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The Wandering Jew [EN]

Dernière mise à jour : 11 févr. 2021

Questions de foklore : Qui est le Juif errant ? À la découverte d’un mythe chrétien.

Incursions of the Wandering Jew Into the American and the English Gothic : A Comparative Study of M. G. Lewis’ The Monk[1] and N. Hawthorne’s ‘Ethan Brand’[2]

“Ambivalent feelings were felt towards the Jewish God, feelings of hatred and contempt, and, at the same time, of love and respect, because he was also their own God, the father of Jesus (…). This ambivalence was too dangerous and too difficult. The feelings of hatred and aggression were projected outside; they created Ahasver.”[3]

The legend[4] of the Wandering Jew, which was to inspire numerous literary accounts (two of which we will analyse in this essay), began as a European folk motif. The first written source mentioning the Wandering Jew was a pamphlet printed in Germany, from where it spread all over Europe[5] – and, from there, crossed the Atlantic to reach America[6]. It was entitled Kurtze Beshcreibung und Erzehlung von einem Juden mit Namen Ahasuerus, etc.[7], and is now counted among the German Volksbücher. The legend, we may observe without delay, is a Christian invention, all but non-existent in the Jewish tradition until the latter half of the nineteenth century[8] – unsurprisingly given its theological implications. The original plot is as follows[9]: in Jerusalem, a Jewish cobbler once refused to allow Jesus Christ a moment of respite on the way to crucifixion and mercilessly told him to “walk on”. As a result, the ruthless Jew was cursed by Christ and forced to wander until Doomsday. Only then will he eventually be forgiven, shake his weariness and die a Christian[10]. The fact that the legend reads as an idealised presentation of the confrontation between Judaism and the man whom the Jews persistently refused to recognise as their Messiah – a fact that probably puzzled many a Christian – may account at least in part for its popularity and wide diffusion among Catholics and Protestants alike. The approach of the legend to the impossible encounter between Christianity and the Jews was indeed both reassuring and unambiguous, insofar as it staged the victory of Christianity over Judaism and foretold the eventual dissolution of the latter in the former.

Yet, as various scholars have insisted, “the Wandering Jew is a Jew by postulate only, not even by name”[11]. Most of the time, he goes by the name of Ahasverus – and, interestingly enough, the name is not Jewish but connotes foreignness, which will prove an important aspect of the conceptualisation of the Jew as other in the legend (or legends) and in its various literary adaptations. In sooth, the Wandering Jew is a man of many names: he has been alternately called Buttadeus, Isaac Laquedem in France and Flanders, Paulo, Juan Espera en Dios in 16th to 17th c. Spain and Portugal – until the various names merged into one legendary character (by 1700). In the two texts under study, he remains unnamed. The Jew is also a man of many faces: a magician (sometimes a sorcerer), a prophet, a corrupter or a (would-be) redeemer, a sinner or a saintly penitent, he can personify good or evil – this mainly depends on the intentions of the author of the narrative in which he intervenes[12]. As a result, the wanderings of the cursed Jew have taken a thousand and one shapes both in folklore and in literature, the flexibility of the legend enabling it to enjoy a heyday from 1820 on, so that, by 1850, it had become a literary fashion, and the Wandering Jew came to play an important or a subsidiary part in many a narrative.

In The Monk, as a secondary – though memorable – character, he plays the role of helper. The Wandering Jew appears in the subplot of Raymond and Agnes of which we will give a brief summary: as young Raymond is invited at the castle of the baroness of Lindenberg, whom he rescued from bandits, he falls in love with her niece Agnes who is about to become a nun. The young lovers quickly arrange their plans to elope during the night, but Raymond mistakes a ghost, the Bleeding Nun, for Agnes, and flees with the ghost instead. The mistake proves fatal: the nun, who is also vampire, begins to drain his life out of him and, as he is the only one who can see her when she appears to perform this cruel operation, he cannot ask for help. Raymond is still in this delicate situation, languishing in deep despondency, when his servant Theodore ushers in the Wandering Jew, who soon manages to exorcise the Bleeding Nun, saving Raymond’s life. As Raymond enquires about his origins, the stranger (who had not yet been clearly identified as the Wandering Jew) delays the answer until the next morning. However, he mysteriously disappears during the night, and it is Raymond’s uncle, the Cardinal-Duke, who later reveals his identity.

Even though it emerged in Europe, the legend of the Wandering Jew soon migrated to America and gained there a popularity unmatched in the countries of the Old World, serving as a fertiliser both in folklore and in literature. Indeed, as Rudolf Ganz notes:

“When Europeans came to the New World, they brought their legends with them. The Wandering Jew was no exception, and, in a country where an ever expanding frontier was marked by all sorts of wanderers, the legend remained popular. The American experience created a new context for the Wandering Jew”[13].

Our study will thus focus on the transposition or adaptation of an Old World legend to the American Gothic, and more particularly to the literary rendition of the Wandering Jew in Hawthorne’s “Ethan Brand”. Hawthorne, it must be mentioned, had staged the figure in an earlier short story entitled “A Virtuoso’s Collection” (1842)[14], in which the Jew serves as a chronicler and as a guide through a museum of antiquities. In “Ethan Brand”, written in 1848 and printed in 1851, the Wandering Jew is presented as a “German Jew” and, once again, he is cast as a showman carrying a diorama and showing “the most outrageous scratchings and daubings”[15] and his intervention has markedly burlesque connotations. Yet, as we will try and establish, he essentially remains a source of confusion and dismay in the short story, and probably even of Gothic horror[16], as it is he who repeatedly hints at the pointlessness of the quest of Ethan Brand, a wanton sinner who imagined that he had identified and mastered the “Unpardonable Sin”. After the departure of the Jew, Brand chooses to kill hismelf by throwing himself into the fire of the kimekiln, vanquished by his rival[17] and – as we will attempt to demonstrate – evil double. Thus, the intrusion of the Jew in the plot of “Ethan Brand” has (or so it appears) clearly negative implications and consequences[18], which is the first and the most obvious distinction that we will establish between the two texts under study – though it will be slightly qualified later on in our development.

