In “Christabel,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge addresses the issues of human nature and morality by portraying Christabel and Geraldine as both good and evil while at the same time never allowing one’s morals to outweigh or appear superior to the others. At first glance, it appears to the reader that Christabel is the picture of piety and that Geraldine is an evil, beautiful witch. However, upon further examination, the reader can see that neither Christabel nor Geraldine are purely good or evil and that there are traces of both in each character. By using similar language when building their characters, Coleridge attempts to force the reader to understand the similarities that exist between Geraldine and Christabel. The similar upbringings and situations experienced by Christabel and Geraldine helps to make these similarities stand out. The most striking similarity is the inconsistent nature of their actions. Christabel, the one that is supposed to be the good one, is the one that actually initiates the seduction, and Geraldine, the supposedly evil one, temporarily becomes Christabel’s guardian spirit. During the dream sequence the lines between good and evil become further grayed because both Christabel and Geraldine are equally the serpent and dove. Thus the poem becomes a commentary on the inability to categorize people into such narrow constraints as good and evil.
At the beginning of the poem, Christabel is described as innocent and pious. There are clues, however subtle, that this is not entirely true. Christabel’s character is first described as being one “whom her father loves so well” (line 24). It can be inferred from this that she must be worthy of such love, meaning that she is one that can be viewed as good or moral. The reader is also made aware that Christabel is one that cares for others, as she is “pray[ing] / for the weal of her lover that’s far away” (lines 29-30). This paints Christabel as a pious, loving, and kind girl. By initially portraying Christabel as the perfect daughter and the picture of piety, Coleridge ensures that the reader will view her as such which allows him to later counter that and show that people are not one dimensional or easily predictable.
When Geraldine is first introduced she is not immediately portrayed as evil. Instead she frames herself as the victim. This, plus the physical resemblance she bears to Christabel, causes the reader to believe that they will have similar characters. Geraldine’s actions and behavior quickly allow the reader to understand that this is not the case, in fact making her appear to be the evil or immoral character. The reader is soon lead to believe that Geraldine is evil due in part to the fact that both Christabel and the narrator call upon the Virgin Mary to protect Christabel from her. Although the story of Geraldine’s rape causes a moment of uncertainty about her being evil, upon her arrival at the house the reader becomes instantly aware that this is indeed the case. When Christabel and Geraldine arrive at the home, Christabel is forced to “[lift] her up, a weary weight, / Over the threshold of the gate” (lines 131-132). This immediately erases any doubt the reader had as to whether or not Geraldine was wicked, as this is a key part in legends about witches being unable to cross a threshold on their own accord. While Geraldine’s characterization was significantly less specific than Christabel’s, it is understood by the reader that she is evil long before any major scenes take place.
While the physical similarities between Christabel and Geraldine may temporarily confuse the reader, other similarities in the wording used by Coleridge may confuse the reader as to which character is being referred to. The phrase, “the lady,” is frequently used in reference to both Geraldine and Christabel. As the poem progresses the references become harder and harder to tell apart. This allows the reader to...