Shelley’s Zastrozzi, A Romance: Anti-Jacobin Paranoiac Fantasy and the Semblance of Subversion

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When Shelley published Zastrozzi in 1810, its Gothic conventions had already become a target of satire in the wake of anti-Jacobin polemics against the revolutionary zeal expressed in the “Pamphlet Wars” (1790-91). Although Shelley was entering an ideological battle that had apparently already been won by reactionary anti-Jacobin forces, conservative paranoia provided a target-rich environment for a transgressive aesthetic that played upon fears of persecution, conspiracy, and libertinism. Shelley exploits this opportunity by positioning Zastrozzi not as a satire of the Gothic (as several prominent Shelley scholars have suggested) nor a mouthpiece (in the character of Zastrozzi) for his own subversive philosophical commitments, but as a diagnostic study of anti-Jacobin paranoiac fantasy, expressed through one of their favorite targets of derision—the gothic novel.

Shelley’s Zastrozzi, A Romance: Anti-Jacobin Paranoiac Fantasy and the Semblance of Subversion

David Brookshire
University of Maryland, College Park

1.         Zastrozzi (1810) was Shelley’s first significant publication and reflects his early enthusiasm for the Gothic and sensationalist literature of the period. Both in theme and style, Zastrozzi is indebted to several of Shelley’s favorite Gothic novels, particularly Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797), Matthew G. Lewis’s The Monk (1796), and Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya (1806). A cursory reading of the novel reveals many obligatory Gothic trappings—an ominous castle, a gloomy cave, a demon-like seductress (Matilda), a hero-victim entrapped by circumstances beyond his control (Verezzi), a spectral villain bent on revenge (Zastrozzi), and shadowy figures of established authority—all saturated with the requisite dose of brooding atmospherics and sublime scenery that often reflect the characters’ “distempered” emotional states. Although Zastrozzi lacks the historical scope, descriptive detail, and narrative polish of Shelley’s models, the novel develops an elaborate pursuit-escape narrative trajectory that is both tightly structured and unfolds at an energetic pace, incorporating aspects of Gothic romance, sentimentalist fiction, and the philosophical novel. (For readers unfamiliar with Zastrozzi, see the footnote for a brief synopsis of the novel.) [1] 

2.        Although Zastrozzi concludes with a traditional moral resolution that would placate a genteel readership, the few contemporary reviews of Zastrozzi were unflattering, if not vitriolic, and no doubt contributed to Shelley’s lifelong acrimony towards critical responses to his work in the press. The critical atmosphere of the early nineteenth century towards the glut of sensationalist fiction of the period is well exemplified in this passage from the following “Prospectus” that was submitted in support of the New London Review; or Monthly Report of Authors and Books (1799): “Though no arrogance will be indulged in this publication, whatever disturbs the public harmony, insults legal authority, outrages the best regards of the heart, invalidates the radical obligations of morality, attacks the vital springs of established functions of piety, or in any respect clashes with the sacred forms of decency, however witty, elegant, and well written, can be noticed only in terms of severe and unequivocal reprehension” (qtd. in Grenby 177).

3.         In the spirit of such regulative moral criticism, the Critical Review, for example, offered these trenchant observations on Shelley’s “shameless and disgusting volume”: “Zastrozzi is one of the most savage and improbable demons that ever issued from a diseased brain . . . a more discordant, disgusting, and despicable performance has not, we are persuaded, issued from the press for some time.” The review concludes, in language used to describe Shelley by future reviewers of his controversial poetry, that “We know not when we have felt so much indignation as in the perusal of this execrable production. The author of it cannot be too severely reprobated. Not all his ‘scintillated eyes,’ his ‘battling emotions,’ his ‘frigorific torpidity of despair,’ nor his ‘Lethean torpor,’ with the rest of his nonsensical and stupid jargon, ought to save him from infamy, and his volume from the flames” (329-31). The Gentleman’s Magazine was less dismissive in this pithy, though naive, account: “. . . by placing the scene on the Continent, the Author has availed himself of characters and vices which, however useful in narratives of this description, thank God, are not to be found in this country” (258). Mary Shelley herself, along with Shelley’s early biographers, encapsulates a critical perspective that would dominate Shelley studies well into the twentieth century: “He was a lover of the wonderful and wild in literature, but had not fostered these tastes at their genuine sources—the romances and chivalry of the middle ages—but in the perusal of such German works as were current in those days. Under the influence of these he, at the age of fifteen, wrote two short prose romances of slender merit. The sentiments and language were exaggerated, the composition imitative and poor” (I, 101-2).

4.         Although less vitriolic than the Critical Review, many Shelley scholars begin discussing Shelley’s Gothic novels and early poetry (if they are discussed at all) by offering what amounts to an apology. Shelley’s Gothic sensibility is thought to be an embarrassment at worst or a transitional phase at best. Kenneth Neill Cameron, for example, writes that Shelley, during his “votary of Romance“ period, “was genuinely interested in the mysterious and the occult . . . and in his novels he was, from time to time, carried away by his subject . . . but he wrote largely with his tongue in his own cheek—delighting, at times, in parodying his own style—aware, as he was writing the novels, of their inherent ridiculousness, but interested in a quick, schoolboy fame”, and “if Shelley’s gothic novels are bad, his horror poetry written in the same period is worse” (28,33). For Cameron, it is not until Shelley reads Godwin (“his master”) and assumes his “social duties” that his work rises to the level of serious critical attention. A. J. Hartley (following Frederick Jones), argues that Shelley’s “‘taste for romances’ definitely ended in November, 1810, when he ordered a copy of [Godwin’s Political Justice] from Stockdale” (v). David Seed reads Zastrozzi as a “crude and largely unconscious exploration of sexual fear” and finds the character of Zastrozzi to be “banal and a stereotype” (5). Eustace Chesser, in his Freudian reading of Zastrozzi (and perhaps channeling Peacock), claims that Shelley “was not a rebel without a cause—he had too many causes. He was an introvert with no strong sense of reality. . . . His all too short life was a continuous refusal to accept responsibility. He never completely grew up. His vision was centred upon the world as he would like it to be, not on the world as it is” (12). More forgiving is Frederick Frank, who reads Zastrozzi as “a dark fable of identity” (ix) that “combine[s] an expert knowledge of the elaborate technology of the Gothic romance and its mandatory apparatus with the future poet’s desire to arrive at a Gothic aesthetic through which beauty and horror could be expressed simultaneously” (ix). Frank concludes, however, that Zastrozzi is “basically a solipsistic excursion” (x).

5.         These interpretive approaches minimize the significance of Shelley’s early Gothic works in two ways: first, they treat Shelley’s Gothic sensibility as an undisciplined exercise of formal mimicry in a tarnished genre that bears little relevance to his mature work; and second, they treat the Gothic as a foreign element that is superseded by the transcendent idealism of Shelley’s later poetry. Each of these approaches drain Shelley’s Gothic of its concrete historical particularity and disavow the antagonisms around which his early work circulates. The young Shelley’s construction of a post-Enlightenment Gothic subject produces an impasse that is not easily recuperated within the context of his later works, which may productively be read as reaction-formations against the consequences that such a Gothic subject precipitates.