This brief overview of the two narratives enables us to perceive that the legend of the Wandering Jew (and the intervention of the eponymous character in a narrative of Gothic fiction) is never without symbolic value. To what extent does he embody the same (or similar) notions through different literary renditions? What it is that makes him a potentially “Gothic legend”[19]? As we suggested, the two texts under study propose very different answers to these questions, in keeping with two distinct Gothic traditions, and using two distinct sets of literary codes. Thus, what does the inscription of the Wandering Jew in works of Gothic fiction tell us about the transformations of the Gothic genre and its distinct development in England and in America? Was there a single, transnational “Gothic” transcription of the legend that took distinct forms in the Old and in the New World, or was the Wandering Jew conceptualised altogether differently in the English and the American Gothic traditions?

I) At a Crossway: Common Features of the American and the English Gothic Traditions in Their Rendition of the Legend of the Wandering Jew

We have suggested that the two depictions of the Wandering Jew and his role in the plots of the two narratives under study were dissimilar and probably even contradictory. Yet, what is it that enables us to identify him as the same character in the two texts? What do the two Wandering Jews have in common? Furthermore, what is it that makes them specifically and (at least apparently) transnationally Gothic?

First and foremost, the legendary source appears to be shared by the two traditions. Indeed, the figure of the Wandering Jew, as it was retranscribed in Gothic literature, results from the adaptation of an anterior, European folk motif, a borrowing which ought to be considered “a good example of the interrelationship between folklore and booklore”[20]. As might be expected, scholars then usually condescended to the legend for its blend of the sublime truths of religion with the absurdities of superstition – a blend that we may describe as representative of the codes of the Gothic both in England and in America[21]. This common source accounts mainly for the physical similarities of the two Wandering Jews: according to Anderson, the 1602 pamphlet “stands as a landmark in the history of the legend of the Wandering Jew, because it establishes the Jew as a contrite sinner, with patriarchal appearance”[22] and “super-solemn”[23] – i.e., an awe-inspiring figure. Thus, the German Jew in “Ethan Brand”, though little described, is characteristically presented as “old” and has “a stooping posture”[24]; the outline of his face is “dark and strong”, whereas Lewis’ Jew is “a man of majestic presence”, with dark eyes, and whose “countenance was strongly marked”[25]. Thus, on seeing him, Raymond immediately experiences “awe” and “horror”[26] (the word mentioned thrice in relation to the physical appearance of the Wandering Jew – as though it were another ritual formula that had to be pronounced repeatedly in order to be effective – along with related expressions, such as “mysterious dread”[27], which could be construed as a hypallage in which the adjective “mysterious” would in fact apply to the Jew), observing that “his step was slow, his manner grave, stately and solemn[28] (my emphasis).

These vague physical descriptions, in which much is left to the imagination of the reader, who remains unable, using solely the description from the text, form a clear idea of what the Jew may look like, convey a sense of mystery that is another shared characteristic of the two Gothic traditions. This common feature partakes in eliciting the sublime in both texts[29], as do the repeated allusions in the two texts to the darkness of his eyes or of his physionomy, and the fact that both Jews appear and disappear mysteriously during the night[30]. We may note that this vagueness surrounding both his appearance and his unpredictable apparitions and disparitions was already present in the hypotext of the legend (or legends, for, as we will later emphasise, there existed various variations on, or versions of, the same legend), and scholars have observed that “there has traditionally been an air of mystery surrounding the figure of the Wandering Jew.”[31] This is enhanced by the anonymity of the Jew in both texts: in The Monk, The Wandering Jew has no name and it is only after his disappearance that he is unambiguously identified as such. In “Ethan Brand”, only a few shreds of the old legend still cling to him (for instance, he is presented as a traveller, and his diorama serves a prism through which the townspeople perceive the world, as is usually the case in narratives in which he is cast as a guide and a chronicler), and he is far less easily recognisable, as he is only identified as “a German Jew”[32], whereas it is Ethan Brand who is described as a “wayfarer”[33] (moreover, another old man whose daughter Brand seduced and abandoned is twice referred to as a “wanderer”[34]). Thus, one might say that his being in sooth the Wandering Jew is only a speculation of critics[35] – he could be just any German Jew[36]. Yet, the aforementioned reference to the diorama and the metatextual reference to the “ruined castles in Europe”[37] that he exhibits to the townspeople, hinting subtly both at the architecture of the English Gothic and at the place where the legend originated seem to suggest that can be identified as the Wandering Jew.

Specialists of the legend have also laid emphasis on the Jew’s supernatural skills and powers, which participate in the creation of the sublime in the two texts under study, for “la présence du Juif errant est presque toujours fatidique, elle trouble l’ordre naturel de la creation et entraîne des bouleversements chaotiques”[38]. These powers take the form of magic rites in The Monk, whereas, in “Ethan Brand”, it is mainly through his poisonous speech that the Jew undermines the confidence of Ethan Brand: as he ironically declares “I find it to be a heavy matter in my show-box, – this Unpardonable Sin! By my faith, Captain, it has wearied my shoulders”[39], the showman lays emphasis on the futility and emptiness of Brand’s quest for the Unpardonable Sin (for, in fact, the sin weighs nothing and, not unlike Raymond’s vampire, it is not even visible). Thus, in both accounts, the words of the Wandering Jew, mirroring the verdict of Christ through which the Jew was forced to “walk on”, are endowed with a magic quality inasmuch as they are both performative and predictive. They are performative, since, the German Jew having suggested that Brand looked for the Unpardonable Sin in vain, a dog mysteriously “began to run round after his tail (...). Never was seen such headlong eagerness in pursuit of an object that could not possibly be attained”[40], which leads Ethan Brand to compare explicitly his situation with the dog’s. Furthermore, as it anticipates Brand’s doubts, the intervention of the showman can be considered predictive (as is the assumption of Lewis’ Wandering Jew, according to which the cursed family of Raymond shall now be at peace). The complementarity between the magically performative speech of the Jew and that of Christ, who both cursed him with eternal wandering and blessed him with enthralling powers, is even more obvious in The Monk, when the Wandering Jew summons Beatrice as follows: “In his name, I charge thee to answer me”[41] (my emphasis).

