What is the "withering monosyllable" Maturin alludes to in Melmoth the Wanderer?
January 9, 2007 2:55 PM   Subscribe

In Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer, Isidora asks Melmoth how she should respond if her family ask her about his wealth, and where his riches are held. Melmoth responds with a "withering monosyllable", which makes her shriek with fear or disgust. What monosyllabic word is Maturin implying?

I'm not sure if you'd need the context of the book to deduce it, but the basic premise is that Melmoth is a faustian figure who's exchanged his soul/goodness/chance at salvation for an extra 150 years of life, and Isidora is the girl who grew up alone on a tropical island and who is in love with him. Melmoth has asked her to marry him (there's more to it than that, but I think that'll do).
'Because,' she added, bursting into tears, 'those with whom you speak will not utter to God language like mine. They will speak to you of wealth and dower; they will inquire about that region where you have told me your rich and wide possessions are held; and should they ask me of them, how shall I answer?

'At these words, Melmoth approached as close as possible to the casement, and uttered a certain word which Isidora did not at first appear to hear, or understand—trembling she repeated her request. In a still lower tone the answer was returned. Incredulous, and hoping that the answer had deceived her, she again repeated her petition. A withering monosyllable, not to be told, thundered in her ears, —and she shrieked as she closed the casement. Alas! the casement only shut out the form of the stranger—not his image.'
ignore the odd quoting, it's a nested frame story and the quoting seems to confuse even Maturin at times
posted by fvw to Writing & Language (5 answers total)
I have not read this book, nor do I feel particularly qualified to answer, but my first thought was:

posted by inging at 3:39 PM on January 9, 2007

I studied this book in university lo these many years ago, and inging is right: it's quite clearly meant to be "hell". The writer chooses not to use the word not because it would have been thought gross or unspeakable (in 1820, you could still use the word "hell" when discussing the actual place), but because not using the word supposedly increased the horror factor.
posted by watsondog at 4:04 PM on January 9, 2007

The fear of the unspeakable or the unutterable is a big theme in Gothic literature, which is why it's not said directly. I agree with the above, it has to be "hell". Not wanting to spoil the rest of the book if you haven't finished yet, but the details of Melmoth's 'offer' to others are likewise perpetually obfuscated but essentially obvious.
posted by Paragon at 4:06 PM on January 9, 2007

It would be interesting to check a French translation and see if the translater rendered it as "deux syllabes" (since enfer has two syllables) or used a literal translation.
posted by languagehat at 5:10 PM on January 9, 2007

Ah yes, I'd thought of all kinds of words in that area, but somehow managed to skip hell. Thanks!
posted by fvw at 11:49 PM on January 9, 2007

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