6.         The most recent studies of Shelley’s Gothic novels, though still few, have been informed by the growing interest in the complex relations between the Gothic and Romanticism, and by the emergence of Gothic studies as a legitimate discipline of scholarly inquiry. [2]  As the essays in this volume argue, readers of Shelley’s early Gothic works must lift the painted veil of two centuries of largely dismissive criticism and revisit these works with fresh eyes and an appreciation for the ways in which Shelley delimits the residual “Gothic complex” of symbols in the service of articulating an emergent Romantic revolutionary consciousness. In one his early essays on Shelley’s Gothic novels, Jerrold Hogle shows how Zastrozzi anticipates Shelley’s mature poetry and metaphysical writings, noting that Zastrozzi is “about the higher unity of the self prohibiting its arrival with antitheses of its own making. Every sequence circles back on the mind’s dark chamber where the soul chooses to diffuse and battle itself and thus envelop the chamber in gloom” (85). And in Romantic Narrative, Tilottama Rajan’s post-Lacanian analysis of Zastrozzi reveals the “madness” at the core of Shelley’s exploration of psychosis and perversion, an “irruption of the Real into the Symbolic” that is “staged in the laboratory of a mental theater” (64). While I agree with Hogle and Rajan that Shelley’s early Gothic works stage the antagonistic, intersubjective dynamics of self and Other(s), I argue that Zastrozzi’s significance is deepened even further by considering the literary-political-historical context in which it was written. Zastrozzi not only establishes the “Gothic complex” that Hogle so well describes, but the novel also reflects that complex of symbols and images back into itself to illuminate the late eighteenth-century reactionary fantasies that generate it and against which Shelley would fashion a revised “republicanism” in his subsequent poetry.

7.         As Stephen Behrendt has argued, Shelley often exploits conventional forms to transmit radical ideas, [3]  so it is not surprising that Shelley would choose the Gothic as a vehicle through which to surreptitiously express his interests. Indeed, one is tempted to read Zastrozzi’s various philosophical exhortations (which Hannah More would have characterized as “speculative infidelity”) in the context of Shelley’s own iconoclastic positions at the time. For example, in series of letters to Hogg between 1810 and 1811 Shelley writes, in language that could have been spoken by Zastrozzi himself: “Oh! I burn with impatience for the moment of Xtianity's dissolution, it has injured me; I swear on the altar of perjured love to revenge myself on the hated cause of the effect which even now I can scarcely help deploring. . . . I swear that never will I forgive Christianity! it is the only point on which I allow myself to encourage revenge. . . . Oh how I wish I were the Antichrist, that it were mine to crush the Demon, to hurl him to his native Hell never to rise again—I expect to gratify some of this insatiable feeling in Poetry” (27–35). In an extended philosophical discussion with Matilda, Zastrozzi expresses the same antipathy to religious orthodoxy: “Am I not convinced of the non-existence of a Deity? am I not convinced that death will but render this soul more free, more unfettered? Why need I then shudder at death? why need any one, whose mind has risen above the shackles of prejudice, the errors of a false and injurious superstition” (153).

8.         Throughout the novel, Zastrozzi argues in favor of a number of often contradictory Enlightenment philosophical motifs, from the utilitarian calculus of pleasures and pains to Godwinian perfectibilitarianism to mechanistic determinism to, ultimately, a self-pitying strain of nihilistic fatalism: “whatever procures pleasure is right”; man “was created for no other purpose but to obtain happiness”; “rather than suppose that by its own innate and energetical exertions, this soul must endure for ever, that no fortuitous occurrences, no incidental events, can affect its happiness; but by daring boldly, by striving to verge from the beaten path, whilst yet trammeled in the chains of mortality, it will gain superior advantages in a future state”; “fate wills us to die: and I intend to meet death, to encounter annihilation with tranquility.” Yet despite his avowed atheism, Zastrozzi’s elaborate scheme for revenge against Verezzi depends upon the existence of a Christian heaven and hell and the immortality of the soul. Reflecting upon the murder of his father, Zastrozzi laments: “But I destroyed his body alone . . . time has taught me better: his son’s soul is hell-doomed to all eternity: he destroyed himself; but my machinations, though unseen, effected his destruction” (155).

9.         John Whatley argues that Zastrozzi is “a well-spoken and committed Atheist” (203) and that Shelley’s “representatives of atheism and revolution are yet ‘villains’ who through conspiracy, deceit, and violence forward social disruption, but they are equally fascinating in their power to satirize and undercut Church morality and to allow the fulfillment of desire” (209). A closer reading, however, reveals Zastrozzi to be an equal-opportunity sophist, more Hobbesian or Machiavellian than Godwinian, who appropriates into a bricolage of contradictory positions whatever discourse suits his purposes. He may be “well-spoken,” but he is hardly “committed” to any particular cause other than revenge. And neither he nor Matilda successfully “undercut Church morality.” Matilda ultimately reconciles herself to the Church and Zastrozzi is executed by the Inquisition, whose absolute authority is never in doubt and remains fully intact at the conclusion of the novel. On the one hand we can point to the hypocritical self-interest of Matilda’s religious awakening and Zastrozzi’s Satanic-like resistance against absolute authority, but on the other hand we have to ask if such supposed insights are really all that subversive? From a progressive standpoint, is Shelley asking us to identify with murderers who are, despite their transgressive and liberating ambitions, consumed by self-gratification? Is Shelley championing a Bataillean “expenditure” beyond the pleasure principle that ultimately seeks to sustain prohibitions for the purpose of producing the desire to transgress them? We should perhaps be inclined to take Shelley at his word when he admonishes one reader of the novel against confusing his own radicalism with that of his characters: “If he takes me for any one whose character I have drawn in Zastrozzi he is mistaken quite” (Letters 11).

10.         Such is the interpretive crux of Zastrozzi, caught in the balance between the reactionary and revolutionary impulses of the Gothic aesthetic. Revolutionary desire is always in danger of falling into what Peter Starr calls a “logic of specular doubling” or “structural repetition” that mirrors the oppressive mechanisms of power it seeks to displace. Starr explains, “If one undertakes direct, political action . . . then the logics of specular doubling and structural repetition apply. But if one refuses such action, then one’s revolt will at best be hopelessly marginal, at worst a reinforcement of institutionalized power” (8). For Shelley, the most vivid example of such a scenario would have been the degeneration of republicanism into terror during the French Revolution, where, according to Starr, revolutionaries became “trapped in a dualistic, paranoid world where rivalry springs from the narcissistic illusion of one’s own subjective unity” (9). In the figure of Zastrozzi, Shelley demonstrates his budding appreciation for the complexities and dangers of revolutionary change and the ways in which desire is inextricably bound to even the most abstract of political commitments.

