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An evil game: gothic villains and gaming addictions.

   Gameing [sic] is an enchanting witchery, gotten betwixt Idleness
   and Avarice: An itching disease, that makes some scratch the Head,
   whilst others, as if they were bitten by a Tarantula, are laughing
   themselves to death. (1)

In this quotation from The Compleat Gamester (1674), Charles Cotton warns against gaming not because of concern for moral or financial peril, but because gaming's supernatural power ('enchanting witchery') caused troubling physical symptoms; his specific terminology of 'disease' anticipates the modern medical classification of compulsive gambling as a disease, a diagnosis not recognized until the 1980s. (2) In the eighteenth-century, although gaming was not yet formally classified as an 'addiction' in the sense we use the term today, in both moralizing tracts and fictional portrayals, the behaviors of gamesters--constant obsession with gaming, compulsion to game beyond one's limits, and despair over losses--are now identified as classic signals of addiction. Notably, use of the term 'addiction'--'The state of being (self-)addicted or given to a habit or pursuit; devotion', first cited in 1641-long predates any specific association with drugs, and could be used to describe any habitual behaviour. (3) Although the term 'addict' was not explicitly used to describe the gamester, common usage of the term 'gamester' referred specifically to 'one who habitually plays at games of chance for money or other stake' and typically held a negative connotation. (4) Opponents of gaming saw the habit as a 'disease' that impaired the gamester's moral and financial position, that of his family members, and ultimately, the nation as a whole. Throughout the long eighteenth century, gaming was hugely popular in Britain, despite growing cultural anxiety about its dangers. Andrew Steinmetz claims that 'the rise of modern gaming in England may be dated from the year 1777 or 1778. Before this time gaming appears never to have assumed an alarming aspect', (5) and Gillian Russel explains, 'the anxieties surrounding gaming tended to become more acute during periods of social and political upheaval, particularly the 1790s.' (6) Between 1790 and 1820, gaming villains in Gothic novels written by Ann Radcliffe, William Godwin, Percy Shelley and John Polidori contributed to the growing cultural image of gaming as more than just a personal vice; they implicated gaming behaviour as highly addictive, damaging to both the individual and the family and, ultimately, a danger to British social order. This essay will explore how four Gothic novels of this period portray gamester-villains, and the way in which the Gothic was particularly well-suited to an exploration of the pathology of the compulsive gamester.

Eighteenth-century moralists feared that gaming created an ever-increasing dissatisfaction with life, as the gamester turned exclusively to gaming for pleasure. As Cotton's Compleat Gamester explained, gaming caused the gamester to be 'always unsatisfied with his own condition; he is either lifted up to the top of mad joy with success, or plung'd to the bottom of despair by misfortune, always in extreams, always in a storm' (9). Furthermore, 'either winning or losing he can never rest satisfied' (10). Cotton's depiction of the gamester's dissatisfied condition is perfectly displayed in the character of the villain Montoni in Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Montoni finds that 'Without some object of strong interest, life was to him little more than a sleep', so he turns to 'the habit of gaming, which he had adopted, first, for the purpose of relieving him from the languor of inaction, but had since pursued with the ardour of passion.' (7) Montoni, as a typical Faustian Gothic villain, has a predisposition to such 'dissatisfaction' with life's normal course. Gaming provides him relief from his ennui, but his increasing habit becomes his 'passion', and the only pleasure he finds in life is at the gaming table. Without gaming, Montoni laments the inaction of his life as 'little more than a sleep' (182); yet, his gaming is little more than sleepwalking, as he has no control over his actions and desires.

