Although the narrator sometimes seems to be poking fun at certain characters (Annette's precious sequins come to mind), the predominant tone is dark and uncertain. As Emily wanders around the castle and the surrounding wilderness, "her eyes glance fearfully" about (2.6.59). Though she's scared of lots of things, we don't always know what's lurking out there.
That uncertain tone often gives way to a conflicted one, since we don't really know who to believe. Do we trust Em, who thinks the thing behind the veil is too horrible to reveal? Even the narrator flip-flops between marveling at some otherworldly spectacle and revealing something as not nearly as scary as it appears: "Had she looked again, her delusion and her fears would have vanished together…" (4.17.24). The narrator doesn't seem to know what's really scary and what's just mundane.
Add up one terrifying castle, two kidnapping attempts, multiple ghost sightings, and a perilous escape, and you've got the makings of an epic adventure in your hands. The fun just doesn't stop for Emily St. Aubert after she gets whisked off to Italy. Here's the kicker: Em is constantly in physical danger—from Count Morano, the leering Italian lords, and possibly even the creepy Barnardine. It's no fun for Em, but all the action makes for one rollicking adventure story.
If pure adventure isn't enough for you, though, try throwing in some fantastical elements. Here's a definition headed your way: fiction with strange or otherworldly settings or characters gets the fantasy label. And if strange music in the forest and a mysterious ghostly presence don't fit the bill for fantasy, we don't know what does.
But above all, this is aGothic novel. There's a terrifying villain (Montoni), a hefty dose of mystery (murdered wives and ghosts galore), and that archetypal creepy castle. There's Goth all over Emily's world.
The Mysteries of Udolpho seems pretty clear from the outset. When Emily arrives at Udolpho, she quickly discovers that tons of mysteries are just waiting to be unraveled. But these aren't exactly the mysteries she's read about in her romance novels.
First of all, Em finds mysteries that seem too terrible to exist, like the thing behind the black veil. But there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for what looks like a rotting corpse but is in actuality a melted piece of wax. As far as mysteries go, this one's pretty lame.
The real mysteries of Udolpho go a little bit deeper. Emily becomes more attentive at Udolpho to the complexities of human life and death, even as she struggles to cope with the deaths of those closest to her. The strange music Emily hears now and again represents this unsolvable mystery—we're not going to get a straightforward answer about why life and death happen the way they do, but it's totally worth contemplating.
Radcliffe sews up many of the mysteries by the story's end, leaving us with one big question mark about Emily and Valancourt. And we get a funny word to end the book: Em and Valancourt are "restored" to each other, to their properties, and "to the securest felicity of this life, that of aspiring to moral and laboring for intellectual improvement" (4.18.8).
Okay, so this is a story about two people losing everything and finally gaining it back. We always knew they were worthy folks, so that comes as no surprise. The next step, apparently, is for both Em and Valancourt to constantly improve themselves intellectually and morally.
And then it sounds like Agnes the fire-and-brimstone nun takes over the pen:
Though the vicious can sometimes pour affliction upon the good, their power is transient and their punishment certain […]. (4.18.10)
The narrator wants us to know that though things might seems a little ambiguous, the evil will always get their just desserts. Namely, a cup of poison.
Setting is where it's at in The Mysteries of Udolpho. Although Em moves around over miles of the French and Italian countryside and several chateaus, we've got to give some credit to the ultimate spooky castle: Udolpho in Italy. The year when our story starts is 1584, a time when the Grand Tour was in full swing.
That means it was super popular for aristocrats to go gallivanting around the countryside in search of some hoity-toity culture. Although Em gets some serious travel under her belt, you might say the real story is what happens when the Grand Tour goes terribly awry.
Before Em makes her big move to Italy, she's jumpin' all over the place with her travel-bug dad, St. Aubert. And Em is loving it: she "cannot resist her transport" as she looks over the "majestic Garonne" (1.3.5). Most of the first volume is dedicated to these kinds of rapturous declarations about nature. And we'll give it to Em: it's pretty nice to get toted around in a carriage over the French countryside. We'd like to see how she lasts on a backpacking trip.
When Em starts going off on the beauty of nature, she's buying into the whole phenomenon of the "sublime." It's a pretty neat concept that goes all the way back to Longinus, writing in the 1st or 3rd century, but gets updated by Edmund Burke in 1756. Basically, it's a way to talk about the immeasurable greatness of art or nature.