11.         But if Shelley’s aim is simply to diagnose the failings of Enlightenment revolutionary discourse by drawing attention to the destructive desires that underwrite its universalizing drive, then we might expect Shelley to adopt a narrative strategy similar to that employed by Charlotte Dacre in Zofloya. The narrator of Zofloya informs us early on that to understand the transgressive desires of Victoria we must elucidate, in the spirit of Enlightenment curiosity and utilitarian ethics, the “causes” of her destructive behavior: “The historian who would wish his lessons to sink deep into the heart, thereby essaying to render mankind virtuous and more happy, must not content himself with simply detailing a series of events—he must ascertain causes, and follow progressively their effects; he must draw deductions from incidents as they arise, and ever revert to the actuating principle” (3). Throughout the course of the novel, however, the narrator’s attempts to account for Victoria’s increasingly complex desires and motivations seem inadequate, almost to the point of comic absurdity. The failure to reduce Victoria’s subjectivity to a network of causal determinations (for example, negligent parenting), suggests that Dacre’s narration works ironically as a critique of Enlightenment itself, particularly the more dogmatic strains of French mechanistic materialism (La Mettrie’s L’Homme Machine and Holbach’s Systême de la Nature, for example) that reduce human relationships to a scientific model of strict necessity. Shelley’s investment in materialism, however, was strengthening during the period of Zastrozzi’s composition, so he was, perhaps, disinclined to adopt Dacre’s ironic stance toward Enlightenment critical gestures. [4]  Shelley’s narrator, too, adds a layer of ironic subtext, but from a different ideological perspective. The narrator often pauses to comment upon characters and events from a position of the “Church morality” that Whatley identifies, which signals the narrator’s complicity with conservative ideology and, by extension, with Verezzi. Zastrozzi is admonished for his “sophistry,” and his inability to “contemplate the wonderful operations, the mysterious ways of Providence” (102); and when Matilda prays for God’s forgiveness, the narrator happily reports that “mercy, by the All-benevolent of heaven, is never refused to those humbly, yet trusting in his goodness, ask it” (150). But again, this does not necessarily undercut church morality because, given the exaggerated evil and narcissism of Matilda and Zastrozzi, the disapprobation towards them would be wholly justifiable.

12.         I argue that Shelley deftly subverts conventional ideology while at the same time satisfying its moral prescriptions by splitting the diegetic reality from its subversive subtext, revealing an intersubjective dynamic that complicates any reading of the novel that either reduces the characters to static Gothic stereotypes or that resolves the narrative action within a determinate nexus of cause and effect. Because the narrative is doubly refracted through a conservative lens (the narrator and Verezzi), we must resist the impulse to valorize the characters of Verezzi and Julia at the expense of Matilda and Zastrozzi, who are actually the far more interesting and complicated characters in the novel (and like Milton’s Satan, more “ethical”). The temptation to identify with Verezzi and Julia persists nonetheless, particularly when we consider the similarity between the situation in which Verezzi finds himself at the beginning of the novel and that of Prometheus in Prometheus Unbound: “Verezzi was chained to a piece of rock which remained immovable. The violence of the storm was past, but the hail descended rapidly, each stone of which wounded his naked limbs. Every flash of lighting, although now distant, dazzled his eyes, unaccustomed as they had been to the least ray of light” (64). Several critics have commented upon the similarity here between Verezzi and Prometheus, [5]  but the resemblance is a lure that will prove to be superficial and misleading over the course of the novel and distorts any interpretation of Shelley’s early work through the retroactive gaze of his later treatment of similar themes.

13.         Reading Verezzi as a precursor to the “champion of mankind” strains credulity. As much as we might empathize with his suffering, Verezzi is a passive “hero” who represents unreflecting, reactionary aristocratic privilege, one of the primary targets of Shelley’s subversive critique. Furthermore, Verezzi occupies a space that is traditionally populated by female protagonists in Gothic novels: in Zastrozzi, it is the male, rather than a young, virtuous female, who is pursued, confined, and tormented by a sublime figure of phallic power—two if we count Matilda and her predatory sexuality. Throughout the course of the novel, Verezzi is coded as feminine, and the only feature which signifies his masculinity is his choice of love objects. The attitude towards gender and power expressed in the novel is ambiguous, subject to continual destabilization as Matilda and Verezzi negotiate their gendered positions in relation to one another, finally reaching a provisional, though compromised, equilibrium within a common fantasy space.

14.         Zastrozzi’s explicit representations of subversion are a semblance designed to alert us to a far more subversive strategy at work in the novel, one that is more historically informed than has been previously recognized and that interrogates the intellectual context in which it was written. By the time Shelley published Zastrozzi in 1810, the popularity of the Gothic genre was in decline and its conventions had already become a target of satire and parody in the wake of the anti-Jacobin backlash against the revolutionary zeal expressed in the “Pamphlet Wars” of 1790-91. As M. O. Grenby argues in The Anti-Jacobin Novel, “The ‘Revolution debate,’ the ‘war of ideas,’ withered away, not because every champion of radical doctrine had been utterly converted by the logic of the conservatives, but because few of them . . . could be found who wished to defy a near unanimous and highly militant anti-Jacobinism to put forward what had suddenly become dangerously unorthodox opinions” (5). The young Shelley was not one to shy away from such opinions, but he was also sly enough to understand that progressive principles had been perverted into monstrous caricatures.

15.         The ambiguous status of the Gothic’s transgressive revolutionary potential, on the one hand, and its reactionary, ameliorative impulse, on the other, participates in a larger aesthetic context in which the master signifiers of the Revolutionary era were points of bitter contention between those, like Edmund Burke, who framed the established authority of the ancien régime in sublime terms and the republicanism of Revolution as monstrous; and those, like Paine, Wollstonecraft, Godwin, and other Enlightenment progressives, who framed the Revolution in sublime terms and the ancien régime as monstrous. Burkean aesthetic categories of the sublime and beautiful reflect the predominant eighteenth-century hierarchy: sublime qualities of nobility, reason, and awe are associated with men; and beautiful qualities such as passion, friendship, and elegance are associated with women. For Burke, the feudal political structure of the ancien régime, both in England and France, represents a sublime political structure that inspires awe, admiration, and respect for a powerful patriarchal authority founded on centuries of political, ecclesiastical, and social tradition. The following passage from Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France is typical: “We fear God; we look up with awe to kings, with affection to parliaments, with duty to magistrates, with reverence to priests, and with respect to nobility. Why? Because when such ideas are brought before our minds, it is natural to be so affected; because all other feelings are false and spurious, and tend to corrupt our minds, to vitiate our primary morals, and make us unfit for rational liberty” (76). The hegemonic struggle between Jacobin and anti-Jacobin factions to define and control the meaning of master signifiers such as “freedom,” “nature,” “progress,” “necessity,” “good,” “evil,” “masculine,” “feminine,” etc., finds its aesthetic counterpart in the Gothic literature (“sickening trash,” as one Quarterly Review critic put it) produced during the apex of its popularity in the 1790s and early 1800s.