The loss of control that is the hallmark of a gaming addiction makes it a pathology particularly well-suited to the nature of the Gothic villain. As Jean-Charles Sournia describes it, each gaming act is 'a rebellion against the established order, a chance to master life and fate, a Faustian pact which will confer on the gambler godlike status.'8 In an act of gaming--for instance, betting on the roll of dice--the gamester surrenders control of his future (at least, his future wealth) to a token act. If he wins the bet, the gamester has the illusion of control and the feeling of triumph. If he loses the bet, the gamester typically blames bad luck; he eschews any personal responsibility for his loss, and moves on to the next bet, anticipating a turn of fortune. As the gamester becomes more entranced with gaming, he further loses control; he is unable to leave the table or prevent his thoughts from going towards his next game. Gaming becomes yet another obsession for the typically obsessive character of the Gothic villain. The classic Gothic villain manifests a desire for power and control over wealth and/or people, which strangely contradicts the villain's loss of autonomy in both the individual act of gaming and his addiction to continued gaming. While the Gothic villain is keenly aware of how he wields power over his subordinates and victims, he is rarely aware of his own loss of power in relation to his gaming addiction. He believes he can stop at any time, when he is actually unable to stop. As a host of gaming Gothic villains show, the predisposition to seek the gaming table, and the inability to overcome the desire to game are key weaknesses that undermine the Gothic villain's quest for power and control. The Gothic novel's portrayal of villains as gamesters explores this psychologically complicated conflict within the man: despite his focus on control, he is unaware that his own compulsions are beyond his control. The gamester's inability to control his will to gamble--some contemporaries called addiction a 'palsy of the will'--cut to the heart of Enlightenment anxiety about free will and the power of Reason. (9)

Faustian Gothic villains seem doomed to develop gaming addictions because they are predisposed to boredom with ordinary life. Like Montoni, the title character of Godwin's St Leon (1799) finds that he needs to play in order to 'rouse his sleepy and wearied attention.'10 Similarly, in Percy Shelley's St Irvyne (1811), Wolfstein is overcome by malaise and indifference:
   A weight which his utmost efforts could not remove, pressed upon
   the bosom of Wolfstein; his mind, superior and towering as it was,
   found all its energies inefficient to conquer it. As a last
   resource, therefore, this wretched victim of vice and folly sought
   the gaming-table; a scene which alone could raise the spirits of
   one who required something important, even in his pastimes, to
   interest him. (11)

Seeking something to engage his mind, Wolfstein is unable to find interest in his domestic life; he is plagued by a 'burning desire of interesting his deadened feelings' (192). For Wolfstein, Montoni, and St Leon, gaming provides an escape from boredom; however, it never satisfies them. The gaming table provides a thrill perfectly suited to the desires of Faustian Gothic villains, as they constantly and compulsively seek further thrills and push their own limits. Their hubris, greed, and blind quest for power make them ferocious gamesters who are left unsatisfied and eventually ruined.

Each of these novels shows that the thrill of the game comes at a cost that is far greater than mere financial debts: gaming habits cut these men off from domestic responsibilities further isolating them and damaging their families irreparably. In St Irvyne, Wolfstein's increasing secretiveness with his beloved wife, Megalena, strains their relationship, as 'he concealed even his good luck' from her (192). Eventually, Wolfstein's desire for play even supplants his desire for his wife: he 'no longer regarded Megalena with that idolatrous affection which had filled his bosom towards her' (192). As he loses interest in her, he feels even more driven to return to gaming:
   Feelings of this nature naturally drove Wolfstein occasionally from
   home to seek for employment--and what employment, save gaming,
   could Genoa afford to Wolfstein? [...] It was done: he broke his
   promise to Megalena, and became even a more devoted votary to
   gaming than before' (192).

Whether his wife scolds him, forgives him, ignores him, or adores him, Wolfstein manipulates her response in order to justify his gaming. His increasing secretiveness and habit of blaming his gaming on his wife reveals classic addictive behaviour.