The real name of the game, Udolpho, doesn't even pop up until midway through the second volume. So what gives? Why name a book after a castle where Em just chills for a while before heading back home?
Well, everything is building up to this creepy castle of Montoni's. All of Em's exclamations about the sublimity of nature basically get squashed by the majesty of Udolpho:
Emily gazed with melancholy awe upon the castle… for, though it was now lighted up by the setting sun, the gothic greatness of its features, and its mouldering walls of dark grey stone, rendered it a gloomy and sublime object. (2.5.25)
See, Em's been taking a tour of the countryside that's a little on the tame side. Back when she was traveling with her dad, she could stop the carriage any time and call it a day. At Udolpho, Em sees a wilder side of nature barely outside the castle walls. And even when she's totally terrified, she can't help but stop and reflect on how cool the place is:
She often paused to examine the gothic magnificence of Udolpho, its proud irregularity […] (2.6.15)
It's like a fantasy straight out of her romance novels finally came true.
Even when Em leaves Udolpho for good, she's fated to arrive at yet another haunted house. She first glimpses Chateau-le-Blanc when she's searching for help for her ailing dad, though it's difficult to make out "in the faint moonlight" (1.6.38). But it's when she makes it back to the chateau after escaping from Udolpho that she really gets a sense of her new home.
Take a look at Blanche's first impression of Chateau-le-Blanc: as she draws near to the mansion for the first time, "the gothic features of this ancient mansion successively appeared" (3.10.10). Like Em, Blanche is bound and determined to see the romantic potential in any place she visits. The events that occur at the chateau—like Em glimpsing a "ghost" in the Marchioness's room—have a lot to do with the fact that the girls expect spooky things to happen there.
Fate sits on these dark battlements, and frowns,
And, as the portals open to receive me,
Her voice, in sullen echoes through the courts,
Tells of a nameless deed.
Ann Radcliffe loves a good epigraph, but this one takes the cake for setting up reader expectations. We've got a personified Fate sitting on the "dark battlements" of Udolpho like a glorified gargoyle. We've got a disembodied voice echoing through the court, much like Du Pont's when Montoni is trying to have a conversation. And, of course, we've got the "nameless deed" that haunts us all the way through the book.
While Radcliffe has a fondness for shout-outs to other writers (James Thomson's a particular favorite), this little guy is all her own. And why not? There's no better way to foreshadow all the major events of Udolpho than by trotting out your very own epigraph.
It's not all secrets and suspense, that's for sure. Get ready for some very detailed descriptions of trees, mountains, and just about every kind of landscape imaginable, not to mention some pretty complex poetry written by Ms. Emily St. Aubert herself. It might sometimes seem like you're wading through lots of flowery language, but that's because Radcliffe means some serious business about setting the scene. Plus, there's some kind of unwritten rule that every couple of pages about the sublime nature of the forest equals a juicy ghost scene later on in the book.
Yep, we threw out the word "helter-skelter" to describe the combination of dreamy landscape descriptions and frantic moments of terror. Sure, we get lulled by the travelogue episode and when Emily "ramble[s] among the scenes of nature" for pages on end early in the book (1.1.15). It's a little like being caught in slow-moving molasses.
But when the story really gets going, it rushes along like a 5K race. Check Em's dramatic escape from Udolpho, for instance. The group "hears shouts in the wind" and "set off at a full gallop," compelling the horses to go as fast as they can (3.9.39). Our hearts skip a couple of beats when Em almost gets caught, but there's no time to rest before the next segment of their journey begins. Phew.
Man, is it nice to be lulled by descriptions of the French countryside. And before we know it… zzzz. There's no rest to be had, though, because Radcliffe throws a curveball every time things get a little too dreamy. Want to find out whether Em managed to escape? Too bad. We're making an abrupt change to meet some brand-new characters!
The Mysteries of Udolpho features all kinds of pictures, but it's a miniature of a mysterious lady that really sparks Em's interest. Of course, there's also a miniature of Em that goes missing at the beginning and a miniature that Agnes pulls out at the end to show the late Marchioness. So what's the deal with tiny pictures?
When Em's dad tells her to burn all his papers, she can't help but keep the miniature of a beautiful stranger that she finds in his stash. She immediately recognizes it as "The same my father wept over!" (1.10.5). On one hand, Em's obsessed with the picture because it's something that caused her father to experience an extreme emotion. Remember, she's mourning St. Aubert big-time. Anything—or anyone—that inspired that kind of reaction is worth keeping around.
