Gothic Tropes: The Cursed Wanderer

Source: The Gothic Library

“I pass, like night, from land to land…” I mentioned the cursed wanderer in my recent post on Nautical Gothic, so I wanted to examine the concept here in a bit more detail. This is a character archetype that finds its way into many Gothic works both new and classic, either in the form of a villain, a tragic side character, or an antihero. The cursed wanderer is an outcast from society, usually immortal or otherwise supernatural, and never establishes roots but rather is compelled to wander from place to place as the consequence for some past sin.

The trope takes inspiration from a variety of sources. There is, of course, the Biblical figure of Cain, whose divine punishment for the murder of his brother is to become a “fugitive and wanderer,” forced to leave his home and the farmland that will no longer yield produce for him. Yet, when Cain expresses his fear that he will face violence from others in his wanderings, God bestows upon him a “mark” that will protect him from being killed. In some traditions, this protection from death is interpreted to mean that Cain became immortal. A later figure closely associated with Cain is the medieval legend of the Wandering Jew. This narrative was used to reinforce antisemitism and prejudice against the Jewish communities living in diaspora across Europe. The story goes that a particular Jewish man (he is given various names in different incarnations of the myth) taunted Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion and in response was cursed by Jesus to wander the earth until the Second Coming. Several medieval texts recount stories of people said to have encountered this immortal Jew, who though often depicted as tragic and repentant, remains unforgiven and continues to wander until the end of days. There are also tales of cursed immortals in the folklore of various cultures around the world. One of my favorites is the Irish legend of Stingy Jack, a figure associated with Halloween and sometimes credited as the namesake of the jack-o-lantern. In the story, Jack manages to use trickery to entrap the Devil when he comes to take Jack’s soul, only releasing him when the Devil promises that Jack will not have to go to hell. When Jack eventually dies, he’s lived such a sinful life that he cannot get into heaven, but due to the Devil’s promise, hell won’t take him either. With nowhere for his soul to rest, Jack is forced to eternally wander the earth, using an ember from the underworld as a lantern to light his way.

Engraving depicting an old man with a long beard walking away from Jesus on the cross
Illustration by Gustave Dore, from The Legend of the Wandering Jew, 2nd ed., 1856

Cursed wanderers drawing on one or more of the above stories appear throughout Gothic literature. Here are just a few examples:

The Monk by Matthew Lewis (1796)

This infamous early Gothic novel features a brief appearance by the legendary Wandering Jew himself. When the young lover Raymond finds himself afflicted by the spirit of the Bleeding Nun, a mysterious Stranger appears to help exorcize the restless ghost. In Lewis’s depiction, the man is marked with a burning cross on his forehead, a sign which renders him immortal, reminiscent of the story of Cain. His curse also prevents him from lingering longer than a fortnight in any location. The Stranger’s insights into the occult gained through his many years on earth and his first-hand knowledge of the woman who became the Bleeding Nun make him a useful ally to Raymond. Together, they call upon the nun’s spirit and learn how to put her soul to rest, freeing Raymond from the haunting. By the next morning, the Stranger has disappeared to continue his wanderings, and Raymond only afterward hears the legend of the Wandering Jew. His depiction here suggests a friendly, tragic figure who travels the world assisting others even though he cannot expiate his own sin. 

St. Leon by William Godwin (1799)

Mary Shelley wasn’t the only Gothic novelist in her family. In fact her father, William Godwin, has written several works that could be categorized in that genre. St. Leon, his second published novel, centers on a cursed wanderer figure. At the beginning of the story, a young French aristocrat named Count Reginald de St. Leon fritters away his wealth and soon finds himself struggling to support his family. At a particularly low point in his life, he meets a stranger who claims to be a Venetian called Francesco Zampieri, though admits that is not his true identity. Just before he dies, the stranger passes on to Reginald the knowledge of how to create the elixir of life and multiply gold. Reginald now has immortality and endless wealth, yet finds himself having to move from place to place as his good fortune continually draws suspicion and jealousy. Reginald ultimately distances himself from his family members, letting them think that he died rather than be tarnished by his reputation. When he encounters his eldest son Charles years later (appearing about the same age as him due to the elixir of life), Reginald assumes a false identity and tries to use his wealth to secretly help Charles but once again arouses only anger and distrust. Wealth and immortality may seem like blessings, but for St. Leon they inevitably bring social isolation as he finds himself always hated and hunted by the people around him and repeatedly forced to flee.

Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin (1820)

The titular wanderer of Charles Maturin’s Gothic novel is probably the most obvious example of this trope. I’ve discussed this book before in the context of the Faustian bargain, another Gothic trope which can often be linked together with the cursed wanderer—especially when the bargain is for eternal life. In this case, a scholar named Melmoth sells his soul to the devil in exchange for one hundred and fifty years of extended life. Instead of spending those years immersed in scholarly pursuits or indulging in pleasure, however, Melmoth immediately realizes the terrible bargain he has made and spends the entire time searching the world for someone he can convince to take his place. The novel consists of layers of documents and stories-within-stories that tell of each person Melmoth has tried to tempt. But by the end of his one hundred and fifty years, he has not found a replacement and dies with a hellish fate still before him.

Several years ago, I reviewed a literary reinterpretation of Maturin’s novel, Melmoth by Sarah Perry, which depicts Melmoth as a woman and links her curse even more directly to the legend of the Wandering Jew by including a backstory about encountering Jesus, while somewhat oddly downplaying the Jewish element.

Dracula by Bram Stoker (1997)—and vampires as a whole!

What is a vampire if not a cursed, immortal wanderer? Count Dracula in particular has been read by many scholars as being coded as Jewish in Stoker’s text, and thus he embodies various antisemitic narratives that Europeans associated with Jews, from blood libel to a fear of infiltration and invasion. It’s no surprise, then, that echoes of the Wandering Jew are present in his depiction. The theology in Dracula is quite clear that vampires represent an embodied damnation—though immortal on earth, this prolonged physical existence precludes them from experiencing the soul’s immortality in heaven. Instead, vampires remain beings of the flesh, at the mercy of their earthly appetites. Though Dracula seems to have remained in his castle for centuries, he ultimately must strike out for new lands in search of more abundant prey, becoming in the process a cursed wanderer.

Later works of vampire literature usually depict them as even more itinerant, constantly moving to accommodate their need to feed without attracting attention. Many other vampire texts also wrestle with a theme common to cursed wanderers—being remorseful yet unabsolved, tormented by their fate and by their own actions that led to it. For example, Sir Francis Varney, the titular bloodsucker in the mid-nineteenth-century penny dreadful Varney the Vampire, explains that his emotions vacillate between uncontrollable bloodlust and moments of calmness that bring “all the horror, all the agony of reflection.” Louis de Pointe du Lac in Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire is also tormented by the sinful life of the vampire and the constant need to kill others to survive. Yet survive they do, no more able to stop the behaviors they detest than join their loved ones in heaven.

What other examples of cursed wanderers have you come across in literature? Were you aware of the legends this trope draws on? Let me know your thoughts in the comments! And yes, I do hope to talk some more about antisemitism in Gothic literature in the future, but it’s such a big topic it’s challenging to tackle! Let me know if there are other specific aspects you’d be interested in learning about.