Gaming separates the gamester from family and, in the most severe cases, the gamester abandons and ruins his family completely. Like Wolfstein, St Leon first distances himself from his wife and children; he eventually separates himself from them entirely by moving out of the family home to live in the city. In addition to his physical and emotional alienation from the home, St Leon's gaming debts leave his family 'naked, destitute, and exiles' (78). The entire family is punished by St Leon's actions, a fact that causes him shame and despair. In his words,
   no time can wipe away the remembrance of the bitter anguish that I
   have endured, the consequence of gaming. It is torture! It is
   madness! Poverty, I have drained thy cup to the dregs! I have seen
   my wife and my children looking to me in vain for bread! (77)

Critics praised Godwin's despairing portrait of the hazards of play. An unsigned review of St Leon in the Monthly Mirror claimed 'we have no recollection of any work in which gaming has been exhibited in a more detestable point of view, or in which the agonies of a gamester have been more forcibly depicted.' (12) Another Monthly Magazine reviewer agreed that 'It is not new to describe the evils attending gaming; but we never recollect to have seen its pernicious effects exemplified in so striking and so masterly a manner as in this novel.' (13) St Leon's woeful tale could be taken from an anti-gaming sermon of the day. As an anonymous pamphlet from 1784 decried,
   The father frequently ruins his children; and sons, and even
   grandsons, [... they ] are involved so deeply that during their
   future lives their circumstances are rendered narrow; and they have
   rank or family honours, without being able to support them. (14)

Both anti-gaming tracts and fictional tales portrayed gaming addiction as a disaster that would be visited upon future generations, not unlike the curses that haunt the innocent children of many Gothic novels.

Gaming's harm to future generations was also a concern for lawmakers who often claimed that gaming damaged the nation itself. Critics sought to show that the very nature of gaming, in which one man benefits by the ruin of another, was anti-social in the extreme, an idea echoed throughout the Gothic's portrayal of gamesters. As Godwin's St Leon explains:
   The direct purpose of the gamester is to transfer money from the
   pocket of his neighbour into his own [...] I have often thought
   that I could better understand how a man of honour could reconcile
   himself to the accursed and murderous trade of war, than to the
   system of the gaming table. In war, he fights with a stranger, a
   man with whom he has no habits of kindness, and who is fairly
   apprised that he comes against him with ruinous intent. But in
   play, he robs, perhaps, his brother, his friend, the partner of his
   bosom; or, in every event, a man seduced into the snare with all
   the arts of courtesy, and whom he smiles upon, even while he stabs.

Comparing gaming unfavourably to war highlights the damage, pain, and social disrepair caused by gaming. Anti-gaming commentators argued that since gaming made the defeat of another a direct cause for one's own success and celebration, it alienated the gamester from his fellows, pushing the gamester towards behaviour that increased his desire to harm others. Although gaming is a social activity, it is ultimately a solitary pursuit, since it isolates the gamester, who plays only in his own interest. Taken to its extreme, gaming's true victim was not the gamester or his family but the most basic social relations between civilized men.

The anti-social nature of gaming is also portrayed in John Polidori's The Vampyre (1819), where the villain/vampire Lord Ruthven avidly seeks the gaming table precisely because of the pleasure he gets from ruining men:
   it was always with the same unchanging face, with which he
   generally watched the society around: it was not, however, so when
   he encountered the rash youthful novice, or the luckless father of
   a numerous family; then his very wish seemed fortune's law--this
   apparent abstractedness of mind was laid aside, and his eyes
   sparkled with more fire than that of the cat whilst dallying with
   the half-dead mouse. In every town, he left the formerly affluent
   youth, torn from the circle he adorned, cursing, in the solitude of
   a dungeon, the fate that had drawn him within the reach of this
   fiend; whilst many a father sat frantic, amidst the speaking looks
   of mute hungry children, without a single farthing of his late
   immense wealth, wherewith to buy even sufficient to satisfy their
   present craving.' (15)

Lord Ruthven seems barely entertained by his gaming; he participates with 'the same unchanging face' until he has a victim in sight (71). Ruthven never profits personally from these exchanges: 'he took no money from the gaming table, but immediately lost, to the ruiner of many, the last gilder he had just snatched from the convulsive grasp of the innocent' (72). Ruthven's goal is to win money from the innocent and then lose his winnings to the card sharks at the table. Since gaming provides him no financial gain, the only thing Ruthven takes away from the table is his pleasure at seeing decent men ruined. While the other gaming villains discussed here all fail to control their gaming desire, Ruthven differs in that he is coldly in control of his gaming; indeed, he operates as an enabler of others' gaming addiction and destruction. Gaming provides a particularly ghoulish entertainment for Ruthven, as he watches the misery of his victim in a very public and open forum. The gaming table creates a social activity that is anti-social in the extreme.