At the same time, there's some guilt on Em's part associated with keeping the picture. After all, she's kind of disobeying her dad by keeping something he told her to burn. Well, he didn't exactly tell her to burn it, but it was definitely implied. So even while the picture of the lady represents a connection to her dad, it also symbolizes a little rebellion on Em's part. Would it be too much to call it a miniature rebellion? (Hey-o!)
Em is more than little weirded out when her mom's bracelet is stolen. After all, it has a mini picture of Em in it, and… who would want that? But yeah, she knows the implications: after hearing that the bracelet has been stolen, she "blushed and grew thoughtful" (1.1.27). Hey, this is one of the first things that breaks Emily's little bubble of safety at La Vallée. She may feel safe, but a stranger has taken the tiniest piece of her life. When everything crumbles soon after, she'll remember this moment as the very beginning.
Of course, when Du Pont reveals that he's the perpetrator, Em's a little relieved. The act of stealing the picture was actually committed by someone deeply in love with her but too afraid to reveal himself. But does it even matter that Em won't return his love? When Em tells Du Pont she's engaged, he still requests the picture back. To Du Pont, the miniature represents an ideal he'll never be totally able to grasp.
It may not be totally normal to carry around a tiny picture of a murdered woman, but Signora Laurentini has some serious guilt about her crime. Plus, it helps her identify Em as the nearest living relation of the late Marchioness. When Signora Laurentini "returns" the picture of the Marchioness to Em, she's just trying to finally do right by those she's wronged:
"I bequeath it to you, for I believe it is your right." (4.16.21)
Em's right, you say? Laurentini's choice to bequeath the picture symbolizes a change in tide for poor Em. After having all of her properties ripped away from her, Em is about to become the sole heiress of Laurentini's fortune. Oh yeah, and she gets all the land back that Montoni and Quesnel took from her. When Laurentini gives Em the picture of her doppelgänger, she's all set to reclaim her rightful identity as a powerful, wealthy woman.
What's that you hear? Mysterious music pierces the air wherever Emily goes, and it's not a stray ice cream truck. It's the one mystery of Udolpho Em can't quite pinpoint, and perhaps the most convincing evidence of an otherworldly presence in the book.
When Em first hears the music shortly before her father's death, La Voisin has some conflicting explanations: he thinks it's "the music of angels," but the rest of his family thinks it must be "shepherds playing on pipes." And then Father Denis tells La Voisin that "music often came to houses where there was a dying person" (1.6.68).
Fair enough. St. Aubert is indeed dying when Em hears the music for the first time. But long afterwards, she hears it when no one's dying (we hope). Instead, it's a comforting reminder that her dad's still out there, watching over her. With all the scary stuff that goes down at Udolpho and Chateau-le-Blanc, Em doesn't really seem to mind the spooky ghost music.
In fact, she goes seeking it out. Em lingers in the woods at night, "listening, gazing, and unable to move" as the music draws closer to where she sits (4.5.22). Girl, get out of there! But even though Em faints at every minor shock, she has a real fascination with death. Is it really all that permanent? Em doesn't know, but the music symbolizes an otherworldly presence in her life.
We'll admit it—it's pretty tough to deal when Em refuses to tell us what's behind the black veil. It's so scary that she thinks we can't handle it, apparently. But we know it's no ordinary portrait: Em sees that "what it had concealed was no picture" and immediately faints dead away (2.6.45). What could possibly be that bad?
Unlike the music, there's a completely reasonable explanation for the thing behind the veil (Major spoilers to follow, of course). But the thing is, the explanation isn't really the important part. By concealing the thing behind the veil, Em is basically contributing to the mysteries of Udolpho. Like Signora Laurentini and Montoni, Em has her own secrets to keep—and she ain't tellin' them to no one.
So when the narrator tells us at the end that Em just saw a melted wax figure, it may come as a disappointment. But even that has poetic justice. Remember, the wax figure was designed for a former inhabitant of Udolpho to contemplate "a human body in the state, to which it is reduced to after death" (4.18.24). So some dude had to look at the wax figure and think about the physical remainders of death, rather than indulge his imagination in ghost stories. Sound familiar?
