The Devil in English Fiction by Dorothy Scarborough 1917
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"GHOSTS are few but devils are plenty," said Cotton Mather, but his saying would need to be inverted to fit present-day English fiction. Now we have ghosts in abundance but devils are scarce. In fact, they bid fair to become extinct in our romances, at least in the form that is easily recognizable. Satan will probably soon be in solution, identified merely as a state of mind. He has been so Burbanked of late, with his daemonic characteristics removed and humanities added that, save for sporadic reversion to type, the old familiar demon is almost a vanished form. The modern mind seems to cling with a new fondness to the ghost but has turned the cold shoulder to the devil, perhaps because many modernists believe more in the human and less in the supernatural —and after all, ghosts are human and devils are not. The demon has disported himself in various forms in literature, from the scarlet fiend of monkish legend, the nimble imp and titanic nature-devil of folk-lore to Milton's epic, majestic Satan, and Goethe's mocking Mephistopheles, passing into allegoric, symbolic, and satiric figures in later fiction. He has been an impressive character in the drama, the epic, the novel, in poetry, and the short story. We have seen him as a loathly, brutish demon in Dante, as a superman, as an intellectual satirist, and as a human being appealing to our sympathy. He has gradually lost his epic qualities and become human. He is not present in literature now to the extent to which he was known in the past, is not so impressive a figure as heretofore, and at times when he does appear his personality is so ambiguously set forth that it requires close literary analysis to prove his presence.
Here the devil will be discussed with reference to his appearances on earth, while in a later division he will be seen in his own home. It would be hard to say with certainty when and where the devil originated, yet he undoubtedly belongs to one of our first families and is said to have been born theologically in Persia about the year 900 B.C. He has appeared under various aliases, as Ahriman of the Zoroastrian system, Pluto in classical mythology, Satan, Beelzebub, Prince of Darkness, and by many other titles. In his Address to the De'il Burns invokes him thus:
"Oh, Thou! whatever title suit thee,—
Auld Hornie, Satan, Nick or Cloutie!"
He has manifested himself in fiction under diverse names, as Demon, Lucifer, Satan, Mephistopheles, Prince Lucio, The Man in Black, and so forth, but whatever the name he answers to, he is known in every land and has with astonishing adaptability made himself at home in every literature.
The devil has so changed his form and his manner of appearance in later literature that it is hard to identify him as his ancient self. In early stories he was heralded by supernatural thunder and lightning and accompanied by a strong smell of sulphur. He dressed in character costume, sometimes in red, sometimes in black, but always indubitably diabolic. He wore horns, a forked tail, and cloven hoofs and was a generally unprepossessing creature whom anyone could know for a devil. Now his ro1e is not so typical and his garb not so declarative. He wears an evening suit, a scholar's gown, a parson's robe, a hunting coat, with equal ease, and it is sometimes difficult to tell the devil from the hero of a modern story. He has been deodorized and no longer reeks warningly of the Pit.
The mediaeval mind conceived of the devil as a sort of combination of mythologic satyr and religious dragon. It is interesting to note how the pagan devil-myths have been engrafted upon the ideas of Christianity, to fade out very slowly and by degrees. In monkish legends the devil was an energetic person who would hang round a likely soul for years, if need be, on the chance of nabbing him. Many monkish legends have come down to us.
The diabolic element in English folk-lore shows a rich field for study. The devil here as in the monkish legendry appears as an enemy of souls, a tireless tempter. He lies in wait for any unwary utterance, and the least mention of his name, any thoughtless expletive, such as "The devil take me if—" brings instant response from him to clinch the bargain. Yet the devil of rustic folk-lore is of a bucolic dullness, less clever than in any phase of literature, more gullible, more easily imposed on. English folk-lore, especially the Celtic branches, shows the devil as very closely related to nature. He was wont to work off his surplus energy or his wrath by disturbing the landscape, and many stories of his prankish pique have come down to us. If anything vexed him he might stamp so hard upon a plain that the print of his cloven hoof would be imprinted permanently. He was fond of drinking out of pure springs and leaving them cursed with sulphur, and he sometimes showed annoyance by biting a section out of a mountain, Devil's Bit Mountain in Ireland being one of the instances. In general, any peculiarity of nature might be attributed to the activities of Auld Hornie.