Despite increasingly frightening portrayals of the perils of play, throughout the long eighteenth century gaming clubs gained increasing popularity among the well-heeled set. Horace Walpole, in addition to writing the first Gothic novel, also described the outrageous gaming of his peers in numerous letters. (16) In a letter of 1770, he explains that the gaming at London clubs 'is worthy of the decline of our Empire, or Commonwealth, which you please. The young men of the age lose five, ten, fifteen thousand pounds in an evening there.' (17) Walpole does not explain how the young men's gaming losses contributed to the 'decline of our Empire', but many critics likewise feared that the loss of family fortunes at the gaming table was disrupting social order, and that the popular practice of high-stakes gaming was indicative of deteriorating morals. A pamphlet published in 1784, Hints for a Reform, Particularly in the Gaming Clubs, warned that gaming was the source of all of England's evils, insisting 'to this dreadful vice must the loss of America be ascribed! To this dreadful vice must every misfortune which has lately fallen on this country be attributed!' (18) It seems especially odd to blame the loss of America on gaming as the English state lotteries financed colonial settlement. (19) While state lotteries were repeatedly used for the growth of the British Empire, most other forms of gaming were outlawed, although apparently with little effect on public behaviour.

England had a highly changeable and sometimes hypocritical relationship with gaming, as evidenced by the repeated re-writing, repealing, and re-creation of numerous laws on gaming, which Blackstone called 'an offence of the most alarming nature.' (20) Blackstone and others were alarmed in part by the physical toll gaming took. Godwin's St Leon describes
   the instantaneous sinking of the spirits, the conscious fire that
   spread over my visage, the anger in my eye, the burning dryness of
   my throat [...] My eyelids seemed to press downward with an
   invincible burden! My eyeballs were ready to start and crack their
   sockets! It was a stupor, more insupportable and tremendous than
   the utmost whirl of pain. (100)

The physical harm to the body only increases the damage to the gamester's family, since, with his weakened constitution, he is unable to provide an alternate form of income for his financially ruined family. Anti-gaming crusaders saw that this physical ruin injured more than just the individual and his family; it damaged the nation itself. As Charles Moore explained in 1797,
   the body of the community, both high and low, is miserably tainted.
   The putrid gangrene is seated deep and spread wide; the vitals are
   corrupted, and the die is cast by which our vigour, health, spirit,
   life, and virtuous manners are (it is to be feared) thrown away
   forever. (21)

Moore's dire description of gaming addiction as a corrupting and contagious disease reveals gaming's consequences as not merely individual but communal.

Gothic novels repeatedly show the plight of the individual gamester as a villain who is victim to his own addiction at the same time that he corrupts others with his habits. Radcliffe's Udolpho offers one notable exception to the standard gamester-as-villain model: while the villain, Montoni, is a gaming addict, so is the hero, Valancourt. Early in the novel Valancourt is involved in 'a course of dissipation, from which he appeared to have neither the power, nor the inclination, to extricate himself. He lost large sums at the gaming-table; he became infatuated with play; and was ruined' (506). The gaming habit is a treacherous one, as it also leads the gamester towards other, immoral behaviour (as many contemporary tracts were eager to show). However, before Valancourt sinks more deeply into vice, 'in consequence of [his] accumulated debts, [he] was thrown into confinement, where his brother suffered him to remain, in the hope, that punishment might effect a reform of conduct, which had not yet been confirmed by long habit' (652). Valancourt finds that the 'solitude of his prison' gives him time for 'reflection, and cause for repentance' (652) and he overcomes his addiction. Radcliffe explains that 'though his passions had been seduced, his heart was not depraved, nor had habit riveted the chains, that hung heavily on his conscience; and, as he retained that energy of will, which was necessary to burst them, he, at length, emancipated himself from the bondage of vice, but not till after much effort and severe suffering' (652). The young hero is on the verge of recovery from his addiction through a combination of a well-timed intervention, state-sponsored imprisonment, and a personal strength of conscience and will. But upon his release from prison, Valancourt's first order of business is to gamble:
   with nearly all the money, just received from his brother, he went
   to a gaming-house, and gave it as a last stake for the chance of
   restoring his friend to freedom, and to his afflicted family. The
   event was fortunate, and, while he had awaited the issue of this
   momentous stake, he made a solemn vow never again to yield to the
   destructive and fascinating vice of gaming. (653)

