Bulwer has himself justly characterised this work, in the Introduction, as a romance and not a romance, as a truth for those who can comprehend it, and an extravagance for those who cannot. The most careless or matter-of-fact reader must see that the work, like the enigmatical “Faust,” deals in types and symbols; that the writer intends to suggest to the mind something more subtle and impalpable than that which is embodied to the senses. What that something is, hardly two persons will agree. The most obvious interpretation of the types is, that in Zanoni the author depicts to us humanity, perfected, sublimed, which lives not for self, but for others; in Mejnour, as we have before said, cold, passionless, self-sufficing intellect; in Glyndon, the young Englishman, the mingled strength and weakness of human nature; in the heartless, selfish artist, Nicot, icy, soulless atheism, believing nothing, hoping nothing, trusting and loving nothing; and in the beautiful, artless Viola, an exquisite creation, pure womanhood, loving, trusting and truthful. As a work of art the romance is one of great power. It is original in its conception, and pervaded by one central idea; but it would have been improved, we think, by a more sparing use of the supernatural. The inevitable effect of so much hackneyed diablerie—of such an accumulation of wonder upon wonder—is to deaden the impression they would naturally make upon us. In Hawthorne’s tales we see with what ease a great imaginative artist can produce a deeper thrill by a far slighter use of the weird and the mysterious.
The chief interest of the story for the ordinary reader centres, not in its ghostly characters and improbable machinery, the scenes in Mejnour’s chamber in the ruined castle among the Apennines, the colossal and appalling apparitions on Vesuvius, the hideous phantom with its burning eye that haunted Glyndon, but in the loves of Viola and the mysterious Zanoni, the blissful and the fearful scenes through which they pass, and their final destiny, when the hero of the story sacrifices his own “charmed life” to save hers, and the Immortal finds the only true immortality in death. Among the striking passages in the work are the pathetic sketch of the old violinist and composer, Pisani, with his sympathetic “barbiton” which moaned, groaned, growled, and laughed responsive to the feelings of its master; the description of Viola’s and her father’s triumph, when “The Siren,” his masterpiece, is performed at the San Carlo in Naples; Glyndon’s adventure at the Carnival in Naples; the death of his sister; the vivid pictures of the Reign of Terror in Paris, closing with the downfall of Robespierre and his satellites; and perhaps, above all, the thrilling scene where Zanoni leaves Viola asleep in prison when his guards call him to execution, and she, unconscious of the terrible sacrifice, but awaking and missing him, has a vision of the procession to the guillotine, with Zanoni there, radiant in youth and beauty, followed by the sudden vanishing of the headsman,—the horror,—and the “Welcome” of her loved one to Heaven in a myriad of melodies from the choral hosts above.