Study Guide

The Mysteries of Udolpho Themes

By Ann Radcliffe

  • Family

    Emily St. Aubert would be belting "We Are Family" loud and clear if she could, since she's all about the family unit in Chapter 1 of The Mysteries of Udolpho. But Em learns that the boundaries between family and enemy can get really blurry when Montoni marries her Aunt Cheron. Family is turning on her right and left as Quesnel refuses to answer her letters, Aunt Cheron refuses to let her marry Valancourt, and Montoni refuses to let her out of the castle.

    But it's all good, because Em's learning how to form her own family. The de Villefortes have her back when she's got nowhere to go, showing her that total strangers can be pretty decent to a poor little orphan girl.

    Questions About Family

    1. By the end of the book, who is Emily's "family"? What's the difference between family and friends to her?
    2. What kind of family values does St. Aubert pass down to Emily?
    3. How do the de Villefortes differ as a family from the St. Auberts?
    4. How does Em regard Monsieur Quesnel and Montoni? Does she respect them as family members even when they're acting like jerks?

    Chew on This

    Em never forgets about her original family, since they gave her the tools to survive in the real world.

    Em figures out that family is overrated when her surviving relations don't try to help her out.

  • Manipulation

    If there's a crown for the king of manipulation in The Mysteries of Udolpho, Montoni gets it. Emily's a smart girl, but Montoni knows every trick in the book. Plus, he's so freakin' persuasive. When Em isn't willing to sign away her property rights, he appeals to the one thing that makes her weak in the knees: her sense of propriety. Oh, and then he threatens her physical safety. Whatever works, right?

    Montoni may get A's across the board in Manipulation School, but there are plenty of other willing pupils ready to take up his techniques. Barnardine also knows just what buttons to push to get Em to accompany him to a dark corridor of the castle. Even Em demonstrates some manipulation skills of her own, convincing Dorothée to take her to the Marchioness's rooms.

    Questions About Manipulation

    1. What kind of techniques does Montoni use to manipulate his minions? How do these differ from the way he manipulates Em?
    2. Is Madame Cheron successful at manipulating others, or does the player get played?
    3. Does sweet little Em value her skills as a manipulator? Is she even aware that she's manipulating others?
    4. Why can't Valancourt succeed in manipulating Em?

    Chew on This

    Emily's many fainting fits are a subconscious way she manipulates others to do her will.

    Annette is totally guileless—she has no idea how to manipulate others, but she gets by just fine on being sincere.

  • Fear

    There are plenty of reasons to be a scaredy-cat at Udolpho, but the scariest things aren't always apparent. That's why fear seems to be a part of Emily's everyday life at Montoni's castle—she's not sure what's lurking behind the corner so she's on constant alert.

    Fear is a coping mechanism for The Mysteries of Udolpho's heroine, who knows that half the battle is knowing the enemy. If the enemy happens to be the thing behind the black veil, so be it. Em would rather faint than face up to her worst fears, but we actually get where she's coming from. Once you get past the fear, you get a whole bunch of messy emotions, like sorrow and rage.

    Questions About Fear

    1. Can we pinpoint Em's greatest fears? What is she not afraid of?
    2. How do Annette's fears differ from Em's? Do class differences affect fears?
    3. What are the most realistic fears at Udolpho? How about the most ridiculous ones?
    4. Do Em's fears change or evolve over the course of the book?

    Chew on This

    When any character expresses fear, what he/she is really feeling is a blend of nostalgia and sorrow.

    Whenever Emily fears something, she seeks to replace that fear with knowledge.

  • Perseverance

    There are plenty of times in The Mysteries of Udolpho when Em would rather throw in the towel than stick out another day at Montoni's creepy castle. But she does it because she's a plucky heroine—and because, let's face it, she has no choice.