The Jew is also presented in both accounts as a visionary, an all-knowing, omniscient figure, in keeping with various traditions of the legend: “l’avenir n’a aucun secret pour lui (...). Il lit dans les âmes à coeur ouvert; il voit ce qui reste invisible pour l’homme”[42]. He indeed sees through Ethan Brand’s heart as he reveals to him the uselessness of his pursuit; he is also (in The Monk) the one person who can not only perceive the presence of the Bleeding Nun, but also divine the story of her damnation, abolishing the distance in time of the events that he relates through the timelessness of his own existence. The Wandering Jew has thus both the gift of eternity (he has always, is and will always be there) and that of ubiquity – or, to be more specific, he has the sustained ability to be in the right place at the right time in order to perform his role, i.e., to cure physically and save spiritually Raymond, and to reveal to Ethan Brand that his quest was pointless – one might say, to teach him a lesson.

However, even while analysing these shared characteristics, we may notice marked differences between the two Wandering Jews. For instance, it is noteworthy that both narratives stage an epiphany[43] and display some form of catharsis : in The Monk, not only is Raymond purged of the vampire’s presence but the dead, thanks to the mediation of the Jew, will finally be allowed to rest, as Raymond will confide to the grave the ashes of the Bleeding Nun, the great aunt of his grandfather, lifting the curse that was on his family for four generations. Thus, everything can then go back to normal (at least for some time): the catharsis is satisfactory and the purification complete. However, in “Ethan Brand”, even though the eponymous character throws himself into the fire (an extremely intense form of epiphany) and thus purges the world from his sinful presence (as little Joe admits, “that strange man is gone, and the sky and the mountains all seem glad of it” [44] – and indeed the landscape seems to have regained his lost stillness and peacefulness), our impression, as readers, is one of suspension and of frustration. Indeed, too many questions remain unanswered by the end of the tale: what was in fact the Unpardonable Sin? Was it lack of humanity? Pride? Did he really find it? Is there any such thing as an Unpardonable Sin? Is death (and, more specifically, suicide) the only possible and satisfactory answer to the meaninglessness of all the sublime endeavours of men? Furthermore, the process of purification through which Brand attempted to destroy his body altogether is not complete when the short story ends since his heart, which seems to be “made of marble”[45], could not be burnt down by the first – and so does the heart of the tale remain untouched. This ending is true to the spirit of the legend, for as long as the Jew walks on, there can be no resolution, and “Ethan Brand” must remain “an abortive romance”[46].

II) Conflicting Representations of the Legend: The Wandering Jew As Healer, the Wandering Jew As Corrupter

One can easily observe that, despite various similarities, the roles of the two Wandering Jews in the diegesis of the two texts are poles apart, and that they are quite differently characterised. We will argue that this ambiguity over the figure of the Jew resulting in conflicting characterisations in The Monk and “Ethan Brand” results partly from the ambivalence of the legend itself as it developed in European folklore, so much so that the two texts may actually not have been inspired by a single, consistent and coherent legend but by two conceptually opposed fragments of a splintered arch-legend whose extraordinary polymorphism we previously hinted at.

Indeed, Maccoby[47] drew attention to the fact that there existed two main versions of the legend and that they diverged drastically in their perspective on the fate of Judaism and the Jews: some accounts of the tale (a majority, he observes) offered the Jew a hope of reparation, regeneration and redemption – in which case the Jew was a convert to Christianity, a repenting sinner who bitterly regretted his dismissal of Jesus, whom he had then come to recognise as the saviour of mankind. Most of the time, these versions insisted on the saintliness of the character, on his good deeds and thaumaturgic skills. In the other accounts, which he calls “the negative versions”[48], most of which emerged from cycles of popular literature and are attributed to “belated German romanticists”[49], the character is “not a convert to Christianity, but an unregenerate Jew, with evil magic powers derived from his long experience of life and his association with the Devil”[50], and in these versions he “maintains the power to corrupt and harm others”[51], so that, being bound in alliance with Satan and related to Antichrist whose coming he announces, the Jew sows the seeds of sin and corruption everywhere he goes. It is this more recent representation of Ahasverus, which presented him as a foil or an antagonist rather than as a repenting villain, that participated in the rise of the 19th century stereotype of the sly, malefic Jew, and not its more optimistic (at least from the viewpoint of the Christian theology of the time) counterpart.