16.         The anti-Jacobin fiction of the period emphasizes the dangers to British social stability when challenged by the “new philosophy” of Enlightenment progressives. Clara Reeve writes, for instance, in her preface to Memoirs of Sir Roger de Clarendon (1793): “The new philosophy of the present day avows a levelling principle, and declares that a state of anarchy is more beautiful than that of order and regularity. There is nothing more likely to convince mankind of the errors of these men, than to set before them examples of good government, and warnings of the mischievous consequences of their own principles” (xvi-xvii). Anne Thomas, in Adolphus de Biron (1795?) writes: “I must, however, acknowledge that we have some restless Spirits amongst us, who by their seditious Writings have contributed no a little to the Work of Destruction . . . I thank Heaven the number of such Miscreants is but small, when compared to the Spirit of the whole Nation” (Grenby 104). And Robert Dallas writes, in Percival, or Nature Vindicated. A Novel (1801): “Men who born to fortune are appointed by Providence to the administration of a certain portion of the interests of the world: they are the helmsmen of happiness; and if they desert the wheel, is there any wonder that the even course should be lost?” (I, 238).

17.         Two poems in particular from The Anti-Jacobin Review (1799) effectively condense the perceived threats and vaguely generalized fear of revolutionary change into a coherent image of monstrosity against which the anti-Jacobin imaginary could organize its desire. “Ode to Jacobinism,” [6]  ostensibly written by “An English Jacobin,” opens with an invocation to the “Daughter of Hell, insatiate power, / Destroyer of the human race, / Whose iron scourge and madd’ning hour / Exalt the bad, the good debase” (1-4). Under the guidance of this “Daughter of Hell,” the Jacobin sympathizer seeks to satisfy “Revenge” (25) and usher forth, from behind a “sophist veil” (41), “Fire, rapine, sword, and chains, and ghastly Poverty” (40) and to “taint the mind, corrupt the heart” (44). The Jacobin’s ultimate motive is to “Teach us to hate and revile; / Our glorious Charter’s faults to scan, / Time-sanction’d Truths despise, and preach Thy Rights of Man” (48). And in “Ode to a Jacobin,” [7]  a more satirical piece, the “Unchristian Jacobin” (1) is represented as an atheist who rationalizes the violence of the Terror, forgoing “Mercy” (18), “Pity” (19), and “humanity” (28) to profess a “love of executions” (41) that makes one “fit for Revolutions” (42). The poem concludes by admonishing the Jacobin for thinking “All Constitutions bad, but those bran new” (48). Anti-Jacobin fiction and criticism was so successful that after only thirty-six issues the Anti-Jacobin Review disbanded in 1798, declaring that “the SPELL of Jacobin invulnerability is now broken.” [8]  Conservative discourse had successfully linked progressive philosophies with violence, establishing the image of a necessary connection in place of a complex constellation of contingent historical determinations. It had also appropriated the rhetoric of Enlightenment to “naturalize” the socio-economic hierarchy and its attendant privileges.

18.         Although Shelley was entering an ideological battle that had apparently already been won by reactionary forces, conservative paranoia provided a target-rich environment for a transgressive aesthetic that played upon fears of persecution, conspiracy, and libertinism. [9]  Shelley exploits this opportunity by positioning Zastrozzi not as a satire of the Gothic itself, but as a diagnostic study of anti-Jacobin paranoiac fantasy, delivered through one of their favorite targets of derision—the Gothic novel. From the perspective of the anti-Jacobin imaginary, nothing could be seen as more threatening to the normative hetero-patriarchal circuit of regulated desire—as exemplified by Verezzi and Julia—than the sexually aggressive Matilda and the violently atheistic Zastrozzi, two exceptions against which the stability of traditional British social hierarchy were grounded. If Matilda and Verezzi’s father signify the moral corruption of the élite, then Zastrozzi, in the form of an obscene surplus, signifies the illegitimate product of such corruption. And Verezzi, although unknowingly, contributes to that corruption himself when he finally submits to Matilda’s seduction and forsakes his love for Julia.

19.         When we consider Zastrozzi’s bricolage of contradictory Enlightenment rhetoric, his murderous desire for revenge, and his illegitimacy (which signifies a generalized threat to primogeniture and social hierarchy), from Verezzi’s perspective Zastrozzi embodies the paranoiac image of the Jacobin monster. And Matilda, whose excessive sexual degeneracy reads like a case study from Bienville’s Nymphomania (1775), embodies the paranoiac image of a fully pathological subject whose actions are determined solely by contingent self-interest. Matilda, like her namesake in Lewis’ The Monk and like Victoria in Dacre’s Zofloya, is described by the narrator (whose complicity with the anti-Jacobin imaginary should not be overlooked) in similarly demonic terms—“wily,” “perfidious,” “syren,” “ferocious,” “frantic,” “delirious,” “horror-tranced,” and “wretched.” And, as Alenka Zupancic observes, “what is a demon if not a fully pathological subject?” [10]  Because Matilda and Zastrozzi are images drawn from reactionary paranoiac fantasy, interpretations that identify Shelley’s own radicalism with either character would actually legitimize the anti-Jacobin linkage of violence to sexual liberation and progressive philosophy. This is why, from a progressive standpoint, the explicit acts of transgression in the novel constitute a semblance of revolutionary subversion designed to satirize anti-Jacobin fears.

20.         As a “romance” of the anti-Jacobin political unconscious, Zastrozzi reveals how paranoiac images of the Other are generated by antagonisms inherent to the dominant ideology itself. In Zastrozzi, the jouissance of the feminine Other (Matilda) is figured as a nymphomaniac, and the jouissance of the masculine Other (Zastrozzi) is figured as a bloodthirsty revolutionary. The paranoiac image of the Other, therefore, condenses a constellation of indistinct fears, threats, and desires, and functions as a defense against the breakdown of phallic structures of power that depend upon the stability of binary oppositions and upon the regulation of the metonymic movement of desire along the chain of signifiers. Although Shelley represents Matilda and Zastrozzi as images drawn from anti-Jacobin paranoiac fantasy, those images do not remain static throughout the course of the novel, nor are they simply caricatures of conventional Gothic villains. The only static characters are Verezzi and Julia. Verezzi is a MacKenzian man of feeling who finds himself thrust from the pleasures of sentimentality into a Gothic nightmare of violent sensibility and conspiratorial danger. He remains transfixed by Zastrozzi’s impenetrable gaze, paralyzed by fear: “. . . Verezzi stood bewildered, and unable to arrange the confusion of ideas which floated in his brain, and assailed his terror-struck imagination. He knew not what to believe—what phantom it could be that, in the shape of Zastrozzi, blasted his straining eye-balls— . . .” (90). Although we, as readers, eventually learn Zastrozzi’s identity and his reasons for pursuing Verezzi, Verezzi himself never does. Thus there is no meaningful interaction between the two; they exist for each other only as image-objects. So if we claim that Zastrozzi poses a thought experiment in which the subject of aristocratic privilege encounters in reality the monsters he has created in paranoiac fantasy, might we not also argue that Zastrozzi sees Verezzi only as an image of the aristocratic oppression that has denied him entrance into the socio-symbolic order?

