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The Wandering Jew: A Staple of the Gothic Wanderer Tradition

The following article is taken from the introduction of my chapter on The Wandering Jew in my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption:

The Wandering Jew by Gustave Dore

The Wandering Jew by Gustave Dore

The Wandering Jew was originally a symbol of the Jewish people who were themselves wanderers and outcasts among the world’s settled nations. In 70 A.D., the Jews rebelled against Rome, only to have their rebellion defeated. The Romans punished the Jews by dispersing them from their homeland and selling thousands of them into slavery. This dispersion resulted in the Jewish people migrating all over the known world and becoming residents in every European country. Because Christians blamed the Jews for the crucifixion of Christ, wherever the Jewish people settled, they were mistreated and often forbidden to reside in certain countries. Consequently, even when they settled somewhere, prejudice against them would frequently result in their migration elsewhere after a short time; the Jewish people were continually forced to wander about Europe seeking a place where they could live unmolested. During the Middle Ages, one of the harshest penalties frequently imposed upon the Jewish people was a prohibition against their owning property, which added to their wandering status and inability to remain in one place for extended periods. Because they needed a source of income that they could not achieve by living off the land, many Jews took advantage of Christianity’s prohibition to its followers of being usurers. The Jewish people filled the needed position of moneylenders, and they frequently became wealthy as a result. Consequently, the Jewish people had two primary stereotypes attached to them: they were wanderers, and they were greedy people who were constantly grasping for money.

Europeans who were jealous of the Jews’ wealth spread fabulous derogatory tales about them: Jews possessed hidden and heavily guarded treasures; Jews possessed the evil eye by which they could curse and destroy people; Jews had horns or tales, and they emitted foul odors of brimstone and sulphur which suggested their alliance with Satan because they were responsible for Christ’s crucifixion. Jews were even accused of draining blood from Christians to use for sorcery practices (Zatlin 135n). Particularly in times of social upheaval or economic crisis, such stories were circulated to encourage anti-Semitism and to validate removal of Jews by forced emigration or even extermination.

From all this anti-Semitism arose the medieval legend of the Wandering Jew. In most versions of the legend, the Wandering Jew was a shoemaker named Ahasuerus who refused to allow Christ to rest on His way to the cross. Christ punished Ahasuerus by forcing him to wander the earth without death or any form of rest until Christ’s return on the final Judgment Day. Usually, this cursed condition is interpreted to mean that Christ will eventually redeem Ahasuerus who will have atoned for his sins by his prolonged wandering (Hurwitz 222, Tennyson 201). As he wanders the globe, the Wandering Jew remarkably appears without explanation at the sites of great historical events such as the sack of Rome, the crusades, and decisive Napoleonic battles; these appearances at great events suggest that the Jew may have supernatural powers that allow him to appear wherever he chooses (Tennyson 212). The Jew’s constant wandering is enhanced by his fear that Christians will learn his true identity, so he must continually move from place to place so he is not identified and thus mistreated.

Because Christ is usually depicted as loving and forgiving, it is odd that a story would have circulated of his uttering such a terrible curse against the Wandering Jew for such a minor unkindness. Isaac-Edersheim offers the explanation that the Wandering Jew should not be understood as merely an individual sinner, but as a force in opposition to Christ, a type of superhuman figure who must be defeated (190, 198). While numerous psychological and historical explanations have been offered for the Wandering Jew legend, the Gothic novelists chose to represent him as a transgressor, and therefore, a force in opposition to Christ. The Wandering Jew is appealing to readers because everyone has a bit of wanderlust in him or her, and the Jew represented the common human fear of becoming an outcast (Isaac-Edersheim 197).

The Gothic uses wandering as a metaphor for guilt and despair, and the Wandering Jew became the perfect vehicle for depicting such emotions. The Wandering Jew feels great guilt over his transgression, a guilt that becomes nearly unbearable because of his extended life. The Wandering Jew frequently yearns to escape from his punishment by committing suicide, yet he is unable to accomplish such a deed because he cannot die until Christ’s return: if the Jew tries to drown himself, the water pulls away refusing him entrance; if he tries to jump into a volcano, he is spit out alive, and in battle, no man is able to harm him, so his prolonged life becomes only prolonged misery. Isaac-Edersheim remarks that the Jew’s prolonged life symbolizes the human repressed desire not to die (196), but ultimately, this desire is rejected when life-extension is fully considered. Marie Roberts observes that the legend becomes a lesson upon man’s moral responsibility to reconcile himself to death, for not only is death inevitable, but the reverse would be far worse (Gothic 208).

