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The Mysteries of Udolpho: Overview


Emily: The Gothic Heroine

Emily is a sentimental as well as gothic heroine. She is “young, beautiful and persecuted,” gifted with acute sensibility (as seen in her artistic ability), but prone to fainting, and fits of excessive weeping (N. Smith, 581). However, Emily learns to overcome her “excess of sensibility,” and adhere to the teachings of her father, St. Aubert. Emily’s education parallels Rousseau’s education of Emile: it involves “learning to find a middle course of balanced self-government, in which sentiment is not repressed into a cold, unfeeling stoicism but controlled by the higher faculty of reason” (Kilgour, 115). Thus, Emily’s great strength is also her weakness, and the novel is not so much a record of her growth as a person, but a series of tests for her morality and sensibility (Murray, 133).

Valancourt: The Gothic Hero

As the hero of the story, Valancourt’s leading characteristic is his sensibility. He is moved by awesome landscapes, generous, and passionate about life in general. Interestingly, Radcliffe allows her hero to have more frailty than his leading lady; Valancourt despairs at his separation from Emily, and throws himself in with bad companions. Thus, we have a standard Bildungsroman, (novel of education) in the figure of Valancourt, where “the innocent youth goes to the corrupt city and falls” (Kilgour, 136). Valancourt is reclaimed though at the end of the novel, and reinstated as a hero worthy of Emily’s love.

Montoni: The Gothic Villain

A man who marries Emily’s aunt, Mme. Cheron, for her supposed money, Montoni is the quintessential Gothic villain. These figures are powerful and “imperious, a law unto themselves, a danger to the young females (and males) around them, outfacing the supernatural with dangerously flashing eyes” (McEvoy, 24). Though he does not actually murder his wife, Montoni pressures her about her property, imprisoning her in the Castle of Udolpho until she eventually dies of neglect or starvation. Because Montoni is isolated from the rest of society, (Kilgour, 120), he is more of a threat to Emily – a figure beyond the reach of the law. However, Montoni eventually receives justice, dying in an obscure prison for his crimes as the head of a group of Condottieri (mercenary soldiers).

The Uncanny: Blurring Characters and Events

Critics have noted the blurring and doubling of characters in Radcliffe’s novels, just like the repetitions throughout her plots. For example, the character of Blanche de Villeroi is almost indistinguishable to that of Emily, as though she is a “double” of the heroine (Kilgour, 124). It could be that Radcliffe is attacking the concept of individualism as harmful to the community (Kilgour, 114), or Radcliffe could be using this doubling effect as a narrative technique. Repetition and circularity are a key element of Udolpho’s plot:

 “There are four excursions over the mountains in carriages… There are two shootings of Valancourt, two attempts to kidnap Emily, and two trips to the castle (along with corresponding departures). All of these repeated incidents ‘mirror or blur into one another,’ just as the characters do. We perceive them as both similar—as repetitions—and as different. The tension between similarity and difference is sufficient to produce the uncanny effect” (Albright, 58).

 Like a dream that feels familiar and yet strange (which can be a definition of uncanny), the reader is drawn into a world that is peculiarly indistinct. Thus, the generic quality of both plot and character contribute to the mysterious, eerie feel of the novel.