    Perseverance is also pretty familiar to Valancourt and Du Pont, both of whom have what it takes to stay strong for their girl. Du Pont languishes in a dungeon just to get a glimpse of Em's pretty face, while Valancourt refuses to accept that he's missed his chance with the gal of his dreams. In fact, Valancourt's perseverance in loving Em is what finally convinces us he's a decent guy. Like the narrator says at the book's end, but Em and Valancourt ended up with each other because they're so dang stubborn.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. Whose perseverance doesn't pay off in the book? Why?
    2. How much longer would Em have waited for Valancourt?
    3. Does Em benefit more from persevering through bad times or acting to remove herself from the situation?
    4. How might Montoni be seen as persevering? Is it just a trait reserved for the "good" characters?

    Chew on This

    Before Em is strong enough to escape Udolpho, she learns to persevere through great challenges.

    For Valancourt, perseverance might be another form of laziness. He perseveres in his love for Em because he can't get his life together.

  • Women and Femininity

    We learn from the get-go in The Mysteries of Udolpho that Emily and her mom are about as different as night and day. Madame St. Aubert is the picture of classic femininity with her perfect family and her domestic pleasures. Em, we hear, has a more "varied countenance." That is to say, we expect quite a different portrayal of womanhood from Miss Emily.

    Sure, Em's prone to those frequent fainting spells, and she'd never do anything improper like elope with Valancourt. But she doesn't think twice about escaping from Udolpho in the dead of the night, or risking Montoni's displeasure by visiting her aunt in the turret. And if we've picked up anything about all of Em's problems, it's that they boil down to her lack of money. So by the time Em inherits all that property at the book's end, we're rooting for her to be the power player in her relationship with Valancourt.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. Does Em really have power at the end of the book, or does Valancourt take it away by marrying her?
    2. How is Em traditionally feminine? How is she untraditionally feminine (by eighteenth-century standards)?
    3. Does Montoni treat Em differently because she's a woman?
    4. How does Blanche's femininity compare to Em's?

    Chew on This

    Emily puts on traditional femininity like a disguise whenever she sees fit.

    The women surrounding Em don't always provide strong examples, so Em has to forge her own brand of femininity.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Even though all that Gothic stuff is prevalent throughout The Mysteries of Udolpho, one theme can give the scary stuff a run for its money. Em's all about gazing at the landscape and getting all moony over glowworms. But she's not just taking a no-filter Instagram picture. Nope, she really wants to engage with the natural world and contemplate human existence in relation to nature.

    When Em or St. Aubert give us a description of the French countryside, all their other (many) problems seem to melt away. That's because they realize that their existence on earth is a flash in the pan compared to the ancient mountains and trees. Em gets a sublime feeling whenever she spaces out in nature.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Why is St. Aubert so fascinated with the natural world? How does he pass this fascination down to Emily?
    2. Does Em view herself as part of the natural world or separate from it? How can you tell?
    3. Does Udolpho (the castle) count as part of the natural world, even if it's man-made? Is there even a distinction between nature and culture?

    Chew on This

    The real scary stuff of the book is all located in nature. The natural world is much more terrifying than any lingering human presence.

    In a time when nature was seen as being fully explainable (during the Enlightenment), Radcliffe presents a picture of nature as a mysterious force.

  • Mortality

    Emily's constantly trying to track down the mystical music in The Mysteries of Udolpho, and not just because she likes a good beat. She hears the ever-elusive music for the first time the night her father dies, and forever after associates it with death.

    The fact that death is always so close to Em—her father and mother die rapidly and she's constantly paranoid about getting murdered—gives her a reality check about her own mortality. Sure, it's cool to hear crazy stories about the Marchioness dying with a black face and trying to get the lowdown. We've all wanted to be Nancy Drew at one point, right? But for Em, it's all about coming to terms with the fact that she'll die one day, no matter how carefully she avoids the haunted room.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Does Em really fear death? Why are her feelings about mortality so complex?
    2. Why is Em specifically fascinated with murder?
    3. How does St. Aubert confront his own mortality?
    4. What does Agnes/Signora Laurentini think about her own impending death? Does she view it as an escape or as a punishment?

