Aside from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” none of Irving’s ghost stories has had the incredible popularity – both among printers and the public – as “The Adventure of the German Student.” It reads uncannily like Poe (indeed, it was an unquestionable influence on many of Poe’s more necrophilic stories: Berenice, Ligeia, Annabel Lee, House of Usher, Ulalume, The Oval Portrait, The Oblong Box, etc., etc.), with its intellectual male narrator and his frail, mysterious love interest. In many ways it is shocking that the tale was never adapted into a movie starring Vincent Price (perchance directed by Roger Corman) in the style of similarly themed films like “Ligeia,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and “The Abominable Dr. Phibes.”
Uncharacteristically dark – bested probably only by “Guests from Gibbet Island” in sheer Gothic atmosphere and horror – the story is an unrestrained assault on Irving’s perpetual enemies: extremism, factionalism, lofty intellectualism, and politics. As his disciple, Charles Dickens, would illustrate with “A Tale of Two Cities,” there was (at the time) no political event more burdened with the dangers of extremism (even for a good cause) than the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror.
The bloody Reign lasted from September 5, 1793 to July 28, 1794, and cost the lives of over 2,600 Parisians alone (nationally, the death toll was closer to 16,500). Despite what the movies tell us, the vast majority of the executions were ordered on middle class and lower class victims, condemned for “crimes against liberty” that could range from “questionable opinions” to an 80 year old woman giving a loaf of bread to a starving Austrian soldier.
Irving loathed intellectual fundamentalism and political extremism on either side of the aisle, and saw the French Revolution as a parable of the perils of being overly confident in one’s opinions (far better, he felt, to be like Baltus Van Tassel: liberal-minded, open-hearted, easy-going, back-slapping, and generous to a fault). The French Revolution, like its American predecessor, was born from the intellectual idealism of the Enlightenment, which proclaimed Reason as its new deity, and pronounced Truth to be scientifically certifiable.
The upside of this was that merely being born an aristo did not make a person better than those born sans-culottes; the downside was that if the State deemed that Reason demanded the deaths of anyone who defied their scientifically-proven government, no amount of emotion, logic, or credibility could soften the hearts of the Tribunal: the State demanded blood – according to scientific principles approved of by the most learned intellectuals – and blood she must have. In the following story – positively dripping with Poe-esque atmosphere – Irving suddenly turns on us: all the cheer, charm, and warmth of the previous two stories are now gone, and we are left alone with the specter of humankind at its darkest and most depraved.
During the wild days of the Reign of Terror, Gottfried, a young German scholar is studying in Paris where his mind is swept away by the possibilities of the political change of the Revolution. Obsessed with learning and mystical possibilities, he finds the prospect of this new world -- unfettered by kings, religions, noblemen, and mores -- utterly thrilling. As the victims of the Terror are led to the guillotine, his enthusiasm wanes and he becomes increasingly reclusive. Although he is from a good family and has had a happy life, he is obsessed with the dark side of human nature (to such an extent that his imagination has become "diseased" with morbid ponderings), and as a result of his metaphysical studies, he has become convinced that his mind is haunted by an evil spirit determined to overtake his soul. His family had sent him to Paris to escape the gloom of Germany, but the timing was unfortunate, and as the Revolution rose around him, he found its sights and sounds just as stimulating to his feverish imagination as his haunted homeland.
Nonetheless, he spends his nights poring over dusty books in the Parisian libraries, obsessed with the thoughts of dead men -- a "literary ghoul" in every sense of the word. The narrator notes that for all of his studiousness, he also has a voracious sexual appetite -- albeit one which he is far too shy to whet: he is fascinated by the female form, and although he would never have the courage to approach a woman, he often captures the faces of women he passes in his imagination and "would often lose himself in the forms and faces" which he has logged into his memory. One particular face (perhaps an idealization of a woman he had seen recently -- a "shadow of a dream" as the narrator says) returns to his mind over and over again, and he is engrossed with his fantasies of its beauty.
One stormy night, as he is returning home from his studies, he wanders through Paris' ancient quarter, unconsciously crossing through the Place de la Greve, near the shadow of the guillotine. He notices it illuminated by flutters of lightning, and as he represses his queasiness at the sight, he realizes that a shadowy figure is crumpled at the foot of the scaffold: a beautiful young woman in black, slumped over with her tangled black hair falling over her face. In spite of her slovenly appearance, he takes her for an aristocrat, and when he approaches her, he is stunned to see the face that he had so often fantasized over staring back at him. It is pale and sorrowful, but still radiant with "ravishing" beauty.
Desperate to meet her, he suppresses his trembling and asks her why she is exposed in such a storm, and whether he could accompany her to her friends. She significantly points to the guillotine and mutters that she has "no friend on earth." Saddened and emboldened, Gottfried asks about her home; "in the grave," she responds. He loses no time asking her to come to his apartment for shelter, and she sadly agrees to accompany him. He is also a stranger in Paris, he says, without friends, and suggests that they keep one another company. He is somewhat embarrassed to admit this high-born lady into his trashy bachelor pad -- strewn with books and papers -- but forgets this as soon as the lights are lit and he can see her figure better. Her eyes are wide and luminous, her skin radiantly white, and her body "perfectly symmetrical." The only thing that strikes him as odd about her appearance is a broad, black choker she wears around her throat, clasped with a sparkling diamond brooch. As they settle in, she stops talking about death and the guillotine, and seems to become more comfortable.