21.         The conservative ideology of the narrator makes it difficult to sustain such a reversal, but the implication is there and points to how revolutionary and reactionary discourses engage each other only through the conflict between fantasmic materializations of their own lack. We can further unpack these relations in Lacanian terms. Verezzi misrecognizes Zastrozzi, mistaking him as a phallic signifier rather than as a signifier of the barred Other. According to Lacan, the phallus is an object that materializes the lack in the symbolic order, gives it a fascinating, powerful presence; whereas the signifier of the barred Other is an object that signifies this lack itself. Thus Lacan can claim that the phallic object is a signifier without a signified. Zastrozzi, as a fantasmic condensation of anti-Jacobin fear, doesn’t exist. He signifies the lack in the ancien régime social hierarchy itself, the reminder (as a remainder) that society does not exist as a harmonious totality. As Zizek explains, the phallus is at once a sign of power, but also signifies lack: “The phallic signifier is, so to speak, an index of its own impossibility . . . . This logic of the phallic inversion sets in when the demonstration of power starts to function as a confirmation of a fundamental impotence” (Sublime 157). Only at the conclusion of the novel, after Verezzi has already committed suicide, do we as readers learn what lies behind Zastrozzi’s display of phallic power: in reality he is Verezzi’s illegitimate half-brother, an impotent figure in the context of the predominant social hierarchy.

22.         Zastrozzi, however, sustains his phallic presence, even after being tried and sentenced to death by the Inquisition: “He looked around him. His manner awed the tumultuous multitude; and, in uninterrupted silence, the spectators gazed upon the unappalled Zastrozzi, who, towering as a demi-god, stood in the midst” (154). Why, after learning of his identity, of his illegitimate birth, and of his past murders, do the spectators and council still confer upon Zastrozzi the image of sublime phallic authority? Part of the answer lies, no doubt, in the mesmerizing theatricality of Zastrozzi’s performance. He both fascinates and frightens those who are caught within his gaze. As a paranoiac image of the Jacobin monster, we see how such sublime images are cultural productions that serve a necessary role in the anti-Jacobin imaginary. To demystify the paranoiac image would be to lose the very object against which a reactionary ideology defines itself. The spectators, therefore, are invested in their “willing suspension of disbelief” (to appropriate Coleridge’s phrase) and are not inclined to give up their investment in the sublime image of the Other. For Shelley, who seeks to re-mobilize the founding principles of Republican ideology, Zastrozzi functions as a “surface appearance” “draped over the irrational” fears of reactionary ideology. [11] 

23.         Matilda too is figured as a phallic object, which, not surprisingly, creates difficulties in her attempts to seduce Verezzi. Matilda occupies an especially dangerous position for Verezzi because she represents the possibility, in fantasy, of the full realization of the sexual relationship. She is beautiful, sexually uninhibited, culturally sophisticated, and presumably a woman of social standing, like his fiancée Julia. From a distance she engenders an alluring fascination, but approached too closely she becomes the monstrous Thing that threatens to annihilate his genteel subjectivity. To seduce Verezzi, Matilda must masquerade as his object-cause of desire, what Lacan calls the objet petit a. Matilda must desublimate herself from a phallic object of terrifying jouissance into a compelling image of socially sanctioned desire.

24.         According to Lacan's sexuation formulas, the masculine subject identifies with the female as the objet petit a; that is, she must occupy the place of the object-cause of desire in his fantasy scenario, she must “fit his formula” (Zizek, Plague 8). As Emily Apter points out, “There is no absolute femininity beneath the veil, only a set of ontologically tenuous codes that normatively induct the feminine subject into the social practice of ‘being’ woman through mimesis and parroting” (243). There is no mystery concerning Matilda’s desire: “I adore you to madness—I love you to distraction. If you have one spark of compassion, let me not sue in vain—reject not one who feels it impossible to overcome the fatal, resistless passion which consumes her” (83). Verezzi’s response to Matilda is one of “cold esteem,” but in the following passage we get a glimpse of how Matilda will indeed figure herself as the object of his desire:

He could not love Matilda; and though he never had seen her but in the most amiable light, he found it impossible to feel any sentiment towards her, save cold esteem. Never had he beheld those dark shades in her character, which if developed could excite nothing but horror and detestation . . . as such he pitied her: but still could he not help observing a comparison between her and Julia, whose feminine delicacy shrunk from the slightest suspicion, even of indecorum. Her fragile form, her mild heavenly countenance, was contrasted with all the partiality of love, to the scintillating eye, the commanding countenance, the bold expressive gaze, of Matilda. (84)
To successfully seduce Verezzi, Matilda must appeal to the narcissistic component of his sexual economy. Verezzi resists Matilda for much of the novel, but as she begins to understand how to incite his desire, Verezzi’s image of her softens: ““Emotions of pity, of compassion, for one whose only fault he supposed to be love for him, conquered V’s softened soul” (86). And a bit later:
Still did he feel his soul irresistibly softened towards Matilda—her love for him flattered his vanity; and though he could not feel reciprocal affection towards her, yet her kindness in rescuing him from his former degraded situation, her altered manner towards him, and her unremitting endeavours to please, to humour him in every thing, called for his warmest, his sincerest gratitude. (88-89)
Matilda’s “altered manner,” which “she knew well how to assume,” coupled with the beauty of her “symmetrical form,” finally begins to work: “By affecting to coincide with him in every thing—by feigning to possess that congeniality of sentiment and union of idea, which he thought so necessary to the existence of love, she doubted not soon to accomplish her purpose” (115). Matilda does indeed “accomplish her purpose,” but only after she has managed to substitute herself in the place formerly occupied by Julia, whom Verezzi now believes to have been murdered by Zastrozzi: “Oh Matilda! dearest, angelic Matilda! . . . I am even now unconscious what blinded me—what kept me from acknowledging my adoration of thee!—adoration never to be changed by circumstances—never effaced by time” (129). Matilda has successfully broken Verezzi’s melancholic fixation on the lost object of his desire and entered his fantasy frame as the object-cause of his “unconscious” desire.

25.         Throughout the course of the novel, Zastrozzi and Matilda undergo a metamorphic shift from powerful, phallic objects of paranoiac fantasy to impotent subjects that reveal a fundamental split subjectivity beneath the fascinating spectacle. Shelley’s antagonists, Matilda and Zastrozzi, express a subjectivity that is far more complex than his protagonists, Verezzi and Julia. The actions of Matilda and Zastrozzi can be productively read in terms of Kant’s distinction between “radical” and “diabolical” evil, which he discusses in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone. Radical evil is an ethical position in which one’s actions are determined solely by pathological motives. The pathological subject chooses self-interest and gratification at the expense of the other. Diabolical evil characterizes a position in which the subject adopts the pursuit of evil itself as a moral maxim (i.e., a categorical imperative in the form of Milton’s Satanic “Evil be thou my good.”), even at the expense of one’s own pathological interests, or even one’s life. [12] 

26.         Matilda clearly is a candidate for radical evil, and Zastrozzi for diabolical evil. Matilda violently pursues her passions until her self-interest is at stake. After Matilda kills Julia, she suddenly begins to reflect upon the eternal consequences: “The guilty Matilda shrunk at death—she let fall the upraised dagger—her soul had caught a glimpse of the misery which awaits the wicked hereafter, and, in spite of her contempt of religion—spite of her, till now, too firm dependence on the doctrines of atheism, she trembled at futurity; and a voice from within, which whispers “thou shalt never die!” spoke daggers to Matilda’s soul” (143). Zastrozzi, however, suffers no such spiritual crisis, and pursues his maxim of revenge, even at the expense of his own life. He informs the Council: “ ‘. . . I know my doom; and, instead of horror, experience some degree of satisfaction at the arrival of death, since all I have to do on earth is completed.’ . . . Even whilst writhing under the agony of almost unsupportable torture his nerves were stretched, Zastrozzi’s firmness failed him not; but, upon his soul-illumined countenance, played a smile of most disdainful scorn; and, with a wild, convulsive laugh of exulting revenge—he died” (156).