The devil has always been a pushing, forward sort of person, so he was not content with being handed round by word of mouth in monkish legend or rustic folk-lore, but must worm his way into literature in general. Since then many ink-pots have been emptied upon him besides the one that Luther hurled against his cloister wall. The devil is seen frequently in the miracle plays, showing grotesquerie, the beginnings of that sardonic humor he is to display in more important works later. In his appearance in literature the devil is largely anthropomorphic. Man creates the devil in his own image, one who is not merely personal but racial as well, reflecting his creator. In monkish tradition an adversary in wait for souls, in rustic folk-lore a rollicking buffoon with waggish pranks, in miracle plays reflecting the mingled seriousness and comic elements of popular beliefs, he mirrors his maker. But it is in the great poems and dramas and stories that we find the more personal aspects of devil-production, and it is these epic and dramatic concepts of the devil that have greatly influenced modern fiction. While the Gothic romance was but lightly touched by the epic supernaturalism, the literature since that time has reflected it more, and the Satanic characters of Dante, Milton, Calderon, Marlowe, and Goethe have cast long shadows over modern fiction. The recent revival of interest in Dante has doubtless had its effect here.
Burns in his _Address to the De'il_ shows his own kindly heart and honest though ofttimes misdirected impulses by suggesting that there is still hope for the devil to repent and trusting that he may do so yet. Mrs. Browning, in her _Drama of Exile_, likewise shows in Lucifer some appeal to our sympathies, reflecting the pitying heart of the writer,—showing a certain kinship to Milton's Satan yet with weakened intellectual power. She makes Gabriel say to him:
"Angel of the sin,
Such as thou standest,—pale in the drear light
Which rounds the rebel's work with Maker's wrath—
Thou shalt be an Idea to all souls,
A monumental, melancholy gloom,
Seen down all ages whence to mark despair
And measure out the distances from good."
Byron's devil in _A Vision of Judgment_ is, like Caliban's ideas of Setebos, "altogether such an one" as Byron conceived himself to be. He is a terrible figure, whose
"Fierce and unfathomable thoughts engraved
Eternal wrath on his immortal face."
He shows diabolical sarcasm when he says, "I've kings enough below, God knows!" And how like Oscar Wilde is the devil he pictures to us in his symbolic story, _The Fisherman and his Soul_. The prince of darkness who appears to the young fisherman that wishes to sell his soul to the devil is "a man dressed in a suit of black velvet cut in Spanish fashion. His proud face was strangely pale, but his lips were like a proud red flower. He seemed weary and was leaning back toying in a listless manner with the pommel of his saddle." When the fisherman unthoughtedly utters a prayer that baffles the fiend for the time, the demon mounts his jennet with the silver harness and rides away, still with the proud, disdainful face, sad with a blase weariness unlike the usual alertness of the devil. He has a sort of Blessed Damozel droop to his figure, and the bored patience of a lone man at an afternoon tea. Wilde shows us some little mocking red devils in another of his stories, and _The Picture of Dorian Grey_ is a concept of diabolism.
Scott in _The Talisman_ puts a story of descent from the Evil One in the mouth of the Saracen, the legend of the spirits of evil who formed a league with the cruel Zohauk, by which he gained a daily sacrifice of blood to feed two hideous serpents that had become a part of himself. One day seven sisters of wonderful beauty are brought, whose loveliness appeals to the immortals. In the midst of supernatural manifestations the earth is rent and seven young men appear. The leader says to the eldest sister:
"I am Cothreb, king of the subterranean world. I and my brethren are of those who, created out of elementary fire, disdained even at the command of Omnipotence, to do homage to a clod of earth because it is called man. Thou mayest have heard of us as cruel, unrelenting, and persecuting. It is false. We are by nature kind and generous, vengeful only when insulted, cruel only when affronted. We are true to those that trust us; and we have heard the invocations of thy father the sage Mithrasp, who wisely worships not only the Origin of Good, but that which is called the Source of Evil. You and your sisters are on the eve of death; but let each give to us one hair from your fair tresses in token of fealty, and we will carry you many miles to a place of safety where you may bid defiance to Zohauk and his ministers."
The maidens accept the offer and become the brides of the spirits of evil.
The devil in Scott's _Wandering Willie's Tale_, also speaks a good word for himself. When the gudesire meets in the woods the stranger who sympathizes with his obvious distress, the unknown offers to help him, saying, "If you will tell me your grief, I am one that, though I have been sair miscaa'd in the world, am the only hand for helping my freends." The gudesire tells his woes and says that he would go to the gates of hell, and farther, to get the receipt due him, upon which the hospitable stranger conducts him to the place mentioned. The canny Scot obtains the document, outwits the devil, and wins his way back to earth unscathed.
