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The central character, Melmoth (a Wandering Jew type), is a scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for 150 extra years of life; he spends that time searching for someone who will take over the pact for him. The novel takes place in the present but the backstory is revealed through several nested stories-within-a-story that work backwards through time. Chapter I: The story opens in 1816: John Melmoth, a student in Dublin, visits his dying uncle. He sees a portrait of his namesake dated '1646' and catches glimpse of 'the Traveller'. Chapter II: Funeral. Biddy Brannigan tells John the family story. A stranger called Stanton arrived looking for the Traveller, and left behind a manuscript. John finds Stanton's manuscript. Chapter III: Stanton's story opens in Spain in the 1670s. Stanton encounters the Traveller laughing at the sight of two lovers who have been blasted by lightning. An old Spanish woman tells him the story of the Cardoza wedding at which the Traveller was an uninvited guest. The bride died on her wedding night and the bridegroom went mad. Stanton pursues and finds the Traveller in a theatre in London. The Traveller tells him they will meet again. Stanton's obsession with the Traveller is judged madness and he is tricked into a madhouse. There, the Traveller appears and offers to free him but Stanton refuses. Stanton escapes and looks for him in Ireland to no avail. Following his uncle's wish, John burns the portrait, but later that night he is visited by his ancestor in his dreams. Chapter IV: The following stormy night, John witnesses the Traveller laughing at a shipwreck. John tries to approach him, but slips and falls into the sea. Chapter V: John is saved from drowning bye the sole survivor of the wreck, a Spaniard Alonzo Monçada, who begins to tell him his story. Chapter VI: Monçada continues his story. He is confined unwillingly to a monastery by his family. Chapter VII: Monçada continues his story. His appeal to leave the monastery is rejected and his brother Juan sends messages saying he will help him escape. Chapter VIII: Monçada continues his story. He attempts to escape with the help of a fellow monk, a parricide. Chapter IX: Monçada continues his story. The parricide monk tells his story. They escape, but it is a trap and Monçada's brother is killed. Chapter X: Monçada continues his story. Monçada is held and examined in the prison of the Inquisition. Chapter XI: Monçada continues his story. He is visited in his cell by the Traveller, who says he will help him escape. A fire breaks out, the prison is evacuated and in the confusion Monçada escapes. Chapter XII: Monçada continues his story. He finds his way to the house of a Jew, but officers of the Inquisition arrive searching for him. The Jew helps Monçada escape through a secret trapdoor into an underground passage.
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