The Mysteries of Udolpho

The Mysteries of Udolpho Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Poetry (Motif)

Throughout the novel, Emily often pauses to compose poetry in response to seeing something striking or beautiful. Later, Lady Blanche will also engage in the same behavior, creating a parallel between the two young women. The motif of poetry adds dimension and complexity to Emily's character. She often seems quite timid and passive, but her interest in poetry shows that she is also intelligent and creative. It also reveals that she has a vivid imagination and is very sensitive to the world around her, which shows why she can sometimes fall prey to fears and strange occurrences. Finally, the motif of poetry allows Radcliffe to add an extra layer to the novel, and further highlight her skills as a writer. Many novelists would have mentioned that Emily wrote a poem, but Radcliffe includes the entire poem, bringing a different dimension to a work of prose fiction.

The Black Veil (Symbol)

At Udolpho, there is a mysterious portrait concealed behind a black veil; out of curiosity, Emily lifts the veil, and sees something that horrifies her. However, readers don't learn until the end of the novel what it was that she saw. It is eventually revealed that Emily saw a wax figure made to imitate a decaying corpse, and mistook it for an actual decomposing body. The black veil operates on a number of symbolic levels. Firstly, it symbolizes mystery and secrecy, and the confusion and fear that can arise when secrets are kept and mysteries are not investigated. Emily spends the rest of her time at Udolpho haunted by fear because she mistakes what she sees; later, many people at Chateau Le Blanc will be terrorized due to misunderstandings, and much of the plot relies on St. Aubert never having told his daughter about the fate of her aunt. The veil also symbolizes the vulnerability of women, since it echoes the veil of a bride, and also the veils worn by nuns. Emily's glimpse furthers her belief that Montoni may have murdered Signora Laurentini, and heightens her fears for herself and her aunt. Later, Dorothee will drape Emily in a veil left in the Marchioness' room after her death, and the presence of the black veil at Udolpho suggests a connection between all of these events, and the unhappy fates of many female characters.

Haunting Music (Motif)

Throughout the novel, Emily often hears strange, haunting music at night, with no discernible source. This motif reoccurs in a number of settings, ranging from La Voisin's cottage, the woods around Chateau Le Blanc, Udolpho, and other locales. Occasionally the source of this music is explained (such as when it turns out Du Pont has been singing French songs because he is imprisoned in Udolpho), but it is one of very few seemingly supernatural events in the novel that is not eventually fully explained. A reader who has seen all of the other mysterious events turn out to be logical might choose to infer that there is also an explanation for the music as well. However, given that the music persists and occurs across a number of different locales, this motif also seems to be a way for Radcliffe to leave some lingering mystery in her novel. While the resolution of supernatural events is an important thematic aspect of the novel, leaving the music at least partially unresolved also allows Radcliffe to suggest that art and imagination will always retain at least a bit of mystery. As Patricia Whiting argues, "although, ultimately, the book sides with rationality, an important space is left open for the free play of imagination and intuition" (488).

The Tower Room (Symbol)

When Madame Montoni continues to refuse to sign her property over to her husband, he eventually becomes enraged and imprisons her in the tower room of the Castle of Udolpho. Due to being kept imprisoned under poor conditions, she later sickens and dies. The tower room symbolizes masculine and patriarchal power and control. Madame Montoni fights to retain her property, and in fact succeeds in passing it down to Emily rather than ceding it to her husband. However, at Udolpho, she is isolated and at her husband's mercy, and while he can't forcibly take the property from her if she doesn't sign the document, he can lock her up and starve her. Because of his physical force, his military dominance, and the loyalty other men hold towards him, Madame Montoni can do nothing to resist. The tower room symbolically evokes how, throughout the novel, various women are left unable to control their own destiny because their husbands and/or fathers force them into choices they don't want to make. The tower's phallic shape furthers its symbolism as a sign of patriarchal dominance.

Fainting (Motif)

Throughout the novel, when Emily is confronted by a stressful or frightening situation, she often faints. This motif can seem a bit comical and exaggerated to contemporary audiences, but Radcliffe uses this motif to signal that Emily is virtuous, sensitive, and appropriately pure. Delicacy and sensitivity, especially in a young woman, were prized qualities at the time, and Emily's fainting signals that she shows the appropriate degree of being overwhelmed and emotional. Someone who was more cold or calculating might be more functional in high stress situations, but this ability to be detached would actually not speak well to their character. Emily is highly sensitive to stimuli: she is deeply moved by scenes of natural beauty, for example. This sensitivity is generally a good thing, but is also consistent with her fainting when something distressing happens. The motif is important to the plot because it keeps Emily somewhat passive and reliant upon help from others.