27.         The demonic subjects of radical and diabolical evil are, thus, consistent with the paranoiac image of the transgressive Other. But as Kant argues, although absolute freedom is impossible and we cannot purify ourselves completely from our pathological determinations (we are after all trapped in finite, material bodies) we can exercise our freedom by choosing the way in which we are determined. What distinguishes Shelley’s Gothic (and here we can see the emergence of a Romantic Gothicism), is the self-reflexivity and psychological dissonance that his Gothic antagonists experience. These moments are not explored in depth in the novel—the narrator is too anxious to propel Matilda and Zastrozzi into their next heinous deed—but they appear nonetheless and constitute a kind of textual unconscious that compels us to peer beyond the paranoiac image and consider Matilda and Zastrozzi as subjects rather than simply as objects of paranoiac fantasy. There are several moments when Matilda pauses to reflect upon her actions, and in these moments we recognize her as a split subject: “I almost shudder . . . at the sea of wickedness on which I am about to embark! But still, Verezzi—ah! for him would I even lose my hopes of eternal happiness. In the sweet idea of calling him mine, no scrupulous delicacy, no mistaken superstitious idea, shall prevent me from deserving him by daring acts— . . .” (79). A moment later she exclaims: “Oh, madness! Madness!” . . . “is it for this that I have plunged into the dark abyss of crime?—is it for this that I have despised the delicacy of my sex, and, braving consequences, have offered my love to one who despises me—who shuns me, as does the barbarous Verezzi?” (82). And this iconic image, in which Matilda sits perched like a gargoyle overlooking a sublime display of nature’s destructive energy, captures perfectly Matilda’s status as both fantasmic object and split subject: “Matilda sat upon a fragment of jutting granite, and contemplated the storm which raged around her. The portentous calm, which at intervals occurred amid the reverberating thunder, portentous of a more violent tempest, resembled the serenity which spread itself over Matilda’s mind—a serenity only to be succeeded by a fiercer paroxysm of passion” (119).

28.         Even Zastrozzi has moments, though few, of conscientious reflection that suggest a moral capacity for guilt: “Zastrozzi sat for some time immersed in heart-rending contemplations; but though conscience for awhile reflected his past life in images of horror, again was his heart steeled by fiercest vengeance . . . “ (75); and “. . . he thought of his past life, and his awakened conscience reflected images of horror. But again revenge drowned the voice of virtue—again passion obscured the light of reason, and his steeled soul persisted in its scheme” (68). This guilt-inducing “voice of virtue” that reflects “images of horror” speaks through and for Matilda and Zastrozzi. As Mladen Dolar explains, “. . . the surplus of the superego over the Law is precisely the surplus of the voice; the superego has a voice, the Law is stuck with the letter” (14). The specular doubling, fears of persecution, and encounters with the jouissance of the Other that drive the action of Shelley’s Zaztrozzi, St. Irvyne, and The Wandering Jew, are early attempts to explore and understand the psychological dissonances associated with a failed encounter with the Other (as language, culture, ideology) and others (individual egos, including the subject’s own).

29.         Finally, I want to draw attention to Shelley’s most effective strategy for representing the subjectivization of the paranoiac image. Critics who interpret the images and actions of Matilda and Zastrozzi only in terms of Verezzi’s state of mind, as images drawn from the unconscious of his own psychological processes, miss the radical intersubjectivity at work among all of the characters. And those, like Whatley, who suggest that Matilda and Zastrozzi are the only characters who are allowed to “fulfill their desire,” we must ask the question: whose desire? In Lacanian terms, the “subject’s desire is always the desire of the Other.” That is, desire can be for the Other, determined by the Other, or a desire for the Other’s desire—the “Other” being either the “big Other” itself (the symbolic register of language, ideology, culture, etc. out of which the effect of subjectivity is precipitated) or other individual others with whom one interacts. The most terrifying or uncanny moments in Shelley’s Gothic occur when characters discover (or we as readers discover despite the characters’ limited knowledge of their own self-experience) that their desire is not their own, that their free-will is an illusion and that their actions are determined by the desires of the Other as they are internalized in the formations of the ego, ego-ideal and superego.

30.        Zastrozzi stages the process through which the desire of the Other is internalized, transferred, expressed, and subverted. For example, we can briefly restate the action of the novel in the following terms: Zastrozzi assumes for himself the desire of his mother, which sets in motion his merciless schemes to destroy Verezzi. Split between the “desire of the m(O)ther” and the “name of the father,” Zastrozzi occupies a perverse position as the object-instrument of his disgraced mother’s desire for retribution: “‘Never shall I forgot her last commands.—My son,’ said she, ‘my Pietrino, revenge my wrongs—revenge them on the perjured Verezzi—revenge them on his progeny for ever’” (155). Matilda, in her union with Verezzi, assumes as her own the desire of Julia, and Matilda’s desire does not reach its object until she murders Julia. Matilda’s stated desire actually masks her real desire, which is to destroy her sexual and social rival: “. . . Julia must die, and expiate the crime of daring to rival me, with her hated blood” (79). “‘Julia, the hated, accursed Julia’s image, is the phantom which scares my otherwise certain confidence of eternal delight: could she but be hurled to destruction— . . .’” (131). Matilda’s phallic, destructive intensity, so well-veiled to Verezzi, finally reaches its apex when Matilda murders Julia in a “ferocious” confluence of desire and jouissance:

“Nerved anew by this futile attempt to escape her vengeance, the ferocious Matilda seized Julia’s floating hair, and holding her back with fiend-like strength, stabbed her in a thousand places; and, with exulting pleasure, again and again buried the dagger to the hilt in her body, even after all remains of life were annihilated.

At last the passions of Matilda, exhausted by their own violence, sank into a deadly calm: she threw the dagger violently from her, and contemplated the terrific scene before her with a sullen gaze. (143)

In this moment, Shelley’s subjectivized paranoiac image reverts back to its original, horrifying presence, which ultimately realizes the desire of both the narrator and reader as reactionary others. Reactionary desire is satisfied, even though Shelley had frustrated that desire by subjectivizing the paranoiac images of Zastrozzi and Matilda. They reassume their status as Jacobin monsters, thus confirming the obscene enjoyment that underlies the reactionary ethical stance. And by committing suicide, Verezzi, ironically, assumes as his own the desire of Zastrozzi. Thus, the actions of these “others” can only be understood within the larger context of the “big Other” (the patriarchal symbolic), from which both Zastrozzi and Matilda are excluded—Zastrozzi, as the illegitimate offspring of Verezzi’s father, and Matilda, whose sexual passion for Verezzi threatens the stability of the fully regulated sexual relationship, as exemplified by Verezzi and Julia. Zastrozzi draws attention to the inter-subjective relations that actually drive and sustain the paranoiac fantasy, but Shelley is also careful to maintain the tension between the demystification of the fantasy and its reduction to an explanatory network of causal relations, which would empty the Gothic of its uncanny effects and reduce it to a species of the philosophical novel.