In “Ethan Brand”, the openly anti-Semitic function of the legend is quite obvious, and it is the second version that is explored and exploited, for, while the Wandering Jew does accomplish prodigies (though one may find a rational explanation and a supernatural one for all of his tricks and pranks[52], as is often the case in the works of the American Gothic[53]), they only produce monstrosity (“the German bade little Joe put his head into the box. Viewed through the magnifying glasses, the boy’s round, rosy visage assumed the strangest imaginable aspect of an immense Titanic child, the mouth grinning broadly”[54]) or elicit Ethan Brand’s despair, to the point that he eventually kills himself. In this context, “Ahasvérus apparaît comme celui qui apporte aux mortels (…) la maladie de l’âme”[55] – in Ethan Brand’s case, this malady takes the form of doubt; since, after the departure of the German Jew, he is no longer sure that his quest for the Unpardonable Sin was fruitful, nor that it had any purpose at all. Like the “foolish old dog” that the Jew presents him, he was probably, as he himself realises, “in pursuit of an object that could not possibly be attained”[56]. Moreover, as we previously mentioned, the mysterious apparition and disparition of the Jew take place at night, endowing the Wandering Jew with the “nightly face of the executioner”[57] (translation mine), a creature of the darkness whose role is not clearly stated but whom we may define as a a sorcerer, and a figure of the nocturnal mythology of evil.

Conversely, in The Monk, the Wandering Jew has become a saintly Christian (“the first thing which he produced was a small wooden crucifix (...). He seemed to be praying devoutly. At length he bowed his head respectfully, kissed the crucifix thrice, and quitted his kneeling posture”[58]) who looks back on his sin “mournufully”[59]. His function, as we emphasised, is entirely positive, and his thaumaturgic intervention brings only good and reparation. The rites of the exorcism that he performs are particularly striking in this regard: as he traces a circle on the floor in order to protect Raymond from the Bleeding Nun, the Jew manages to circum-scribe good and evil, ascribing them to a specific location, and establishing that evil (the ghost) will and must remain outside the circle (whereas he, significantly enough, is located along with Raymond in the protected sphere of good). The gesture through which he delimits the area of good and evil, of (newly-aquired) purity and impurity, can be considered representative of the literary codes of the English Gothic, which tends to assign evil a safely remote location outside the self (in Italy, in the “Catholic other”, but not in England, not next door, and especially not within the reader).

In “Ethan Brand”, contrary to this careful circumscription of evil, we are made to discern a fundamental ambiguity: indeed, we suggested that it was the Wandering Jew who corrupted Ethan Brand and drove him to suicide. Yet, it is made clear from the beginning of the short story that Brand is already corrupted – that he is the unpardonable sinner, a figure of unabashed evil who has, among other immoral acts, mercilessly “wasted, absorbed, and perhaps annihilated”[60] the soul of one of his lovers whose desperate father he meets at the limekiln. Thus, the identity of the villain in “Ethan Brand” remains unclear: is it the Wandering Jew or Brand who performs this function in the tale? Or both? We will delay our answer to this specific question until the last part of our essay. For the moment, we will note that, whereas in The Monk the Wandering Jew accuses the other, the non-human, the supernatural (in the form of the vampire-ghost), what is and will remain outside the circle, of causing the torments of the self, in “Ethan Brand”, the German Jew, who is once again cast as an accuser, denounces Brand as the responsible of his own misfortunes. Thus, as Hawthorne’s Jew points out, evil is located within.

In The Monk, his ambivalence is reflected at the level of the characterisation of the Wandering Jew himself, who personifies good and evil (simultaneously or successively). It is mainly represented through a symbolically compelling physical feature: the mark of Cain, which takes the form of a “burning cross”[61] on his forehead (it is with the vision of this mark that Raymond’s horror climaxes, as he confesses: “my senses left me: a mysterious dread overcame my courage; and had not the exorciser caught my hand, I should have fallen out of the circle”[62], i.e. the mark is a liminal sign[63] between good and evil and partaking of both, which threatens to blur the demarcation line between the two and, consequently, to break the magic circle), embodying the doubleness that characterises the condition of the Jew. Indeed, it is both the mark of a curse and the sign of election, conveying both “reverence and horror”[64]. The mark also suggests the risk of contamination (Raymond almost falls out of the safe circle drawn by the Jew, threatening to fall prey to the Bleeding Nun, the monstrous other – i.e., to the forces of evil) and simultaneously recalls its impossibility: indeed, the mark also reads as a warning, revealing that an untouchable, a tabooed murderer, is approaching. Thus, the physical, perceptible presence of the mark makes the abstract notion of damnation concrete. The Jew is, and remains, an unpardonable sinner.

III) The Jew as Other, The Jew as Double

We brought up earlier in our development the question of the identity of the villain in “Ethan Brand”, which we will reformulate as follows: is it Ethan Brand or the Jew who has in sooth committed the Unpardonable Sin? In the short story, does the Jew corrupt Brand’s soul by instilling doubts into it, or does he only tell him something that he already knew – that his quest for the Unpardonable Sin was futile? We will now try and solve these puzzles by establishing that, if the Wandering Jew is characterised as Brand’s (potentially evil) double, i.e. his externalised or projected self, the key to these alternatives will easily be found. Conversely, it appears that, in The Monk, the Jew is not Raymond’s alter ego but the paragon of otherness.

Firstly, we may note that the use of the supernatural in both texts is representative of two different conceptualisations of the Jew. As we observed, “The Monk has the double appeal of allowing us to indulge in extravagances of feeling while protecting us from their consequences by locating such extravagances quite specifically in the remote reaches of fantasy”[65]. It ensues that the reader of The Monk knows quite well that there exists no such thing as a Wandering Jew: the character exists mainly for the purpose of sensationalism, because his apparition is expected to provoke feelings of (mainly moral) horror. As we suggested, horror in the English Gothic is cautiously distantiated, and, in the novel under study, characters like the Bleeding Nun and the Wandering Jew are to be considered “self-enclosed supernatural conventions, existing for the effect of the fantasy”[66]. Thus, the legendary Jew is only an avatar of the “faune étrange et épouvantable”[67] that Elizabeth Durot Boucé evokes in her study of the Gothic, among which feature “assassins, parricides, inquisiteurs, moines féroces, lycanthropes, nonne sanglante, juif errant, demons de toute sorte, Satan lui-même”[68]. The horror that the Wandering Jew provokes is thus perfectly safe for the reader to experience, all the more so as the plot of The Monk itself is, as some critics have underscored, unlikely from beginning to end. As a consequence, the Jew is the perfect externalised other (the religious and racial other; he is other in relation to space and time as well, because the rules that apply to all humans do not apply to him) who can only exist in relation – to the figure of Christ, his only counterpart in the folkloric tradition, and, in The Monk, to the Bleeding Nun and Raymond, between whom he serves as a mediator, displaying characteristics from the world of the dead and from that of the living. This is why, as Coral Ann Howells put it, “The Monk comes close to being a Gothic nightmare but curiously it is not one; instead, it is a Gothic entertainment”[69].