One marked aspect of recent devil-fiction is the tendency to gloze over his sins and to humanize him. This is shown to a marked degree in Marie Corelli's sentimental novel, _The Sorrows of Satan_, where she expends much anxious sympathy over the fiend. To Miss Corelli's agitated mind Satan is a much maligned martyr who regretfully tempts mortals and is grieved when they yield to his beguilements. Her perfervid rhetoric pictures him as a charming prince, handsome, wealthy, yet very lonesome, who warns persons in advance that he is not what he seems and that they would do well to avoid him. But the fools rush in crowds to be damned. According to her theory, the devil is attempting to work out his own salvation and could do so save for the weakness of man. He is able to get a notch nearer heaven for every soul that resists his wiles, though in London circles his progress is backward rather than forward. How is Lucifer fallen! To be made a hero of by Marie Corelli must seem to Mephisto life's final indignity! Her characterization of the fiend shows some reminiscence of a hasty reading of Milton, Goethe, and the Byronic Cain.
The devil has a human as well as daemonic spirit in Israel Zangwill's _They that Walk in Darkness_, where he appears as Satan Maketrig, a red-haired hunchback, with "gigantic marble brow, cold, keen, steely eyes, and handsome, clean-shaven lips." He seems a normal human being in this realistic Ghetto setting, though he bears a nameless sense of evil about with him. In his presence, or as he passes by, all the latent evil in men's souls comes to the surface. He lures the rabbi away from his wife, from God, and from all virtue, yet to see him at the end turn away again in spirit to the good, spurning the tempter whom he recognizes at last as daemonic. There is a human anguish in the eyes of Satan Maketrig, that shows him to be not altogether diabolic, and he seems mournful and appealing in his wild loneliness. His nature is in contrast to that of the fiend in Stanley J. Weyman's _The Man in Black_. Here his cold, sardonic jesting that causes him to play with life and death, so lightly, his diabolic cunning, his knowledge of the human heart and how to torture it, remind us of Iago. The dark shade extends to the skin as well as to the heart in the man in black in Stevenson's _Thrawn Janet_, for he exercises a weird power over his vassal, the old servant, and terrifies even the minister. And _War Letters from a Living Dead Man_, written by Elsa Parker but said to be dictated by a correspondent presumably from somewhere in hell, shows us His Satanic Majesty with grim realism up to date.
The devil appears with mournful, human dignity, yet with superhuman gigantism in Algernon Blackwood's _Secret Worship_, where the lost souls enter into a riot of devil-worship, into which they seek to draw living victims, to damn them body and soul. One victim sees the devil thus:
"At the end of the room where the windows seemed to have disappeared so that he could see the stars, there rose up into view, far against the sky, grand and terrible, the outline of a man. A kind of gray glory enveloped him so that it resembled a steel-cased statue, immense, imposing, horrific in its distant splendor. The gray radiance from its mightily broken visage, august and mournful, beat down upon his soul, pulsing like some dark star with the powers of spiritual evil."
Here, as in many instances elsewhere, the sadness of the diabolic character is emphasized, a definite human element. The Miltonic influence seems evident in such cases.
Kipling has a curious daemonic study in _Bubble Well Road_, a story of a patch of ground filled with devils and ghosts controlled by an evil-minded native priest, while in _Haunted Subalterns_ the imps terrorize young army officers by their malicious mischief.
The allegorical and symbolic studies of diabolism are among the more impressive creations in later fiction, as in Tolstoi's _Ivan, the Fool_, where the demons are responsible for the marshaling of armies, the tyranny of money, and the inverted ideas of the value of service. The appearance of the devil in later stories is more terrible and effective in its variance of type and its secret symbolism than the crude enginery of diabolism in Gothic fiction, as the muscular fiend1 that athletically hurls the man and woman from the mountain top, or the invisible physical strength manifested in _Melmoth, the Wanderer_. The crude violence of these novels is in keeping with the fiction of the time, yet modern stories show a distinct advance, as such instances as J. H. Shorthouse's _Countess Eve_, where the devil appears differently to each tempted soul, embodying with hideous wisdom the form of the sin that that particular soul is most liable to commit. He bears the shape of committed sin, suggesting that evil is so powerful as to have an independent existence of its own, apart from the mind that gave it birth, as the devil appears as evil thought materialized in Fernac Molnar's drama, _The Devil_. Fiona McLeod's strange Gaelic tale, _The Sin-Eater_ introduces demons symbolically. The sin-eater is a person that by an ancient formula can remove the sins from an unburied corpse and let them in turn be swept away from him by the action of the pure air. But if the sin-eater hates the dead man, he has the power to fling the transgressions into the sea, to turn them into demons that pursue and torment the flying soul till Judgment Day.