31.         Verezzi’s traumatic encounters with Zastrozzi and Matilda exemplify not only the rigidity of Burkean aesthetic categories, but also the limitations of a moral psychology derived from either Smithian sympathetic identification or a Benthamian utilitarian calculus of pleasures and pains. As a consequence of the attempt to establish a subjective position free from the artificial and corrupted determinations of culture, tradition, and ecclesiastical authority, the Enlightenment philosophes were faced with the difficult problem of formulating an ethics grounded in “natural disposition” and confirmed by presumably universal affects such as pleasure and pain. An ethics derived from sympathetic identification with the other, however, suffers from the problem of what to do if identification with the other is impossible. [13]  In other words, an ethics of sympathy, when pushed to its limits results in a narcissistic reflection of one’s own values and we sympathize with those whose values fundamentally reflect our own. In Verezzi’s unbearable encounters with the inscrutable gaze of Zastrozzi and the threatening sexuality of Matilda, Shelley’s Gothic compels us to consider a crucial question that would preoccupy him throughout his career: how does one respond when sympathetic identification with the Other is impossible, when the inscrutable desire of the Other presses too close and threatens the consistency of one’s subjectivity?

32.         If the Enlightenment critical procedure is to demystify the image of the Other (nature, sexual difference, power, etc.) by bringing it under the determinations of the symbolic, then the Gothic strategy would be to reveal how this determined image is non-identical with itself. [14]  The demystification of Gothic effects, as exemplified in Radcliffe for example, may indeed reveal the illusions produced through epistemological error, but the price to be paid for this demystification is a further mystification of the network of intersubjective relations that point to another register of the Gothic, the “real” of desire, i.e. the impenetrable desire of the Other and its irreducible excess, the engine which drives paranoiac fantasies of conspiracy and persecution, the implications of which were not lost on David Hume who, in A Treatise of Human Nature, writes:

For what is more capricious than human actions? What more inconstant than the desires of man? And what creature departs more widely, not only from right reason, but from his own character and disposition? An hour, a moment is sufficient to make him change from one extreme to another, and overturn what cost the greatest pain and labour to establish. Necessity is regular and certain. Human conduct is irregular and uncertain. (184)
While the Gothic—in its figurative and narrative extravagance—may at first appear to be an unsuitable aesthetic mode through which to ground concrete ideological critique, Shelley deftly subverts the diegetic reality of the narrative in favor of a reality that explores the socio-psychological dynamic that creates the dialectical tension between transgressive revolutionary action and paranoiac conservative reaction. [15]  And perhaps most fundamentally, Shelley raises the following question: To what extent are those who are excluded from or marginalized within the dominant ideology still subject to its norms and prohibitions?

33.         In his Memoirs of Shelley, Thomas Love Peacock cites The Cenci as one of the few times Shelley “descended into the arena of reality” (73), but it is in his early Gothic novels that Shelley first grounds abstract philosophical, social, sexual, and ethical antagonisms within the concrete register of intersubjective relations. The “ineffectual Angel” strain of criticism—the result of a complicated cultural machine starting with Mary Shelley, Hogg, and Hunt and later solidified by Peacock and Arnold [16] —has long since been displaced by the post-structuralist Shelley who deconstructs the concrete representations of diegetic reality to reveal the abstract structures of language and ideology which produce the subjective effect of reality. The antagonisms generated between the concrete particularity of self-experience and the abstract categories through which it is mediated drives much of the productive tension in Shelley’s mature work and sustains its enduring Gothic sensibility. Although similar, I do not equate the post-structuralist subject with the Gothic subject, nor the post-structuralist Shelley with the Gothic Shelley. The difference between the two hinges on the status of the “object,” or rather, the persistence of the object; i.e, the remainder of the real that resists symbolization and therefore cannot be reduced to or recuperated within the socio-symbolic field—another example of the non-identity of a concept with itself. These antagonisms of non-identity will continue to haunt the post-Enlightenment revolutionary agency that Shelley articulates in later works such as Prometheus Unbound, a touchstone text that exemplifies Shelley’s attempt to transcend the antagonisms he explored in his early Gothic novels and poetry and to comprehend the psychopathology of power itself.

Works Cited

Apter, Emily. “Masquerade.” Feminism and Psychoanalysis: A Critical Dictionary. Ed. Elizabeth Wright. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1992.

Behrendt, Stephen C. “Introduction.” Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne. Toronto: Broadview, 2002.

Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Ed. J. G. A. Pocock. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987.

Cameron, Kenneth N. The Young Shelley: Genesis of a Radical. New York: Macmillan, 1950.

Canning, George and John Hookham Frere. Poetry of the Anti-jacobin 1799. Intro. Jonathan Wordsworth. Facsimile. Oxford: Woodstock, 1991.

Chesser, Eustace. Shelley and Zastrozzi: Self-Revelation of a Neurotic. London: Gregg Press, 1965.

Copjec, Joan, ed. Radical Evil. London and New York: Verso, 1996.

Dacre, Charlotte. Zofloya; or, The Moor. Toronto: Broadview, 1997.

Dallas, Robert. Percival, or Nature Vindicated. A Novel. 4 vols. London: Longman & Rees, 1801.

Dolar, Mladen. “The Object Voice.” Gaze and Voice as Love Objects. Ed. Slavoj Zizek and Renata Salecl. 7–31.

Dowden, Edward. The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1886). New York: Barnes and Noble, 1969.

Frank. Frederick S. “Introduction.” St. Irvyne; or, The Rosicrucian and Zastrozzi; A Romance. By Percy Bysshe Shelley. ix-xxv. New York: Arno Press, 1977.

Furniss, Tom. Edmund Burke’s Aesthetic Ideology: Language, Gender and Political Economy in Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993.

Grenby, M. O. The Anti-Jacobin Novel: British Conservatism and The French Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001.

Halliburton, David G. “Shelley’s ‘Gothic’ Novels.” Keats-Shelley Journal 36 (1967): 39-49.

Hartley, A. J. “Forward.” Zastrozzi: A Romance and St. Irvyne or The Rosicrucian: A Romance. New York: Arno, 1977.

Hogle, Jerrold E. “Shelley’s Fiction: The ‘Stream of Fate.’” Keats-Shelley Journal 30 (1981): 78-99.

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. Vol. 2. Ed. T. H. Green and T. H. Grose. London: Longmans, 1909.

Jones, Frederick L., ed. Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1964. (Cited as Letters.)

Lacan, Jacques. Seminar XX: Encore: On Feminine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Knowledge, 1972-1973. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Bruce Fink. New York: Norton, 1998.

Murphy, John V. The Dark Angel: Gothic Elements in Shelley's Works. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell UP, 1974.

Pfau, Thomas. Romantic Moods: Trauma, Paranoia, and Melancholy, 1794-1840. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2005.

Rajan, Tilottama. Romantic Narrative: Shelley, Hays, Godwin, Wollstonecraft. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2010.