We may say that the opposite is true of “Ethan Brand”, as it may well be the apparently burlesque derision of the Jew that leads Ethan Brand to his fiery grave: the short story (not unlike the Jew’s distorting diorama, which enables the townspeople to amuse themselves and yet is also revealing of darker truths in the souls of those who use it) really is a Gothic nightmare rather than a mere entertainment. According to us, the key of the mysterious presence of the Jew and to his decisive (or proabably fatal) effect on the main protagonist can be found in the following directive of Brand’s, following the declarations of the Jew concerning the purported heaviness of the Unpardonable Sin: “get thee into the furnace yonder”[70]. As might be expected, the Jew does not answer, and he does not throw himself into the furnace – but Ethan Brand does a few hours after his encounter with the Jew, who has by then mysteriously disappeared. Did Brand not kill the Jew when he killed himself[71]? The hypothesis is very tempting and, in order to assess it, we must consider the possibility that the Jew may well be a projection of Brand’s self, a double embodying his doubts, his scepticism, and his fear of being surpassed in his quest for sin, and that it is the fragmentation of his self and his disgust for his externalised self that drives him to madness and death.

Indeed, taking into account the thesis that “le gothique américain est une plongée dans le refoulé”[72], it is little wonder that Brand should try and kill the Jew, i.e. the “dark” man that appears and disappears without notice, a symbol of the darker part of his own self, spoiling his return at the limekiln and his safe enjoyment of his sins. The protagonist’s suicide, as is often the case in the tales of the double[73], may read as a travesty of a murder, i.e. as the realisation of a murder that Brand had explicity wished, commanding the Jew to be quiet or get into the furnace: “on essaie de chasser l’étranger, responsible de tous les maux, et l’on finit par s’apercevoir qu’en fait, cet Autre est la part inconsciente du héros”[74]. Violence directed towards the self and towards the other have the same outcome: the demise of the self. Brand’s enquiry throughout the world and within the self leads to the disintegration of his self – what he found in it, as the Jew suggests, is both heavy and weightless, both visible and invisible, both existent and non-existent. As the oucome of the tale emphasis, the quest was dangerous and Brand must face the dire consequences.

Interestingly enough, the double can also be construed also a distorted father figure[75] (and, interestingly enough, he is a German Jew, coming from the Old World and directly exported from the European soil where his legend was born, rather than an American Wandering Jew). Indeed, he is not exactly the same as Ethan Brand – he is the one who constantly outclasses him. Brand, the Romantic character in search of the forbidden knowledge that would make him a god (or, in that case, a Satan), and who proudly heralded impiety, is dethroned by another, more powerful ally of Satan’s – the Wandering Jew. Thus, his being recast as a showman enables him to steal the show from Brand on the day on his return to the limekiln, as he conspicuously diverts the attention of the townspeople from the “unpardonable sinner” as he shows them his pictures, which provoke the disgust of Ethan Brand who repeatedly notes their “abominable deficiency of merit”[76], but which seem to fascinate others – the reference to the fascinus is all the more justified as the Jew and the townspeople mock the foolish dog who chases his tail, which is said to be, significantly enough, “a great deal shorter than it should have been”[77]. Brand, as he explicitly identifies his fate with that of the dog, hints at the impending risk of castration that results from the appearance of the Jew (the hated and rejected father[78]).

As we suggested, just like Brand, the Wandering Jew is not just any sinner – he was (and remains, according to the second version of the legend – the one that Hawthorne taps, as we tried to demonstrate in the second part of our essay) the opponent of Christ an the inventor of a “péché de génie”[79], as Apollinaire put it; for it came with immortality and the gift of quasi-ubiquity. It is ovious that the Wandering Jew is the better sinner: while Brand took to wandering in order to find the worst possible sin, the Jew was forced to wander because he found this sin without seeking it. As the German Jew underlines, and as Brand admits earlier in the short story, there was no need to look that far in the quest for sin: of course, it was already within all along. The theme of the double surpassing and ridiculing the self (and the double, it must be noted, generally seems to have more power than the self over reality and over the others, as the possibly supernatural episode of the dog hints at) and repeatedly highlighting the pointlessness of his endeavours is quite common in the literature of the double[80]. So is the fact that the Jew, whom Brand had met before and did not want to meet again (as he recognises him, he mutters to him “I remember you”[81] in obvious dissatisfaction), keeps finding him again wherever he goes. Similarly, as “each character’s quest for identity (...) leads to the fragmentation and metamorphosis of the self into its own double and the disintegration of the integrity of the self”[82], leading to the eventual demise of the fragmented self that no longer holds together (and, logically, to the disappearance of its “double”), Hawthorne’s “Ethan Brand” draws attention to a risk to which all readers are exposed: he hints that “en tout être humain sommeille un double monstrueux qui aliène sa personnalité”[83], threatening to come into the open and fragment the self beyond repair.