One aspect of the recent stories of diabolism is the subtleness by which the evil is suggested. The reader feels a miasmatic atmosphere of evil, a smear on the soul, and knows that certain incidents in the action can be accounted for on no other basis than that of daemonic presence, as in Barry Pain's _Moon Madness_, where the princess is moved by a strange irresistible lure to dance alone night after night in the heart of the secret labyrinth to mystic music that the white moon makes. But one night, after she is dizzy and exhausted but impelled to keep on, she feels a hot hand grasp hers; someone whirls her madly round and she knows that she is not dancing alone! She is seen no more of men, and searchers find only the prints of her little dancing slippers in the sand, with the mark of a cloven hoof beside them. The most revolting instances of suggestive diabolism are found in Arthur Machen's stories, where supernatural science opens the way for the devil to enter the human soul, since the biologist by a cunning operation on the brain removes the moral sense, takes away the soul, and leaves a being absolutely diabolized. Worse still is the hideousness of _Seeing the Great God Pan_, where the daemonic character is a composite of the loathsome aspects of Pan and the devil, from which horrible paternity is born a child that embodies all the unspeakable evil in the world.
In pleasant contrast to dreadful stories are the tales of the amusing devils that we find frequently. The comic devil is much older than the comic ghost, as authors showed a levity toward demons long before they treated the specter with disrespect,—one rather wonders why. Clownish devils that appeared in the miracle plays prepared the way for the humorous and satiric treatment of the Elizabethan drama and late fiction. The liturgical imps were usually funny' whether their authors intended them as such or not, but the devils in fiction are quite conscious of their own wit, in fact, are rather conceited about it. Poe shows us several amusing demons who display his curious satiric humor,—for instance, the old gentleman in _Never Bet the Devil your Head_. When Toby Dammit makes his rash assertion, he beholds
"the figure of a little lame old gentleman of venerable aspect. Nothing could be more reverend than his whole appearance; for he not only had on a full suit of black, but his shirt was perfectly clean and the collar turned down very neatly over a white cravat, while his hair was parted in front like a girl's. His hands were clasped pensively over his stomach, and his two eyes were carefully rolled up into the top of his head."
This clerical personage who reminds us of the devil in _Peer Gynt_, who also appears as a parson, claims the better's head and neatly carries it off. This is a modern version of an incident similar to Chaucer's _Friar's Tale_, where the devil claimed whatever was offered him in sincerity. The combination of humor and mystery in Washington living's _The Devil and Tom Walker_ shows the black woodsman in an amusing though terrifying aspect, as he claims the keeping of the contracts made with him by Tom and his miserly wife. When Tom goes to search for his spouse in the woods, he fails to find her.
"She had probably attempted to deal with the black man as she had been accustomed to deal with her husband; but though the female scold is generally considered a match for the devil, yet in this instance she appears to have had the worst of it. She must have died game, however, for it is said Tom noticed many prints of cloven feet deeply stamped about the tree, and found handsful of hair that looked as if they had been plucked from the coarse shock of the black woodsman. Tom knew his wife's prowess by experience. He shrugged his shoulders as he looked at the fierce signs of clapper-clawing. 'Egad!' he said to himself, 'Old Scratch must have had a tough time of it!'"
The devil amuses himself in various ways, as is seen by the antics of the mysterious stranger in Poe's _The Devil in the Belfry_, who comes curvetting into the old Dutch village with his audacious and sinister face and curious costume, to upset the sacred time of the place. The visitant in _Bon Bon_ is likewise queer as to dress and habits. He wears garments in the style of a century before, having a queue but no shirt, a cravat with an ecclesiastic suggestion, also a stylus and black book. His facial expression is such as would have struck Uriah Heap dumb with envy, and the hint of hoofs and a forked tail is cleverly given though not obtruded. The most remarkable feature of his appearance, however, is that he has no eyes, simply a dead level of flesh. He declares that he eats souls and prefers to buy them alive to insure freshness. He has a taste for philosophers, when they are not too tough.
The satiric devil, like the satiric ghost, is seen in modern fiction. Eugene Field has a story of a demon who seems sympathetic, weeping large, gummy tears at hearing a mortal's woes, and signing the conventional contract on a piece of asbestos paper. He agrees to do everything the man wishes, for a certain term of years, in return for which he is to get the soul. If the devil forfeits the contract, he loses not only that victim but the souls of two thousand already in his clutches. The man shrewdly demands trying things of him, but the demon is game, building and endowing churches, carrying-on philanthropic and reform work without complaint, but balking when the man asks him to close the saloons on Sunday. Rather than do that, he releases the two thousand and one souls and flies away twitching his tail in wrath.