So it's pretty fitting that our imaginations ran wild right along with Em's. We wanted to believe that it was something so terrible that even Em couldn't utter it, but it turns out we got fooled big-time. Maybe the black veil symbolizes our own desire for some creepy-crawlie ghost stories in real life.
It's just what everyone wants: to find out there's an unlocked secret passage leading into their room. Yeah, Em's not too thrilled about that. But that unlocked door symbolizes her vulnerability in Udolpho and outside in the greater world. She has no parents, no money, and an evil step-uncle who plans to do who knows what.
When Em tells Montoni that the unlocked door is a problem, he doesn't believe her—or really care, to be totally honest. She has practically no power at this point, so she's just forced to deal with it. But when Count Morano actually uses the secret passage to break into Em's room, she's more scared of ghosts than an actual living creep:
Certain remembrances now struck upon her heart, and almost subdued the feeble remains of her spirits" as the ghostly figure approaches her bedside. (2.6.104)
See, Em's not really sure what kind of threats she's up against. Does she need to worry about Morano, or does Montoni have him under control? And is Montoni trustworthy? How about Barnardine, the sketchy porter? Em's not sure who's coming through that secret door, but she's totally defenseless from every angle. As long as that door remains unlocked, she's sure to have problems.
Look, it's a random story embedded right in the middle of the book. Sure, we might not have been thrilled for the timeout right in the middle of Ludovico's experience in the haunted room, but the ghostly tale he's reading can give us some real insight into the rest of the book.
So this Baron dude is hesitant to trust a random knight who tells him to meet him in the middle of the woods. That's natural, right? But when the Baron decides to throw caution to the wind and follow the stranger, things start to get a little more interesting. Back in the real world, Em & Co. are learning that a little otherworldly intrigue isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Even though Em is a bonafide scaredy-cat, she hasn't really come across any malicious ghosts. The real baddies are very much alive and out to get her. It's kind of up in the air whether any actual ghosts exist in the book, but if they do, they're rooting for Em.
When the mysterious knight leads the Baron to a body—the knight's earthly body, in fact—the Baron knows what he needs to do. He has the body "interred, with the honours of knighthood, in the chapel of the castle" so that Sir Bevys can rest in peace (4.12.73). We're talking about an unquiet soul, here, lingering around until he's finally free.
Really, the rest of the book is all about a bunch of unquiet souls trying to get a little bit of that elusive peace. Check St. Aubert, for example. He dies at the beginning of the book, but Em thinks he might be hanging around to protect her. Or Signora Laurentini, who's very much alive but unwilling to forgive herself. The story of the Baron and Sir Bevys is an allegory that presents a decent solution: all these souls just need to be put to rest.
Emily may be the star of this story, but our unnamed narrator likes to prance through the minds of a whole bunch of characters in The Mysteries of Udolpho. Take this piece of info from St. Aubert's mind:
He saw a frank and generous nature, full of ardour, highly susceptible of whatever is grand and beautiful […] (1.6.25)
That would be St. Aubert's private evaluation of Valancourt, BTW. The narrator hops right over to Em's mind a little later to get her take on loverboy.
We like to think of this narrator as an annoying little guy who holds back certain key pieces of information until he sees fit. Take the black veil episode, for instance. We know that "horror occupied [Em's] mind," but we don't know exactly why she's freaking out on us (2.6.46). It's just too terrible to tell. We don't know if we'll ever get to hear exactly what's beneath the black veil, but the narrator surprises us with that little tidbit at the story's close.
When we first meet Emily St. Aubert, she's young, naïve, and totally clueless about the surrounding world. But she's also got a healthy dose of curiosity about it, to the extent that she's constantly writing emo sonnets about nature. Here's the kicker: Booker says that our protagonist is "likely to be in some state which lays them open to a shattering new experience." After the death of Madame St. Aubert, Em is catapulted into a new and scary world beyond the chateau she calls home.
When Em's mom dies, her dad takes her on a tour of the surrounding countryside that rocks her world. We thought there was plenty of emo poetry-writing in the first chapter, but this takes the cake. Em's in a dream state throughout the entire trip as she struggles to sort out All the Feels—about her mom's death, the handsome new stranger who keeps hanging around, and the unpredictability of nature. Even though Em's a major nature buff, she's only just starting to understand how freakin' impressive it is.
Ripped away from home and her beloved Valancourt, Em is starting to feel like a birdie trapped in a cage. Her new guardian, Madame Cheron, totally doesn't get what Em is about. Even worse, dear old Auntie Cheron only seems to care about marrying Em off to a rich guy ASAP.