    Chew on This

    Em's not really as afraid of ghosts as she is of confronting her own mortality.

    St. Aubert and La Voisin embrace the idea that the "other side" maintains a connection to the living world.

  • Greed

    Everyone desperately needs or wants more moolah in The Mysteries of Udolpho. Well, maybe except Valancourt, who's about as generous as they get. But everyone else surrounding Em on her journey to Udolpho and back is willing to backstab and marry willy-nilly to get some of that sweet, green cash.

    Of course, it's not just about sheer greediness. The whole gang wants to survive and thrive, and money is kind of an essential part of that. But there's Quesnel, who only sees his niece as a gigantic dollar sign to cash in on, and Montoni, who won't stop raiding for loot. There's thriving and then there's rolling in dough, which seems to be the goal of most of these Greedy Gusses.

    Questions About Greed

    1. Sure, she's saintly, but could you ever call Em greedy? Why or why not?
    2. What's the difference between greed and need? In other words, when does the need to survive become more about accumulating as much wealth as possible?
    3. Why does Em factor into so many characters' plans to get rich quick?
    4. Who's the greediest character?

    Chew on This

    There's a fine line between being greedy and being smart. For someone like Madame Cheron, being greedy is just like advocating for herself.

    Em's decision to give away Udolpho is made to convince herself that she's not as greedy as her other relatives.

  • The Supernatural

    Let's just say that there's plenty in The Mysteries of Udolpho that can't be fully explained. Yeah, we get the rundown at the end that solves a bunch of the outstanding mysteries, but there are plenty of strange things that seem a little… otherworldly. All those shadows gliding around the estate start to look extra spooky when Du Pont is locked in the dungeon and Valancourt is rotting in a Parisian prison.

    That is to say, there's no way we're going get a coherent explanation for every little supernatural detail that scares Emily senseless. And why should we? Udolpho isn't just about sating our curiosity. It's about those mysterious details of life that can't be explained away in one CSI episode.

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. Why does Radcliffe leave so many mysteries unsolved in the book?
    2. Is Em's dad really watching over her?
    3. Is there a pattern to when Em hears the ghostly music? Why do you think she hears it some times and not others?
    4. Are the "spirits in the woods" good or evil presences?

    Chew on This

    Em wants to believe in ghosts, so she makes up every supernatural occurrence in the book.

    The strange music playing in the background gives Em a chance to contemplate things that can't be easily explained.

  • Justice and Judgment

    When Agnes says that the guilty will not go unpunished, we start to believe her. She's pretty convincing with all that over-the-top sermonizing and intense eye contact. And actually, she's right on the money. All of Montoni's misdeeds catch up to him in a big way when he sips a cup of poison (though the book leaves his end a little… well, open-ended). And Agnes herself seems to think that she's got a fiery hell waiting for her on the other side.

    If there's anything The Mysteries of Udolpho is pretty clear on, it's that the baddies will get what's coming to 'em. The Provencal Tale says it all: the ghost of the murdered knight will rain vengeance upon his killers (see our "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section for more). Things don't bode too well for the real murderers of Udolpho.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. Is justice really served to Signora Laurentini? Do you think she should have received a harsher punishment?
    2. In the end, is Montoni really punished for his own actions or those of his friends?
    3. Why include The Provencal Tale in the book? Does it give us a sense of how justice is carried out?
    4. If all bad deeds are punished in Udolpho, are all the good ones rewarded?

    Chew on This

    Whoever's doling out the judgment is actually pretty merciful to the baddies of the book: Signora Laurentini and Montoni certainly have to deal with their consciences, but there's no extended punishment inflicted upon them.

    Emily really doesn't concern herself much about justice. She's much more focused on securing a good future for her family.