Contents Index

Contexts -- The Wandering Jew

The Wandering Jew, a figure in European legend, scorned Jesus on his progression to the cross at Calvary, and as punishment for that was doomed to wander without end until the Second Coming. This mythic figure, then, reenacts in Christian terms the primal alienation experienced by Cain in Genesis. As early as the thirteenth century he appears in legends, wandering about the world and piously atoning for his sin.

The figure, however, assumes a much darker complexion in the early writing of Percy Bysshe Shelley, appearing as the wild radical Ahasuerus in Canto 7 of Queen Mab (1813) (see also the further account in Shelley's note). In 1815, as scribblings in the manuscript pages of his "On the Vegetable System of Diet" attest, Shelley was even planning to write a novel centered on the figure of the Wandering Jew. Thus, in the cultural context in which Mary Shelley found herself, this shadowy figure from ancient legend carried a substantial presence. As is customary with her assimilation of legendary materials, however, Mary Shelley allows the prototype implicitly to raise serious questions about characters in her novel. For instance, who denies whom? who curses whom?