Booker gives us the lowdown on this stage: "A shadow begins intrude, which becomes increasingly alarming." That shadow would be none other than Montoni, the dude who sweeps Madame Cheron off her feet and sweeps Em over to his creepy-looking castle. The poor girl can't catch a break.
Udolpho is a castle right out of Em's worst nightmares. Not only is her new "uncle" a suspected murderer and outlaw, but there's a secret door leading right into her chamber. As in, anyone can pop in whenever they want to say hello… or attempt a kidnapping.
Booker says there's a serious threat to our protagonist's survival in this stage. Once again, Montoni steps up to the plate to scare Em senseless. He's willing to do anything to get Em to sign away her property rights, even letting his thugs harass her wherever she goes. But even when she does what he wants, he has no intention of letting her leave the castle. Montoni is a mean, lean, lying machine.
Em takes the first chance she gets to flee Udolpho with some friends, but it's a pretty harrowing journey back to France. First of all, no one remembers to bring any money. Oops. Second, the boat taking them home almost gets wrecked on some rocks.
Em's story doesn't end with her return home, though. Before she can truly return to La Vallée, she's gotta figure out the answers to some puzzling mysteries, like why old Dorothée thinks she's a ringer for the dead Marchioness. And sorry, Booker, Em can't exactly book it home when she's still penniless. Getting those little complications straightened out lets Em return home triumphantly, with Valancourt to boot.
Emily St. Aubert and her loving parents live together at La Vallée, a pretty sweet chateau in France. They're happy as clams until a pretty nasty illness hits the two elder St. Auberts.
Madame St. Aubert dies of the illness and Monsieur St. Aubert finds out he lost all his moolah in bad investments. Poor Em's got a major conflict to solve unless she can scrape up some money.
Madame Cheron, Em's crotchety old aunt, is nothing compared to her scheming new husband, Signor Montoni. They're down to marry Em off to the first suitor with dollar signs for eyes—and that's a major complication for Em and her (broke) beau Valancourt.
Em makes a break from the castle before Montoni marries her off to the highest bidder—or worse, stops protecting her. There's no way you can beat a dramatic escape for the climax of the book.
Agnes (or should we say Signora Laurentini) makes a hair-raising confession about murdering the Marchioness before she kicks the bucket. So much of the plot hinges on this confession that it's a clear winner for falling action.
With Valancourt's name finally cleared, Em can tie a ribbon around her perfect life with her perfect husband—and plenty of land to boot. Put a fork in it—this book is done.
Emily St. Aubert gets yanked out of her cushy life at La Vallée when her mom dies and her dad takes her on a trip all over France. Em's dad also dies on the trip, but not before she meets a hunky stranger named Valancourt who falls for her hard. Madame Cheron, Em's nasty aunt and new guardian, whisks Em away to her estates in Tholouse and lets her get engaged to her beloved Valancourt.
Things get all topsy-turvy when Madame Cheron marries Signor Montoni, an Italian gentleman who puts the kibosh on Em's romance with Valancourt and moves the whole fam to his mansion in Italy.
Em's aunt and Montoni trick her into getting engaged to slick-Rick Count Morano, but then they all make a hasty exit for Montoni's other residence, Udolpho. There, Em gets hit hard by the triple whammy of a kidnapping attempt by Count Morano, her aunt's death, and Montoni forcing her to sign all of her properties away. Em makes her escape from Udolpho and hops a ship back to France.
Em's boat happens to wash ashore at the creepy chateau she passed with her father way back in Act I. There, she buddies up to the de Villeforte family and hears some scary rumors about how the late Marchioness died.
Valancourt makes a quick appearance, but he's wrecked his chances with Emily by gambling and doing some time in a Paris prison. After Em thinks she sees a ghost in the Marchioness's chamber, the de Villefortes send Ludovico to spend the night in the haunted room. He disappears, only to turn up at a fortress full of bandits that the de Villefortes stumble across in the woods with a crazy story about how he was kidnapped by smugglers.
A guilt-wracked nun named Agnes confesses to Em that she's the one who killed the Marchioness in an attempt to get with her husband, the Marquis. Em gets her property back from Montoni, realizes that the Marchioness was her dad's sister, and gets hitched to Valancourt after his name is cleared. Finis!