This lesson will help you explore Ann Radcliffe’s novel The Mysteries of Udolpho. You’ll identify and analyze some of its major themes, including the Gothic and the picturesque literary forms. Afterward, you can test your knowledge with a short quiz.

Summary

The Mysteries of Udolpho is a Gothic novel by English author Ann Radcliffe and was first published in 1794. The novel tells the story of Emily St. Aubert, the daughter of a wealthy French family whose fortunes have declined.

Following her mother’s death, Emily and her father, who share a love for nature, embark on a tour from their home in Gascony, France, through the mountains of the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean coast. On their journey, they meet the young Valancourt, who quickly falls in love with Emily.

When Emily’s father dies, Emily is forced to live with her aunt and guardian, Madame Cheron, who shows no affection for her and whose husband, the Italian nobleman Montoni, endeavors to force Emily to marry his friend, Count Morano. A characteristic villain, Montoni is cruel and power-hungry, imprisoning Emily and his wife at his secluded castle called Udolpho and threatening his wife to sign over her property to him.

When Montoni discovers that Count Morano is not as rich as he first thought, Montoni refuses to allow Morano to marry Emily and wounds him in a fight when Morano attempts to abduct Emily from Udolpho. Following Madame Cheron’s death, Emily manages to escape Udolpho with the help of several servants and returns to her aunt’s estate in France, where she discovers that Valancourt, whom she still loves, has lost his fortune. The novel ends happily, with Emily coming into ownership of her aunt’s property and reuniting with her lover.

Major Themes

The Mysteries of Udolpho is characterized as a Gothic novel, a genre popularized in the mid-1700s with the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in 1764, that combines elements of suspense, horror and romance. Elements of the Gothic novel include mystery and suspense, encounters with the supernatural, fear of the unknown, romance, and man’s admiration of and struggle with the power and forces of nature.

Radcliffe both modeled and sometimes comically mocked the Gothic in her fiction. Consider the following passage, describing Emily’s wish to visit her father’s grave:

The nun offered to accompany Emily to the grave, adding, ‘It is melancholy to go alone at this hour;’ but the former, thanking her for the consideration, could not consent to have any witness of her sorrow…Emily paused a moment at the door; a sudden fear came over her…As she heard the steps of the nun ascending, and, while she held up the lamp, saw her black veil waving over the spiral balusters, she was tempted to call her back. While she hesitated, the veil disappeared, and, in the next moment, ashamed of her fears, she returned to the church (Chapter VIII).

This passage both pulls the reader into the story through Radcliffe’s use of suspense and also invites the reader to find humor in the power of the overactive imagination. In this passage, Emily recognizes that she is unreasonably fearful, almost poking fun at the overly dramatic setting around her.

The Mysteries of Udolpho also features elements of the picturesque, an element of eighteenth-century literature that celebrated the beauty and power of nature (both the pleasing and the terrible). Consider the following passage, detailing the scenery encountered during Emily’s travels with her father:

From Beaujeu the road had constantly ascended…where immense glaciers exhibited their frozen horrors, and eternal snow whitened the summits of the mountains. They often paused to contemplate these stupendous scenes, and, seated on some wild cliff…looked over dark forests of fir, and precipices where human foot had never wandered, into the glen–so deep, that the thunder of the torrent, which was seen to foam along the bottom, was scarcely heard to murmur (Chapter IV).

This passage marvels at the majesty of mountain and river, while containing an undercurrent of fear at the isolation and danger of such lofty heights. This passage also illustrates the sometimes poetic language Radcliffe wove into her prose, mirroring the style of her contemporaries, like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The legacy of Radcliffe’s work on the Gothic literary tradition further shows itself in novels like Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1817), Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1846) and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847).

Analysis

The supernatural is a key feature of the Gothic novel; ghosts, death, vampires, werewolves, and so-called ‘things that go bump in the night’ lend an element of suspense to the story and allow readers to confront their fears and anxieties about the unknown within the safety of an imaginary world. Recall Emily’s sense of terror while walking to her father’s grave, for instance. Her fear reflects her own uncertainty about her future in the world as an orphan and is heightened by the greater fear of death and the forces of an unseen, higher power.

The late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were, for the English, a time of exploration and discovery within the fields of science, religion and industry, a time when people both revered and questioned the existence of God or the need to rely on a higher power.

Gothic novels like The Mysteries of Udolpho offered a way that writers and readers could examine the fears and uncertainties of an ever-changing universe. Think about the novel’s many passages describing the majesty of nature. These sections celebrate the simplicity of the natural, but also reflect man’s struggle to conquer the forces of nature and the cycle of life and death.

Lesson Summary

The Mysteries of Udolpho is a Gothic novel by English author Ann Radcliffe and was first published in 1794. Gothic novels were a genre popularized in the mid-1700s with the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in 1764 that combines elements of suspense, horror and romance. Several aspects of gothic novels are explored in this story. The villainous Count Montoni is a typical gothic villain, in that he’s cruel and abusive and sets the stage for tragedy and suspense and fear.

Another example is Radcliffe’s use of the picturesque, an element of eighteenth-century literature that celebrated the beauty and power of nature (both the pleasing and the terrible) and of the supernatural. Ghosts, death, vampires, werewolves, and so-called ‘things that go bump in the night’ lend an element of suspense to the story and allow readers to confront their fears and anxieties about the unknown within the safety of an imaginary world.

In general, Gothic novels such as Mysteries of the Udolpho all deal with suspense, fear of the unknown, and man’s love and struggle with natural forces.