Gottfried considers doing the gentlemanly thing and finding a new place for him to sleep, but his obsession boils over: he must have her. Undone by his passion, he blurts everything out: how he loves her, has loved her since before he met her, how he has fantasized about her face for weeks. She is touched by his confession, and admits that she, too, had been drawn to him from the first.
"It was," as the narrator notes "a time for wild theory and wild actions," and now that the Revolutionaries' Goddess of Reason had overthrown the church, waiting for marriage seemed pointless -- "rubbish of the old times ... superfluous for honorable minds." Gottfried declares them "united... as one," and the woman seems to have been "illuminated by the same school," because she agrees with his proposal. They shake hands as a matter of "form" and he pledges himself to be hers "forever." "Forever?" she asks; "forever," he reassures her...
The next morning, he leaves their bed to get breakfast, and is horrified to find her stone dead -- strewn across the bed with one harm hanging off the bed and the other flung across it (in a doubtless homage to Fuseli's "The Nightmare"). He becomes to frantic and wild that the entire boarding house is woken up by his hysterics, and the police are called. When the gendarme sees the corpse, he is revolted, and demands to know how "this woman" managed to get here.
Gottfried can tell that the policeman recognizes his booty-call, and asks how. "She was guillotined yesterday," is his blunt response. And with a snap, he tears away the black choker from her throat, allowing her severed head to roll across the floor. Gottfried, suddenly reminded of the evil spirit he had so long sensed lusting after his soul now burst out in terror: "The fiend! the fiend has gained possession of me! I am lost forever."
Driven mad by his fear that an evil spirit had "reanimated" the dead body in order to lure him into a diabolical trap, he dies raving in an asylum -- which is where the narrator first heard the story from his own fevered lips...
Even the ending – with its ambiguous tinge of insanity – brims with Poe-esque energy. It is tremendously easy to see how the Master of the Macabre was influenced by a man often written off by high-brow academics as an intellectual cream puff. Sentimental though he may be, Irving had his fingers firmly on the pulse of mankind’s darkness – in fact it was directly because of this acquaintance with depression, self-loathing, and existential terror that Irving so frequently tarried in gentler universes. But in “The German Student” he tears off the band-aid, exposing the gruesome wound of a soul confronted with the brutal results of his disembodied philosophies.
In fact, the theme of decapitation is quite symbolically apt: our care-free intellectual learns that his love of Reason has been as divorced from reality as a head trimmed from its shoulders. His mindless adoption of Revolutionary idealism has left him just as decapitated – just as removed from the consequences of real life – as his mutilated bride. In a sense Gottfried, and the architects of the Terror, are symbolically decapitated themselves: promoting a theoretical society which looks good on paper (intellectually; in the head), but is horrifying in real life. With their heads detached from their hearts and hands, they carelessly push a reckless philosophy without feeling the enormity of the misery they have caused.
It is not until Gottfried weds himself – body and soul – to the corpse of a victim of the Terror that he is able to feel the outrage of his idealism. The wedding itself is a travesty of arrogant hubris: ignoring the holy covenant of marriage (God having been toppled along with the king and queen), and bestowing upon himself the power of the Goddess of Reason, he declares his marriage valid through his own authority, and – we must surely realize – proceeds to fornicate with the corpse that, at this point, is stiffening with rigor mortis and putrefying in his bed. Having conducted his own wedding, he symbolically takes on the powers of a god, and – very much like Victor Frankenstein – finds that his egotistical hubris has transformed his bridal bed into a funeral bier.
Gottfried longs (again, like Frankenstein) for the authority of all the dethroned powers, and quickly accepts the responsibilities that have been promised to all people by the radical government. However, upon awakening in the morning – having consummated both his marriage and his powers as king, priest, and god – he is horrified by the metaphorical blood on his hands, and realizes that perhaps the responsibilities demanded of an authority figure are not quite for him. In short, it is easier to topple – even to execute – a king than it is to take on the responsibilities of governing human lives.
According to the Revolutionary government, science demands that any slip in obedience to the State must be punished with a surgical death under the guillotine. This is well and good – even seemingly merciful – for starving intellectuals watching smugly on from their windows as the corrupt 1-percenters are dragged to their deserved fate; but when they wake up with the physical proof of their guilt in their beds (in the form of a brutalized woman whose corpse has just been sexually violated), it proves too much to bear, and suddenly Reason flees to be replaced by Madness.
Like many of Poe’s tales (Tell-Tale Heart, Black Cat, Imp of the Perverse, etc.), we are lead to question the veracity of the narrative due to the unreliable source. Naturally, a “Reasonable” interpretation of the story is that the already psychologically compromised student (driven a tad batty by his extremist views and impoverished lifestyle – an Irvingian version of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov) stumbled upon a corpse left at the steps of the guillotine, imagined a conversation with it, dragged it home, and bedded it. And this is certainly possible (although there are many holes in this theory, especially as the bodies were rapidly buried in unmarked graves).
But Irving’s moral proves sturdy regardless of whether we view the story as a chilling ghost story or a Poe-esque psychological thriller: unchecked intellectual extremism – even in the service of Reason; even in the service of Good – is unwieldy, impractical, and unnatural as bedding a woman with a clipped-off head. Like the Headless Horseman, she stands for the dangers of unchecked emotion, unstudied ambition, and unexamined idealism. The gruesome specter of political fundamentalism, she serves as a palpable metonym for a country which has been laid to waste under the tyrannical administration of immoderate beliefs and disembodied political theories – as sensible as a man without a head; as practical as a head without a body.