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Criticism and Interpretation


Far from encouraging ‘female passions’ and unrestricted imagination, The Mysteries of Udolpho can be read as “an attack on the cult of sensibility” (N. Smith, 577). Radcliffe’s narrative consistently favours reason over superstition, as when she explains away the heroine’s (and reader’s) terror by revealing the mysteries to have natural causes. Because Gothic novels are the playground of the irrational, they allow characters to encounter the “extreme effects of sensibility” (N. Smith, 577), and eventually learn an appropriate lesson about the dangers of sensibility. Ironically, it is Emily’s own imagination rather than any external Gothic occurrences that cause terror in the novel (N. Smith, 583). Emily’s “sensitive imagination [makes her] susceptible to superstition, and increases her sense of self-delusion” (N. Smith, 585). She is prone to misinterpret reality because of her heightened senses, as when she imagines that the captive at Udolpho is Valancourt, and thinks that there are banditti “behind every tree” (N. Smith, 585-6) (Emily never actually encounters any banditti, unless, of course, you include Montoni’s group of ruffians). In its derogatory sense, sensibility can be seen as delusive and irrational, almost causing its possessor (in extreme cases) to border on madness.

However, sensibility, “in its contemporary usage of compassion, sympathy, and sensitivity, was not…a decadent or despicable attitude;” the problem lay in the “excess of sensibility” (N. Smith, 579). This becomes the central theme of Radcliffe’s novel. St Aubert warns Emily: “Do not indulge in the pride of fine feeling… those, who really possess sensibility, ought early to be taught, that it is a dangerous quality” (Radcliffe, 79). Emily’s father, and several other characters, such as Montoni and Mme. Cheron, hold that  “we become the victims of our feelings, unless we can in some degree command them” (Radcliffe, 80). Emily must learn to strike a balance between the extremes of apathy (absence of emotion) and excessive sensibility (uncontrolled emotion) (Radcliffe, 80). The final moral of the novel expresses the triumph of Emily’s fortitude: “innocence, though oppressed by injustice, shall, supported by patience, finally triumph over misfortune!” (Radcliffe, 672), supporting Radcliffe’s theme of moderation.


Radcliffe’s novel also expresses concerns and theories of temporality. At a time when all continuity with the past seemed to be broken by the French Revolution, there was an increasing interest in reconciling feudal and modern ideals (Albright, 51). We have seen this interest in the revival of Gothic architecture, and the valorization of Britain’s past. Representations of time in Udolpho are thus drawing on the whole, “continuous” past of legend (Albright, 52), as an antidote to the French Revolution. The novel “allows readers to connect to a time before the dissociation of sensibility, before the rupture of the present, before the notion of progress, when time seemed whole again. The temporality created in Udolpho is [thus] mythic and non-linear” (Albright, 69).

This mythic past is partly created by an the “atmospheric” (Albright, 50) sense of the past, and partly by the unique sense of time given to the heroine. Not only are there anachronisms in Radcliffe’s text (it is supposed to be the 1500s, but her characters drink coffee and follow Eighteenth Century etiquette (Albright, 50)), but there are hardly any references to seasons or dates in the narrative, giving the novel a “dreamlike quality” (Albright, 52). Like a dream, the plot is circular: Emily’s identity is reaffirmed, and she ends up in the same happy home that she had left at the beginning (Albright, 53). Emily herself is in a suspended state, between memory of the past and anticipation of the future (Albright, 63). For example, Emily reflects on the “strange and mournful events” of her past, but, at the same time, weeps “to think of what her parents would have suffered, could they have foreseen the events of her future life” (Radcliffe, 329).  Past, present and future are all blended in Radcliffe’s novel, allowing the reader to step into a world of reconciled opposites.


Many critics have analysed The Mysteries of Udolpho in terms of gender. Old and new ideas of masculinity were colliding in this period, as seen in The Mysteries of Udolpho. For example, Montoni’s “warlike virility” (Johnson, 98) is contrasted with the sensibility of Valancourt or St.Aubert. While the sentimental hero assimilates feminine virtues of sensitivity and emotionality, Montoni sees anything feminine as weak (Johnson, 103). He is “distinct from [and] hostile to women, whom he regards only as a means to or form of disposable property” (Johnson, 103), and he sees chivalric love as “emasculating” (Johnson, 103). Basically, Montoni is a misogynist, asserting complete dominance over women: “in his terms, self-control  means complete abdication of female control and will to male sublime power” (Kilgour, 120). Through Montoni, Radcliffe critiques the old style of masculinity. She reveals the effect of Montoni’s unrestrained violence on the community, upholding instead the positive benevolence of St. Aubert, (Johnson, 105).

However, because of the rage for male sentimentality in her period, Radcliffe’s heroines had to bridge old and new ideologies of gender. In other words, they had to “be paragons of passive feminine virtue as well as exemplars of an older-styled masculinity” (Johnson, 97). In one of the parting scenes between Emily and Valancourt, for instance, Emily is the one who restrains her emotion rather than her lover, behaving with “somewhat more than female fortitude” (Radcliffe, 155).  Similarly, femininity in the 1790s was increasingly tied to strict rules of decorum, which conflicted with female desire (Cottom, 54). This conflict is seen in Gothic novels, where the heroine’s only way to reconcile decorum and desire is to faint, or assume some state of unconsciousness (Cottom, 54-55). Part of the reason for these strict codes of behaviour is an absolute morality, where one false step leads to disaster (Cottom, 55). This kind of morality is seen in Radcliffe’s novels, where Emily actually rejects Valancourt because she believes him to have indulged in gambling. The issues of femininity and masculinity are thus a key concern of Gothic literature, whose interest in boundaries serves to draw attention to the gender divide.