The most recent, as perhaps the most striking, instance of the satiric devil is in Mark Twain's posthumous novel, _The Mysterious Stranger_. A youth, charming, courtly, and handsome appears in a medieval village, confessing to two boys that he is Satan, though not the original of that name, but his nephew and namesake. He insists that he is an unfallen angel, since his uncle is the only member of his family that has sinned. Satan reads the thoughts of mortals, kindles fire in his pipe by breathing on it, supplies money and other desirable things by mere suggestion, is invisible when he wills it so, and is generally a gifted being. This perennial boy—only sixteen thousand years old—makes a charming companion. He says to Marget that his papa is in shattered health and has no property to speak of,—in fact, none of any earthly value,— but he has an uncle in business down in the tropics, who is very well off, and has a monopoly, and it is from this uncle that he drew his support. Marget expresses the hope that her uncle and his would meet some day, and Satan says he hoped so, too. "May be they will," says Marget. "Does your uncle travel much?"
"Oh, yes, he goes all about,—he has business everywhere."
The book is full of this oblique humor, satirizing earth, heaven, and hell. The stranger by his comments on theological creeds satirizes religion, and Satan is an intended parody of God. He sneers at man's "mongrel moral sense," which tells him the distinction between good and evil, insisting that he should have no choice, that the right to choose makes him inevitably choose the wrong. He makes little figures out of clay and gives them life, only to destroy them with casual ruthlessness a little later and send them to hell. In answer to the old servant's faith in God, when she says that He will care for her and her mistress, since "not a sparrow falleth to the ground without His Knowledge," he sneers, "But it falls, just the same! What's the good of seeing it fall?" He is a new diabolic figure, yet showing the composite traits of the old, the daemonic wisdom and sarcasm, the superhuman magnetism to draw men to him, and the human qualities of geniality, sympathy, and boyish charm.
One of the most significant and frequent motifs of the diabolic in literature is that of the barter of the human soul for the devil's gift of some earthly boon, long life or wealth or power, or wisdom, or gratification of the senses. It is a theme of unusual power,—what could be greater than the struggle over one's own immortal soul?—and well might the great minds of the world engage themselves with it. Yet that theme is but little apparent in later stories. We have no such character in recent literature that can compare with Marlowe's Dr. Faustus or Goethe's Mephistopheles or Calderon's wonder-working magician. Hawthorne's Septimius Felton makes a bargain with the devil to secure the elixir of life, there is a legend in Hardy's _Tess of the D' Urbervilles_ of a man that sold himself to the minister of evil, and the incident occurs in various stories of witchcraft, yet with waning power and less frequence. The most significant recent use of it is in W. B. Yeats's drama. This is a drama of Ireland, where the peasants have been driven by famine to barter their souls to the devil to buy their children food, but their Countess sells her own soul to the demon that they may save theirs. This vicarious sacrifice adds a new poignancy to the situation and Yeats has treated it with power. This is the only recent appearance of the devil on the stage for he has practically disappeared from English drama, where he was once so prominent. The demon was a familiar and leading figure on the miracle and Elizabethan stage, but, like the ghost, he shows more vitality now in fiction. The devil is an older figure in English drama than is the ghost, but he seems to have played out.
The analysis and representation of the devil as a character in literature have covered a great range, from the bestiality of Dante's Demon in the _Inferno_ to Milton's mighty angel in ruins, with all sorts of variations between, from the sneering cynicism of Goethe's Mephisto to the pinchbeck diabolism of Marie Corelli's sorrowful Satan, and the merry humor and blasphemous satire of Mark Twain's mysterious stranger. We note an especial influence of Goethe's Mephistopheles in the satiric studies of the demon, an echo of his diabolic climax when in answer to Faust's outcry over Margaret's downfall and death, he says, "She is not the first!" One hears echoing through all literature Man Friday's unanswerable question, "Why not God kill debbil?" The uses of evil in God's eternal scheme, the soul's free choice yet pitiful weakness, are sounded again and again. The great diabolic figures, in their essential humanity, their intellectual dignity, their sad introspection, their pitiless testing of the human soul to its predestined fall, are terrible allegorical images of the evil in man himself, or concepts of social sins, as in _Ivan, the Fool_. The devils of the great writers, reflecting the time, the racial characteristics, the personal natures of their creators, are deeply symbolic. Each man creates the devil that he can understand, that represents him, for, as Amiel says, we can comprehend nothing of which we have not the beginnings in ourselves. As each man sees a different Hamlet, so each one has his own devil, or is his own devil. This is illustrated by the figure in Julian Hawthorne's _Lovers in Heaven_, where the dead man's spirit meets the devil in the after life,—who is his own image, his daemonic double. Some have one great fiend, while others keep packs of little, snarling imps of darkness. A study of comparative diabolics is illuminating and might be useful to us all.
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