His one-game relapse is a success; he wins sufficient funds to save a friend, and manages (at least through the end of the novel) to refrain from any further gaming. Radcliffe's final attitude towards gaming is unclear: it seems that a gaming addiction can be kicked by the right sort of man (Valancourt) but not by another (Montoni). These characters show that gaming itself is a gamble: while some men may be able to overcome a gaming addiction, others will fall further into their addiction, leading to their own ruin.

As John Dunkley explains, gambling 'is characterized by emotional strain. Despite the usually cool facade of most gamblers, they are subjecting themselves to a situation which involves tensions between hope and fear, risk and security, power and helplessness, faith and doubt.' (22) Placing a bet allows the gamester to inhabit a liminal space during the roll of the die or the play of the hand; there is a constant possibility that fortunes may turn. This play of uncertainty and discomfort--this 'emotional strain'--resonates with the experience of readers of the Gothic, who indulge in the mixed sensations of fear and pleasure that Gothic novels provide. Particularly in the late eighteenth century, gaming provoked a further tension between logic and superstition. During this period, there was an increasingly popular understanding of probabilities and mathematical odds, making it easier (particularly for educated or experienced gamesters) to develop a winning strategy through the calculation of favorable odds. But for most common gamesters, gaming was still about luck, fortune, and chance; there was a supernatural element to play. Gaming, with its 'enchanting witchery', was not rational behaviour. As Jon Elster explains of modern gamblers, 'the mere fact that the expected monetary value of most forms of gambling is negative does not, of course, make it irrational to gamble' as individuals may enjoy gaming as entertainment and thus gaming losses as the cost of that entertainment. (23) However, once gaming becomes a compulsion, and debt mounts, modern research studies have shown that those addicted to gaming become increasingly irrational in their behaviour as they 'believe their chances of winning are higher, even much higher than what can be justified by the information they have. Even in games of pure chance, gamblers fervently believe that they are on winning or losing streaks.' (24) The compulsive gambler has no control over his drive to wager money and becomes increasingly irrational in his belief in his ability to win. Gothic villains, likewise trapped in their gaming addiction, illustrate the extreme consequences of this loss of both rationality and will. As Lorraine Daston explains, while eighteenth-century moralists were concerned about a wide variety of ills attributed to gaming,
   at the heart of the moral critique of gambling was an emotional
   portrait of the gambler as one racked by uncontrollable passions
   [...] These passions weakened the will and rendered the gambler
   dangerously incalculable. Neither rational self-interest nor
   conscience could any longer be depended upon to check wild impulses
   or restrain impetuous desires. (25)

The gamester's unpredictable, irrational, and impetuous behaviour is perfectly matched in the behaviours of the stereotypical Gothic villain: both figures exhibit desires beyond the control of the will that ruin not just the gamester or villain himself but also endanger those around him. Portrayals of Gothic villains as gamesters added to the growing cultural image of the gamester as a troubled and troubling figure who particularly piqued Enlightenment anxieties about rationality and will.

Bridget M. Marshall University of Massachusetts, Lowell


(1) Charles Cotton, The Compleat Gamester, or, Instructions How to Play at All Manner of Usual and Most Genteel Games [1674] (Barre, Massachusetts: Imprint Society, 1970), p. 9. Emphasis in original. All subsequent quotations are taken from this edition. Page numbers will follow in parentheses in the body of the text.

(2) Michael Walker, 'The Medicalization of Gaming as an "Addiction" ', in Jan McMillen, (ed.), Gaming Cultures: Studies in History and Interpretation, (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 224.

