocalizes utterance always in the context of
enclosure, the lessons that Melmoth delivers to Immalee (while admittedly
embedded within Moncada's restrained narrative) take place in the
decidedly unrestrained wide open space of a (nearly) unpopulated Indian
island. This variance of physical setting has substantial enonciative
implications. Melmoth's speech, unlike that of any other within the novel, is
accompanied by an outward gaze. Hence, upon his second visit to Immalee
Melmoth brings with him a telescope so that he might "shew [her]
something of the world" (289). When Melmoth speaks he does not demand
that Immalee listen, but rather that she "Look and judge" (292). His
listener's gaze is, thus, turned not toward him as the speaker, but toward
the world he speaks of. Melmoth presents himself as a guide, simply
explaining what Immalee sees and instructing her to "Look again" (294)
when she fails to see. This situation affords Melmoth's utterance the
impression of an external authority not so easily achieved within the
enclosed spaces where other utterances in the novel are formed. Through
the formulization of utterance in the context of an open and unrestrained
physical setting, Melmoth would seem to achieve a certain position of
privilege as an origin of utterance within the text. Where Moncada's
utterance is restrained, Melmoth's is unrestrained; where Moncada's tells
from within himself, Melmoth shows and illuminates what is without.
This privileged position is undercut, though, by the self-acknowledged
motivation behind Melmoth's utterance which is to have Immalee "learn to
suffer" (288), creating a distinct tension between authorial endorsement
and condemnation. This tension is most pronounced in Melmoth's extended
misanthropic rant in which he condemns humankind for the "unequal
division of the means of existence" that allows a person to "die of want on
the threshold of a banquet-hall" (302-03). This is an interesting passage in
that there is a sense of Melmoth being given a surprising degree of latitude,
far surpassing his blatantly manipulative explanations of what Immalee
observes through the telescope. Much about the passage would seem to
indicate that the narrator/author is sympathetic to the views being
expressed. That Maturin is aware of this possible reading is evident in his
attempts to counter it with a footnote assuring us "that the sentiments
ascribed to the stranger are diametrically opposite to mine, and that I have
purposely put them into the mouth of an agent of the enemy of mankind"
(303). As such critics as Robert Kiely and Kathleen Fowler suggest, however,
this disclaimer is somewhat difficult to swallow (Fowler 524). Maturin's
assurance is undercut in a number of ways, the most obvious being that
Melmoth is speaking on behalf of the desperate and the disenfranchised in
this passage, the very types of characters with which we are encouraged to
sympathize throughout the novel.
Furthermore, if we are not to trust Melmoth directly, it is fairly clear that we
are to sympathize with Immalee. Since she, in all of her innocence, is
appalled by the information relayed to her, it only stands to reason that we,
likewise, will be appalled. Given the impact of such factors of enonciation on
Melmoth's utterances, it is difficult to recognize Maturin's footnote as having
the weight necessary to determine and define our reading of the ideas being
expressed. It should also be noted that while discussing religion with
Immalee, Melmoth begrudgingly finds himself admitting the virtues of
Christianity which "enjoins [its members] to be mild, benevolent, and
tolerant; and neither to reject or disdain those who have not attained its
purer light" (296). Maturin's footnote complicates this utterance as it, too,
has been placed in "the mouth of an agent of the enemy of mankind" (303)
and should therefore, by Maturin's reasoning, be dismissed. Confusing
matters further is Immalee's response to these words which is to exclaim
"Christ shall be my God, and I will be a Christian" (297). In this instance,
Melmoth's words have "an effect precisely the opposite of his original intent"
(Howells 146) and, as a result, his privileged status as an orator is
dramatically compromised bringing to the fore yet another pertinent factor
of enonciation: the listener/reader's role in the formulation of utterance.
Within the pages of Melmoth the Wanderer this is a significant role, indeed,
as no tale within the novel is intact and complete. Stanton's "discoloured,
obliterated, and mutilated" (28) manuscript, as a case in point, is missing
some frustratingly crucial passages so that John Melmoth "could just make
out what tended rather to excite than assuage [his] feverish thirst of
curiosity" (58). Such gaps in the text invite writerly participation. Hence,
when Moncada discloses details pertaining to the Wanderer's role, the
narrator asserts that John Melmoth, "from the narrative of Stanton, had
been prepared to suspect something of this" (264). Not only does this
statement accentuate the fluidity of utterance as the nuanced implications
of Stanton's text shift in relation to Moncada's narrative, but it also draws
attention to John Melmoth's involvement in utterance as a reader who
brings his own experiences and assumptions to the text. Such writerly
involvement is evident throughout the novel as the various readers and
listeners are required to speculate as to the nature of the unutterable and
"incommunicable" (264) fractions of the tales without which the tales make
very little sense. Moncada's occupation as a scribe for Adonijah serves as a
useful illustration. The manuscript, containing "the Spanish language written
in the Greek characters," is "unintelligible to the officers of the Inquisition"
(270). Moncada's ability to read both Greek and Spanish puts him in a
position to bring utterance to the text through his reading. Even here,
though, the possibilities of an authoritative reading are compromised by
gaps in the text that Moncada cannot recover "nor could Adonijah supply
the deficiency" (356).
In essence, Moncada's position reflects that of Melmoth the Wanderer's
implicit reader. Like Moncada, the reader contributes to the enonciation of
the text, interpreting events and drawing connections. However, gaps
remain that can only be filled with speculation and conjuncture. In
conventional gothic mode, Maturin weaves mystery into his novel; unlike
most gothic works, though, Melmoth the Wanderer never unveils its
mystery. Rather, tales are begun only to be left unfinished as Moncada's
"intention of disclosing [] the fates of the other victims" (534) of the
Wanderer is never realised and the reader, like John Melmoth, is never
afforded the opportunity to "hear the sequel" (534). Although Maturin
prefaces his novel by declaring that "The hint of this Romance (or Tale) was
taken from a passage in one of my Sermons" (5), the end result bears little
resemblance to the genre of which it was born. In place of authoritative
synthesis we are left with a polyvocality of various and diverse utterances.
By the final chapters even the Wanderer is referring to himself in Biddy
Brannigan's decidedly indefinite terms of what "has been said" (538) and
what "has been reported of me" (537). Ultimately, we are left in a situation
where narrative authority has collapsed beneath the weight of narrative
perspectives and conditions of utterance far too diverse to cohere into a
single unified point of view. Any promise of enduring centrality that the
novel might suggest remains eternally "silent and unutterable" (542).
Works Cited
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Works Consulted
Ellis, Kate Ferguson. The Contested Castle: Gothic Novels and the
Subversion of Domestic Ideology. Urbana: University of Chicago, 1989.
Null, Jack. "Structure and Theme in Melmoth." Papers on Language and
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Citation information for this essay:
DeVito, Jeremy. "Utterance and the Unutterable: Narrative Conditions in
Melmoth the Wanderer." The Essay Exchange at I Love Literature.
iloveliterature.com, 25 Aug. 2011. Web. [25/09/2014]