To conclude, if we apply by induction our conclusions on the comparative study of “Ethan Brand” and The Monk to the definition of the English and the American Gothic, we may assent to the following distinction of Durot’s: “si le gothique anglais des origines a une function ludique – jouer à (se) faire peur –, en Amérique, le gothique est plongée terrifiante dans le refoulé”[84], as it flings open the darker, hidden and repressed parts of our selves and gives us an inkling of the possible collapse of our identities, staging characters whose selfhood crumbles to the point of no return. As a consequence, “est gothique surtout ce qui relève de la part primitive, inconsciente et ténébreuse de l’individu”[85].

The question of why this legend in particular was chosen to illustrate these facts is far from irrelevant. Disucssing the symbolic implications of the wanderings of the Jew, Rouart argued: “l’errance d’un homme est (…) assimilée à un état intérieur de recherche de l’unité”[86]. The Wandering Jew, who can never find home (a psychic center), naturally came to be viewed as a perfect symbol for the endless quest for identity and the enduring fragmentation of the self. Yet, we may observe that there were other mythic wanderers at the disposal of the authors of the American (and the English) gothic, such as the Wild Huntsman, the Flying Dutchman, or Peter Rugg, (the Missing Man, an original creation on American soil). Yet, none of these figures had so succesful a literary career as the Wandering Jew. Why did he have to be a Jew? As we suggested, his Judaism is merely a symbol and a symptom of his (religious and racial) otherness. According to Edersheim, who explored the complex attitudes of Christian towards Judaism (viewed as an ambivalent father figure), “the Wandering Jew is a symbolic expression of a psychopathological condition, but the condition is Christian, not Jewish”[87]. A source of moral horror, the sinful Jew came to embody the evildoings of all mankind, and consequently became the ideal scapegoat onto which the readers of the legend could project a repulsion whose sharp edges they might otherwise have turned inwards. Yet, he also embodies the sufferings of mankind[88] and, simultaneously, the possibility of redemption, as his presence is revealing both of the permanence of evil and of the possibility of good (especially in the first version of the legend, in which the transformation of evil into good has already started as he has become a devout Christian). Unsurprisingly (and not unlike “Ethan Brand”), the legend gave rise to endless speculations about its possible meaning: “mythe creux”[89], it is to be filled by collective interpretations, projections, fears and expectations. Its polyvalence and its polymorphism was the badge of its success, since, as Etiemble argued, “pour peu qu’un mythe réussise, c’est-à-dire pour peu qu’il exprime un besoin de l’individu ou de la société, il acquiert le don de toutes les metamorphoses”[90].

Selective Bibliography

Primary sources

HAWTHORNE, Nathaniel; “Ethan Brand”, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tales in p. 254-267, Norton Critical Edition, Second Edition (W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012, New York).

LEWIS, M.G.; The Monk (Grove Press, 1952, New York).

Main secondary sources

- On the legend of the Wandering Jew:

ANDERSON, George Kumler; The Legend of the Wandering Jew (Brown University Press, 1991, RI).

GILBERT, Ruth; “Jewish Gothic” in Hughes, William; Punter, David and Smith, Andrew (ed.), The Encyclopedia of the Gothic (WILEY Blackwell, 2016, Oxford), pp. 375-378.

HASAN-ROKEM, Galit and DUNDES, Alan (ed.) ; The Wandering Jew : essays in the interpretation of a Christian legend (Indiana University Press, 1986, Bloomington).

KNECHT, Edgar; Le Mythe du Juif errant: essai de mythologie littéraire et de sociologie religieuse (Presses Universitaires de Grenoble, 1977, Grenoble).

ROUART, Marie-France, Le Mythe du Juif Errant dans l’Europe du XIXème siècle (José Corti, 1988, Mayenne).

SPECTOR, Sheila., The Jews and British Romanticism, Volume 2, p. 169 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, NY).

TYLER, R. Tichelaar ; The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption; Gothic Literature from 1794 – Present (Modern History Press, 2012, Ann Arbor).


“Glossary of the Gothic: Ethnicity. Jews” from Marquette University, Raynor Memorial Libraries. <> (Accessed April 17, 2017).

"Wandering Jew." Encyclopedia Mythica from Encyclopedia Mythica Online. <> (Accessed April 17, 2017).

- On the Gothic and the figure of the double:

BRENNAN, Matthew C.; The Gothic Psyche: Disintegration and Growth in 19th-Century (Camden House, 1997, Columbia).

DAY, William Patrick; In the Circles of Fear and Desire: A Study of Gothic Fantasy (Univesity of Chicago

Press, 1988, Chicago).

DUROT-BOURCÉ, Elizabeth; Spectres des Lumières : du frissonnement au frisson – Mutations gothiques du XVIIIe au XXIe siècle (Publibook, 2004, Paris).

BIENSTOCK, Anolick ; HOWARD, Douglas (ed.), The Gothic Other: Racial and Social Constructions in the Literary Imagination (McFarland & Company, 2004, Jefferson).

LÉVY, Maurice; Le Roman “gothique” anglais, 1764-1824 (Albin Michel, 1995, Paris).

RANK, Otto (trad. D. S. Lautmann); Don Juan et le Double (Petite Bibliothèque Payot, 1973, Paris).


[1] Lewis, M.G. The Monk (Grove Press, 1952, New York).

[2] Hawthorne, Nathaniel “Ethan Brand”, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tales in p. 254-267, Norton Critical Edition, Second Edition (W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012, New York).

[3] Edershein, Isaac, “A Mythic Image of the Jew”, in The Wandering Jew : Essays in the Interpretation of a Christian Legend, edited by Hasan-Rokem, Galit and Dundes, Alan, Indiana University Press, 1986, Bloomington.