Reeve, Clara. Memoirs of Sir Roger de Clarendon. 3 vols. London: Hookham & Carpenter, 1793.

Seed, David. “Mystery and Monodrama in Shelley’s Zastrozzi.” DQR 14.1 (1984): 1-17.

Shelley, Mary, ed. The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. 4 vols. London: Edward Moxon, 1839.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne. Ed. Stephen C. Behrendt. Toronto: Broadview, 2002.

Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. 1759. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2000.

Starr, Peter. Logics of Failed Revolt: French Theory after May ’68. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1995.

Whatley, John. “Romantic and Enlightened Eyes in the Gothic Novels of Percy Bysshe Shelley.” Gothic Studies 1.2 (December 1999): 201-21.

Zizek, Slavoj. The Plague of Fantasies. London and New York: Verson, 1997.

---. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London and New York: Verso, 1989.

Zupancic, Alenka. Ethics of the Real: Kant, Lacan. London and New York: Verso, 2000.


[1] As the novel opens we find the “wretched” Verezzi, the ostensible protagonist, “[t]orn from the society of all he held dear on earth, the victim of secret enemies, and exiled from happiness . . .” (61). Verezzi has been abducted in his sleep and then brought to a cave and chained to a rock by the “sublime” and “malevolent” Zastrozzi, for reasons we are as yet unaware. When a “scintillating flame” of lightning destroys the cavern, Verezzi is able to escape, but is further pursued by Zastrozzi and his co-conspirator Matilda, whose sexual passion for Verezzi threatens to separate him from his fiancée Julia, whom we meet in the flesh only much later in the novel. In collaboration with the “wily” Matilda, Zastrozzi sets out to murder Julia and recapture Verezzi so that Matilda can continue her seduction and win his heart (although, unknown to Matilda, Zastrozzi’s murderous intent extends ultimately to Verezzi).

When Zastrozzi fails to kill Julia, Matilda falsely informs Verezzi that Julia is dead and continues, though unsuccessfully, to seduce Verezzi and erase the memory of Julia from his distempered mind. To that end, Zastrozzi devises a plan in which he feigns an attempt to murder Verezzi, at which point Matilda rushes in and shields him, sustaining only minor injuries. Believing Julia to be dead and Matilda to have been his saviour, Verezzi, in a “Lethean torpor” at last professes his love to Matilda and consents to marriage. Soon after, Zastrozzi arranges a meeting in which Julia confronts Verezzi and Matilda. Dumbfounded at the sight of Julia and overcome with guilt, Verezzi commits suicide by stabbing himself in the chest. Matilda then plucks the blood-stained dagger from Verezzi's corpse, and in a frenzy of rage stabs the innocent Julia “with exulting pleasure, again and again,” burying “the dagger to the hilt in her body, even after all remains of life were annihilated” (143).

The guilty parties are eventually discovered and brought before the authorities, where Zastrozzi confesses that he is actually Verezzi’s illegitimate half-brother and has sought vengeance against Verezzi on behalf of his disgraced mother (possibly a prostitute) who was abandoned by their father, whom he had murdered before the events of the novel take place. At the conclusion of the novel, Zastrozzi and Matilda are sentenced to execution by the Council of Ten for their murderous conspiracy. Although Matilda finally repents and reconciles herself with the Catholic Church, Zastrozzi unrepentantly and defiantly continues to express his “atheism” and disdain for institutional morality, even at the expense of his own life: “Even whilst writhing under the agony of almost insupportable torture his nerves were stretched, Zastrozzi’s firmness failed him not; but, upon his soul-illumined countenance, played a smile of most disdainful scorn; and, with a wild, convulsive laugh of exulting revenge—he died” (156). Vengeance and transgressive sexual desires are punished, illegitimate threats to class structure and established authority are eliminated, and the equilibrium of the status quo is restored.


[2] See, for example, Michael Gamer’s Romanticism and the Gothic, Robert Miles’s Gothic Writing, Anne Williams’s Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic, and David Richter’s The Progress of Romance. BACK

[3] Stephen Behrendt’s “Introduction” to his edition of Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne (pp. 9-53). Cf. also Steven Jones’s Shelley’s Satire. BACK

[4] Queen Mab (1813) has been thought to mark the culmination of Shelley’s strict materialism, from which he would not awaken from his own dogmatic slumber until the Alastor volume of 1816. Adriana Cracuin has pointed out that in spite of Zofloya’s transgressive content, Dacre herself was politically conservative. So it stands to reason that she would have been more inclined to critique Enlightenment doctrine than Shelley, who never abandoned the revolutionary principles of the Enlightenment. BACK

[5] See David Halliburton’s “Shelley’s ‘Gothic’ Novels” (K-SJ 36 [1967]: 39); John V. Murphy’s The Dark Angel (39); and A. J. Hartely’s “Foreword” to his edition of Shelley’s novels (viii). BACK

[6] Poetry of the Anti-Jacobin, pp. 94-96. BACK

[7] ibid., pp. 211-13. BACK

[8] See Jonathan Wordsworth’s “Introduction” to Poetry of the Anti-Jacobin for more details about the history of the periodical and its contributors. BACK

[9] An important source, for Shelley, of anti-Jacobin conspiracy fantasy associated with the Revolution was Abbé Barruel’s Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism (1797). Shelley read the work out loud to Mary on 9 October 1814, a day before Mary herself read Zastrozzi (see Journal, p. 19). See also Robert Miles’ essay in this volume on Shelley’s conspiratorial imagination. BACK

[10] See Alenka Zupancic’s Ethics of the Real for a full discussion on the relation between Lacanian and Kantian ethics. BACK

[11] See Thomas Pfau, Romantic Moods, p. 145, for more on the relation among paranoia, knowledge, and the law. BACK

[12] See Zupancic’s Ethics of the Real and Joan Copjec, ed., Radical Evil. BACK

[13] In this curious passage from The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith appears to justify a carefully regulated form of revenge against an implacable other. Here, respect for the other extends only so far as it is reflected through a narcissistic gaze founded on similarity:

A person becomes contemptible who tamely sits still and submits to insults, without attempting either to repel or to revenge them. We cannot enter into his indifference and insensibility: we call his behaviour mean‑spiritedness, and are as really provoked by it as by the insolence of his adversary. Even the mob are enraged to see any man submit patiently to affronts and ill usage. They desire to see this insolence resented, and resented by the person who suffers from it. They cry to him with fury to defend, or to revenge himself. If his indignation rouses at last, they heartily applaud and sympathize with it. It enlivens their own indignation against his enemy, whom they rejoice to see him attack in turn, and are as really gratified by his revenge, provided it is not immoderate, as if the injury had been done to themselves. (45)

[14] The paradigmatic example of the non-identity between the image and its concept is the creature from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, who materializes the unaccountable gaps that haunt any totalizing concept of the Enlightenment subject. BACK

[15] Or, in Lacanian terms, between “reality,” as it is supported through fantasy, and the “real,” which resists symbolization. BACK

[16] For an excellent overview of the evolution of Shelley’s critical reception, see Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat, “Shelley’s Reputation before 1960,” in Shelley’s Poetry and Prose (SPP), pp. 539-49. BACK

Published @ RC

November 2015