(3) 'Addiction', Oxford English Dictionary. Second Edition, 1989. OED Online. http://, accessed on 1 May 2007.

(4) 'Gamester', Oxford English Dictionary. Second Edition, 1989. OED Online. http:// accessed on 1 May 2007.

(5) Andrew Steinmetz, The Gaming Table: Its Votaries and Victims, in all Times and Countries, Especially in England and in France [1870] (Montclair, New Jersey: Patterson Smith, 1969), p. 112.

(6) Gillian Russel, 'Faro's Daughters: Female Gamesters, Politics, and the Discourse of Finance in 1790s Britain', Eighteenth-Century Studies, 33 (2000), p. 481.

(7) Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho: A Romance Interspersed with Some Pieces of Poetry, [1794], ed. Bonamy Dobree (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 182. All subsequent quotations are taken from this edition. Page numbers will follow in parentheses in the body of the text.

(8) Jean-Charles Sournia, 'Alcoholism, Gambling, and Creativity', in Sue Vice, Matthew Campbell and Tim Armstrong, (eds.), Beyond the Pleasure Dome: Writing and Addiction from the Romantics (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), p. 60.

(9) Benjamin Rush, Medical Inquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind, [1812] (New York: Hafner Publishing Co, 1962), p. 270.

(10) William Godwin, St Leon: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century, [1799], ed. William Brewer (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2006), p. 77. All subsequent quotations are taken from this edition. Page numbers will follow in parentheses in the body of the text.

(11) Percy Shelley, St Irvyne: or, the Rosicrucian: A Romance [1811], ed. Stephen C. Behrendt (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2002), p. 191. All subsequent quotations are taken from this edition. Page numbers will follow in parentheses in the body of the text.

(12) 'Monthly Mirror: Reflecting Men and Manners, 9 (January 1800), pp. 25-30', reprinted in Godwin, St Leon, p. 478.

(13) 'Monthly Magazine, and British Register, 8/54 (20 January 1900), pp. 1054-5', reprinted in Godwin, St Leon, p. 474.

(14) Anonymous pamphlet, Hints for a Reform of the Gaming Clubs By a Member of Parliament, [1784], quoted in Steinmetz, The Gaming Table, pp. 114-15.

(15) John Polidori, The Vampyre, [1819], in Three Vampire Tales, ed. Anne Williams (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), pp. 71-2. All subsequent quotations are taken from this edition. Page numbers will follow in parentheses in the body of the text.

(16) John Ashton, The History of Gaming in England (Detroit: Singing Tree Press, 1968), pp. 67-74.

(17) Quoted in Ashton, History of Gaming, p. 71.

(18) James Duff, Hints for a Reform, Particularly in the Gaming Clubs, by an MP, [1784], p. 10, quoted in David Miers, Regulating Commercial Gambling: Past, Present, and Future (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 45.

(19) Gerda Reith, The Age of Chance: Gaming in Western Culture (New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 56-7. See also Miers, Regulating Commercial Gambling, pp. 126-49.

(20) William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England. Of Public Wrong, [1857], ed. Robert Malcolm Kerr (Boston: Beacon Press, 1962), p. 188.

(21) Charles Moore, A Full Inquiry into the subject of Suicide to which are added [...] Two Treatises on Duelling and Gaming [...], Volume II (London: J. F. and C. Rivington, 1797), p. 389, quoted in Justine Crump, 'The Perils of Play: Eighteenth-Century Ideas about Gaming', Unpublished paper, available online: , p. 14. Accessed on 1 May 2007.

(22) John Dunkley, Gambling: A Social and Moral Problem (Oxford: Alden Press, 1985), p. 12.

(23) Jon Elster, 'Gambling and Addiction', in Anna Alexander and Mark S. Roberts, (eds.), High Culture: Reflections on Addiction and Modernity (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003), p. 322.

(24) Ibid., p. 324.

(25) Lorraine Daston, Classical Probability in the Enlightenment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 161.

Address for Correspondence

Bridget M. Marshall, Department of English, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, MA, 01854, USA. E-mail:
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Publication:Gothic Studies
Date:Nov 1, 2009
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