[4] We will use the term “legend” rather than “myth”, though the latter is also used by various scholars (e.g. Knecht, Edgar; Le Mythe du Juif errant: essai de mythologie littéraire et de sociologie religieuse (Presses Universitaires de Grenoble, 1977, Grenoble). Indeed, according to Eduard König (“The Wandering Jew, Legend or Myth ?”, in Hasan-Rokem, Galit and Dundes, Alan, ed., op. cit. p 11) : “for the folklorist, a myth is a sacred narrative explaining how the world and man came to be in their present form” (this definition would not apply to the Wandering Jew), whereas “a legend is a story told as true and set in the real post-creation world”. The legendary Jew was indeed purported to appear in various locations through the centuries.

[5] König, Eduard, in Hasan-Rokem, Galit and Dundes, Alan (ed.) op. cit., p 8.

[6] Glanz, Rudolf, “The Wandering Jew in America”, in Hasan-Rokem, Galit and Dundes, Alan (ed.), op. cit.

[7] Wikisource, Kurtze Beshcreibung und Erzehlung von einem Juden mit Namen Ahasuerus,ßverus

[8] However, Edelman (quoted in: Gebhardt, Gloria. “Ahasverus on the Walkabout: The Motif of the Wandering Jew in Contemporary Australian Fiction.” Antipodes, vol. 16, no. 1, 2002, pp. 11–16., mentions a similar figure, “the Ba’al Teshuva, the Galut wanderer as he is known in Judaism” from Philon to Agnon. The Jews did consider themselves in exile and this exile was sometimes construed as a punishment, but never for the sufferings of Jesus.

[9] Yet, as we will observe, there were different (and perhaps contradictory) developments on this legend.

[10] Thus, there are in fact two curses : extreme longevity or immortality (the curse related to time) and wandering without being able to rest anywhere (the curse related to space). In the legend of Cartaphilus, which was identified as one of the sources of the legend (the legend of the Wandering Jew is indeed a blend of earlier legends), the eponymous character, a doorkeeper who urges Jesus to worry on his way to crucifixion, is doomed only to longevity. Another medieval legend recounted that Malchus, the servant of the high priest of the Sanhedrin, struck Jesus while in the synagogue and was condemned to wander eternally. The later versions may mention both aspects of the punishment, or just one of the two. Generally one aspect takes center stage: for instance, the temporal curse in Germany (where he is called der ewige Jude, the “eternal Jew”), as opposed to England and France (“le Juif Errant” and “the Wandering Jew”). In The Monk, both are mentioned but there is particular emphasis on longevity. In “Ethan Brand”, longevity is not alluded to but the theme of wandering is essential.

[11] Edelmann, R.: “Ahasuerus, the wandering Jew : origin and background » in Hasan-Rokem, Galit and Dundes, Alan (ed.), op. cit., p. 3.

[13] Glanz, Rudolf, “The Wandering Jew in America” in Hasan-Rokem, Galit and Dundes, Alan (ed.), op. cit., p. 105.

(Ohio state university press, 1974, Columbus)

[15] Hawthorne, op. cit., p. 262.

[16] We will refer to the definition of A. Radcliffe, according to which terror can be defined as dread that precedes an experience, whereas horror occurs after something dreadful is seen. One does not fear the Wandering Jew but one may be morally horrified by him and by his past sins (Ann Radcliffe (1826) "On the Supernatural in Poetry" in The New Monthly Magazine 7, 1826, pp 145–52.)

[17] This point is probably questionable and depends on our interpretation of the legend. At least “Ethan Brand, unpardonable sinner though he may be, has the privilege of throwing himself into the limekiln” (Anderson, George K., The Legend of the Wandering Jew, Brown University Press, 1991, Rhode Island). Part of his curse relies precisely on his having to live eternally: it is the curse of existence.

[18] However, there is undoubtedly an element of catharsis in Brand’s death, as will underline in the first part of our essay.

[19] Champfleury, “Nouvelle interprétation de la légende gothique du Juif-Errant” (my emphasis), Revue Germanique et Française, t. 30, juillet-sept. 1864, p. 299-325.

[20] Hasan-Rokem, Galit, “The Cobbler of Jerusalem in Finnish Folklore”, in Hasan-Rokem, Galit and Dundes, Alan (ed.), op. cit., p 141

[21] Coleridge, more particularly, reproached M.G. Lewis with this blend of the truths of religion and of superstition: Mazurek, Monica, “Teaching the Gothic Novel: the Gothic Spaces of Spain in Lewis’ The Monk”, Moya Guijarro, Arsenio Jesús, Ramos, Ignacio Gay, Albentosa Hernández, José Ignacio, New Trends in English Teacher Education p. 336 (Ediciones de la Universidad de Castilla la Mancha, 2008, Cuenca).

[22] Anderson, George K., op. cit., p. 77

[23] Ibidem.

[24] Hawthorne, op. cit., p. 263.

[25] M. G. Lewis, op. cit., p. 177.

[26] M. G. Lewis, op. cit, p. 181.

[27] M. G. Lewis, op. cit, p. 181.

[28] Ibidem.

[29] Our definition of the sublime will rely on the following source: Burke, Edmund; A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.(1757 edition on the Internet: <>)

[30] Burke, Edmund, op.cit., Section III on Obscurity

[31] Hasan-Rokem, Galit and Dundes, Alan (ed.), op. cit., .p. viii

[32] Hawthorne, op. cit., p. 262.

[33] Hawthorne, op. cit., p. 256.

[34] Hawthorne, op. cit., p. 261.

[35] We may quote, among other sources, Anderson, George K., op. cit., p. 212.

[36] Yet, it must be noted that the Jew – wandering or not – remains a quintessential image of otherness in Hawthorne’s works.

[37] Hawthorne, op. cit., p. 262.

[38] Knecht, Edgar; Le Mythe du Juif errant: essai de mythologie littéraire et de sociologie religieuse (Presses Universitaires de Grenoble, 1977, Grenoble), p. 42.