The Wandering Jew was only a minor figure in British literature before his adaptation by Gothic novelists. The first recorded reference in England of the Wandering Jew was in 1228 in the chronicle of the monastery of St. Alban’s, entitled Flowers of History by Roger of Wendover (Roberts, Gothic 74). Among the other medieval depictions of him, the most notable appears in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale” where an old man must wander the earth until he can find someone willing to exchange youth for his old age. The Wandering Jew’s popularity in literature increased during the seventeenth century. He is given the name of Ahasuerus in an anonymous German pamphlet of 1602 entitled Kurtze Beschreibung und Erzehlung von einem juden mit Namen Ahasverus (Roberts, Gothic 75); Ahasuerus would become the favored name for the Jew, although Matthew Paris also wrote a story in the seventeenth century, naming the Jew Cartaphilus (Tennyson 202). During the seventeenth century, the Wandering Jew also becomes credited with healing powers attributed to the Rosicrucians, as stated in Peck’s History of Stamford and Aubrey’s Miscellanies (Roberts, Gothic 74). Later, the legend of the Wandering Jew and the Rosicrucians would become blended together in Gothic literature. Other notable treatments of the Wandering Jew prior to the Gothic novel occur in late eighteenth century German literature. Goethe wrote a fragmented tale either simultaneously with or directly after his famous The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), but it was not published until 1836 (George Anderson 168-73). Christian Schubart also wrote a fragment published in 1783 called Der Ewige Jude (Roberts, Gothic 78). Finally, Reichard’s Der Ewige Jude (1785) ambitiously chronicled the Jew’s entire wanderings throughout history (Roberts, Gothic 75). None of these early treatments, however, popularized the Jew or were of significant influence to the Gothic tradition. Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796) is primarily responsible for the Wandering Jew becoming an important Gothic figure.

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The Gothic Wanderer by Tyler R. Tichelaar

The Gothic Wanderer by Tyler R. Tichelaar

Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of numerous books including The Gothic Wanderer. For more information, visit him at http://www.GothicWanderer.com

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Literary Criticism

New Gothic-Themed Serial Novel Provides Plenty of Shudders

I didn’t know quite what to expect in reading this book. I had only heard recently that authors were publishing e-books that contained just chapters or sections from books in a series. “Shudderville” fits that format, being the first of a six-part series of episodes, much like a serialized novel or connected TV episodes.

I was interested in this book from its title, its episodic format, and because other reviewers had said it was scary. And I was not disappointed by any of that—okay, I admit the cliffhanger ending left me a bit disgruntled, but it fulfilled the author’s purpose in making me want to read more, which I did.

Summarizing the plot is difficult because the story has so many twists in it. But I’ll tell what I can without giving too much away. Sophie is a young woman whose daughter Jayla was killed in a car accident when Sophie let her daughter’s father, Peter, take the child with him. When Sophie realized Peter was drunk, she tried to stop him, but it was too late—he took off with Jayla in the car, and soon they were both dead. Now Sophie is an alcoholic, severely depressed, and desperately wishing she could have her daughter back.

Sophie begins to hear strange noises coming from the apartment of her new neighbor, a handsome young man with a goatee named Ryan. Her elderly neighbor, Mr. Mandelbaum, comes to complain about the noise, and in time, he starts to pry into Sophie’s personal life. Sophie soon meets Ryan and her friend Cassie becomes sexually involved with him. I expected at this point for Ryan to be the cause of the novel’s shudders, but Zabrisky’s plot is far more complex.

Several twists in this installment and a cliffhanger made me unable to resist going to read the second book in the series, and I thought that story even more suspenseful, although it contained different characters entirely, so not until the third installment can we expect the plot of part one to continue, and I expect in time it will connect with the plot from part two. I intend to keep reading. The first four installments are available now with the rest soon to come.

A lot of reviewers have already commented on how scary this series is and compared it to “The Twilight Zone” (one of my favorite TV shows). The comparison is warranted, but I didn’t find the story scary so much as suspenseful and intriguing. It does not have the sensational or gory moments I have come to expect in horror novels; rather it is more literary in its themes and attached to the classic Gothic literature tradition, but definitely written for a modern audience. Zabrisky’s writing style is modern and easy to read. Perhaps some of it is a bitclichéd, particularly in the dialogue, but only because she is writing realistic dialogue—people talk in clichés all the time. She does have some imaginative language—my favorite line came when Sophia was watching a television show about polar bears where she thought they looked cuddly but realized “A child was like a Pop-Tart to them.” Her second installment felt smoother and more haunting in its language and tone.

But what I enjoyed most about “Shudderville: One” was Zabrisky’s use of universal and especially Gothic themes that go back to classic eighteenth and nineteenth century Gothic literature, such as Matthew Lewis’ “The Monk” and William Godwin’s “St. Leon.” Here is the quest for forbidden knowledge, and much like in Goethe’s “Faust,” a signing away of one’s soul for what one desires; the punishment that results, however, is closer to “The Twilight Zone” in its twists. The Gothic quest for immortality is here and more relevant than ever in an age when the media and advertising are constantly trying to make us obsessed with retaining youth. A character in “Shudderville: One” reminds us that the cost of immortality is watching everyone you love die around you so you are alone in the world.

For the low price of $1.99, this first installment of the Shudderville series is well worth reading to decide for yourself whether you will enjoy it. It’s better than most of the television series out there today, and fast-paced, full of surprises, and suspenseful without cheap sensations of horror and gore. I was left wanting more, and I think most readers will feel the same.

The series is available for the Kindle reader at Amazon. For more information about Mia Zabrisky and the Shudderville series, visit http://mia-zabrisky.blogspot.com/

— Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. and author of “The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption”

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Filed under Contemporary Gothic Novels