Italian By Radcliffe Essay

In Ann Radcliffe’s “The Italian”, the very first thing that we see
described is a veiled woman: “It was in the church of San Lorenzo at
Naples, in the year 1758, that Vincentio di Vivaldi first saw Ellena di Rosalba.

The sweetness and fine expression of her voice attracted his attention to her
figure, which had a distinguished air of delicacy and grace; but her face was
concealed in her veil. So much was he fascinated by the voice, that a most
painful curiosity was excited as to her countenance, which he fancied must
express all the sensibility of character that the modulation of her tones
indicated” (5). Even without knowing anything about Gothic elements, this
indicates very clearly what the quality and tone of the book are going to be
like. Vivaldi’s pursuit of the veiled woman is a signal that his is the pursuit
of the mysterious, with the certainty that it will be beautiful. This certainly
does seem to be a great fascination in the novel; it is a component and often a
catalyst for that anxiety which runs throughout. It is this anxiety which causes
the heightening of our emotions; our emotions are heightened as we watch the
characters’ pursuit of the mysterious; and our curiosity is excited more and
more until we are nearly begging for its gratification. But Radcliffe heightens
our emotions without satisfying our curiosity, or at least not enough. For
example, the very first chapter establishes a sense of mystery about the
assassin in the Church. The Englishman inquires as much for himself as for us
about the assassin. His concern and state of shock invoke our own inquiry into
this odd circumstance and then his Italian friend tells him a mystery without
actually telling him anything: “‘He [the assassin] sought sanctuary here’,
replied the friar; ‘within these walls he may not be hurt'”(2). He makes it
clear that there is a story here but that it is long and suspenseful, maybe
shocking: “‘It is much too long to be related now; that would occupy a
week; I have it in writing, and will send you the volume'” (3). What it is
exactly, or what the tale is going to be is only hinted at in a very curiosity
invoking way: as if it is a secret. Instead of the Englishman and his Italian
friend going down to the street café and relating the story, the Italian
friend says that he will send him something written the following day and then
the passage stops. We are tempted, as is the Englishman, by these curious
circumstances and yet nothing is revealed to us other that the implication that
soon all will be revealed (after a couple hundred pages). What Radcliffe does is
that she creates our sensation of terror; she suspends our disbelief that much
longer, building our curiosity and our need to know to a brilliant height and
then-nothing: the story takes a different turn and gratification is postponed
while our expectation and anticipation is increased. This happens in the very
beginning passage in which Radcliffe starts “The Italian” by providing
just enough information to suck us into her tale and, then, just as we expect
pay off, she postpones it a little further while providing just enough
information to keep us intrigued. And, before we know it, we, the reader, are
entangled in her Gothic quicksand and greedily reading in search of the secrets
she buries before our eyes. When Vivaldi rushes into the Villa after the
mysterious cloaked figure that has escaped him, he emerges pale: we know
something has happened and await his tale but he tells us nothing, he refuses to
say anything and, thus, we are left suspended in the wake of mystery. Another
example when we are suspended in the wake of mystery occurs when Vivaldi and
Paolo are in the dungeon imagining the garments lying on the floor to be moving.

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We do not find out whether or not these garments belong to someone murdered
until the end of the novel; so this incident leaves us in a state of suspense:
‘It moves!’ exclaimed Paolo; ‘I see it move!’ as he said which, he started to
the opposite side of the chamber. Vivaldi stepped a few paces back, and as
quickly returned; when, determined to know the event at once, he raised the
point of his sword, and perceived, beneath, other remains of dress, heaped high
together, while even the floor below was stained with gore (77). This leads me
to speak of imagination, which is such a huge part in telling the story. There
is such an enormous emphasis on perceptions, belief and feelings. It seems that
everything that happens is filtered through the lens of one of the various
characters. There is a constant projection of their thoughts into what is
happening: “As they passed, Paolo observed, that the walls were stained
with what appeared to be blood…” (74). It did not necessarily have to be
blood, but we see it through Paolo’s perceptions, which leads us to the most
sordid conclusion. Immediately after this, they see a figure standing in the
shadows which disappears by the time they arrive; Vivaldi and Paolo conclude
that it must have been an evil spirit to haunt them. Although it can be argued
that is the sense of the impending danger that gives the book its impetus, it is
more probable that it is the perception of the impending danger, of the
gruesome, of the revealing that which is dark, which is the impetus. That is a
significant difference. By doing this, Radcliffe wants to make sure that we are
in sync with the characters thought by thought and breath by breath. A cloudy
sky cannot just be shown as a cloudy sky, which would seem depressing to some or
not important to others; it has to take the perception and imagination of
Vivaldi to make it foreboding. It is also significant that Radcliffe
purposefully constructs characters of a susceptible nature, characters that are
easily swayed by appearances and not facts. By creating the character of Vivaldi,
it seems that Radcliffe has created a character that is more susceptible than
the average person to the “sublime” and the “gothic”. He
calls the strange monk “super-human” on numerous occasions, overly
excited to prove himself correct. The narrator even says as much, hinting that
after all the trouble Vivaldi put himself through to discover the identity of
the monk, a simple, rational explanation would be disappointing. It seems as if
Vivaldi is searching for trouble, in a sense, and he does not shy away from
dangers. It also seems that he enjoys the clandestine nightly excursions to the
“arch” where the strange monk appears. To Ellena, just like to Vivaldi,
a simple rational explanation would also be disappointing. In volume 2, when
Ellena is taken to Spalatro and locked in her room overnight, she begins to
suspect an attempt on her life. In the darkness, she imagines moving shadows and
creaking floors, yet she is unable to confirm her fears. Instead of using her
common sense by thinking that if they really wanted to her dead, they would have
killed her before she reached the cabin, she prefers the non-rational
explanation of Spalatro trying to assassinate her. Like to Vivaldi, to Ellena
just a rational explanation would be disappointing and, to us, the audience,
such a rational explanation would decrease our sensation of terror instead of
increasing it, which would, in turn, be disappointing to our expectations.

Ellena’s fears certainly do not seem to be based on evidence. Even when Spalatro
brought her the meal, I was not sure if Ellena’s fears were justified. It seemed
that Ellena was looking for someone to assassinate her, so anything she saw
would be a part of that conspiracy; everything Spalatro did would be suspect and
it was. Her susceptible nature often led her into the suspicion out of which the
novel’s Gothic tone is constructed; just like Vivaldi’s and Paolo’s susceptible
natures lead them to jump to most horrifying conclusions earlier in the novel.

When talking about perceptions, it is impossible to omit the distinction between
the real and unreal in “The Italian”. The strand of reality,
interwoven with fantasy, seems to be a driving force in the plot. In the episode
involving Ellena, her suspicions are confirmed; her fantasy becomes confirmed as
reality as her fears about Spalatro’s intentions are confirmed (although not
until the end). Of notice is also Vivaldi’s constant desire to solidify his
fantasy (getting married) with Ellena; as if the real thing will finally
restrict the fearful possibilities into a single reality. Yet it is this reality
from which Vivaldi derives his fearful fantasies. It is this drama between what
is real and unreal that gives the novel its impetus. For example, when Marchesa
is speaking to Schedoni, they are both thinking of murder, but both refuse to’say’ it, as if doing so would make it more ‘real’ than merely thinking about


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