[39] Hawthorne, op. cit., p. 263.

[40] Ibidem.

[41] M. G. Lewis, op. cit, p. 180.

[42] Lévy, Maurice; Le Roman “gothique” anglais, 1764-1824 (Albin Michel, 1995, Paris), p. 345.

[43] Bidney, Martin; “Fire, Flutter, Fall and Scatter: A Structure in the Epiphanies of Hawthorne’s Tales”, p. 507-523, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tales, Norton Critical Edition, Second Edition (W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012, New York).

[44] Hawthorne, op. cit., p. 267

[45] Ibidem.

[46] Hawthorne had planned a lengthy tale about Brand's life and his travels in search of the "Unpardonable Sin" but published only this “abortive romance”.

[47] Maccoby, Hyam, “The Wandering Jew as Sacred Executioner”, in Anderson, George K., op. cit.

[48] I would argue that both may sound equally negative to a Jew, since the « positive » versions always proclaim that a good Jew is a Christian convert.

[49] Maccoby, Hyam, “The Wandering Jew as Sacred Executioner”, in Anderson, George K., op. cit., p. 214.

[50] Spector, Sheila., The Jews and British Romanticism, Volume 2, p. 169 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, NY).

[51] Maccoby, Hyam, “The Wandering Jew as Sacred Executioner”, in Anderson, George K., op. cit. p. 215.

[52] Is it by chance that the “foolish old dog” suddenly starts chasing his tail? It could be: there is nothing particularly unusual about it. Yet, we may also suppose that this has something to do with the previous declarations of the Jew, according to which Brand’s quest for the Unpardonable Sin was pointless. What if the Jew-sorcerer had had an influence on the dog? Why does the text insist on the fact that it has no master, that there is no apparent reason for its starting to act strangely all of a sudden? These questions must remain unanswered, and the reader keeps doubting about the actual extent of the powers of the Jew.

[53] For instance in the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe.

[54] Hawthorne, op. cit., p. 262.

[55] Rouart, Marie-France, Le Mythe du Juif Errant dans l’Europe du XIXème siècle (José Corti, 1988, Mayenne).

[56] Hawthorne, op. cit., p. 263.

[57] Rouart, Marie-France, op.cit., p. 214.

[58] M. G. Lewis, op. cit., p 180.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Hawthorne, op. cit., p. 261

[61] M. G. Lewis, op. cit., p. 181.

[62] M. G. Lewis, op. cit., p. 181.

[63] The Jew himself is a liminal figure insofar as he traces the circle : “Par la médiation du Juif, la communication s’établit avec l’Au-Delà, le Visible et l’Invisible interfèrent” (Lévy, Maurice; op.cit.).

[64] M. G. Lewis, op. cit., p. 181

[65] Howells, Coral Ann Love, Mystery and Misery: Feeling in Gothic Fiction p. 63 (Bloomsbury, 2013, London).

[66] Day, William Patrick; In the Circles of Fear and Desire: A Study of Gothic Fantasy (Univesity of Chicago

Press, 1988, Chicago), p. 38.

[67] Durot-Bourcé, Elizabeth; Spectres des Lumières : du frissonnement au frisson – Mutations gothiques du XVIIIe au XXIe siècle, p. 36, (Publibook, 2004, Paris)

[68] Ibidem.

[69] Howells, Carol Ann, op. cit. p. 62.

[70] Hawthorne, op. cit., p. 263.

[71] Which is quite typical of the tales that feature doubles.

[72] Durot-Bourcé, Elizabeth, op.cit. p. 151.

[73] Our main reference on the double will be the following: Rank, Otto (trad. D. S. Lautmann); Don Juan et le Double (Petite Bibliothèque Payot, 1973, Paris).

[74] Durot-Bourcé, Elizabeth; op.cit., p. 151.

[75] E. Isaac-Edersheim, in “Ahasver, a Mythic image of the Jew” (in Hasan-Rokem, Galit and Dundes, Alan, ed., op. cit.), reinterpreted the legend in terms of a rivalry between fathers and sons. The analogy, he suggests, starts precisely when Ahasverus and Christ meet. As he writes in p.195: “in essence, the Christian son (Jesus) is opposed to the Jewish father (ahasuerus). The figure of the Jew thus provides a suitable, guilt-free target for Oedipal wishes. God is thus the father one can love while the Wandering Jew is the father one can despise and abuse”.

[76] Hawthorne, op. cit., p. 262.

[77] Hawthorne, op. cit., p.. 263.

[78] Isaac-Edersheim, op. cit. p. 195

[79] As Apollonaire puts it in, Le Passant de Prague (L’Hérésiarque, Paris Stock, 1910), the Jew’s sin is “Un péché de génie”, p. 14 (p. 19: “Le Christ ! Je l’ai bafoué. Il m’a fait surhumain”).

[80] Rank, Otto, op.cit. p. 73.

[81] Hawthorne, op. cit., p. 263.

[82] Day, William Patrick ; op. cit. p. 23.

[83] Rank, Otto, op.cit. p. 128.

[84] Durot-Bourcé, Elizabeth; op.cit., p 186.

[85] Ibidem.

[86] Rouart, Marie-France, op.cit., p. 32.

[87] E. Isaac-Edersheim, in Hasan-Rokem, Galit and Dundes, Alan (ed.), op.cit.

[88] Anderson, George Kumler, op.cit. p.394: “Ahasuerus is one obvious symbol of sinful mankind in suffering”.

[89] Knecht, Edgar; op.cit. p. 184.

[90] Etiemble, René, Le Mythe de Rimbaud: Genèse du mythe 1869-1949, p. 437 (Bibliothèque des Idées, NRF Gallimard, 1952, Paris).

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