The hesitation of characters when confronted with questions of reality is clearly depicted in The Dead Lover and becomes the driving force of the plot through the experiences of the protagonist Romuald as recounted by him at the age of sixty-six. The hesitation of Romuald to confront the question of which of his experiences -- the ones as the priest or the one as Seignior Romuald of Venice -- are real forms the basis of much of the plot. This hesitation is built into the constitution and personality of the protagonist as he is a young priest recently ordained and is not mature enough to deal with the temptations of the world that he comes across for the first time since his education in a cloistered environment is complete.
Romuald's Hesitation to Accept the Reality of his Vocation
The plot of the story is based upon the hesitation of Romuald to accept his adopted station in life. Since childhood, he has wanted to become a priest and serve in the cause of God. His efforts at educating himself have been directed in this regard. He has also lived a cocooned life till the day he is confirmed as a member of the clergy. This day marks the beginning of a new period in his life where he steps out into the real world that has much diverse experiences compared with his life spent as a student preparing for the Church. In addition to the experiences, the real world also has much more temptations in store to protect him against which, Romuald has to rely on his theological teachings and moral values as opposed to any wisdom gained through experience with a similar episode. Therefore, Romuald's entry into his professional role is fraught with anxieties, excitement, hopes, dreams, confidence as well as self-doubt.
Psychologically, Romuald experiences self-doubt over the choice of career that he has made. He has always wanted to become a priest but his self-doubting throughout the story reveals that he had probably not considered other options before settling upon this particular career choice. Therefore, when he experiences Clarimonde at the church, he realizes that there are several costs of joining the church, one of which is the renunciation of worldly pleasures including celibacy or having intimate relationships with a pretty woman such as Clarimonde. Hence, he experiences a sense of hesitation with accepting the reality that he has probably made a wrong choice of career because he was not prepared to accept the costs of becoming a priest. He has to learn to tame his feelings, which is causing him a great deal of distress and anxiety.
It is the fact that Romuald has never interacted much with women that causes him to become fascinated with the exquisitely beautiful Clarimonde. In fact, Romuald did not even see much of his mother while he was being educated for the priesthood. Secondly, Romuald is a young man and has doubts about whether he has chosen the right vocation for himself. These feelings combine to produce doubts within Romuald about his commitment towards the cause of God vs. his apparent love for the irresistible Clarimonde.
"As I gazed at her, I felt doors open within me which had hitherto been closed. The rubbish was cleared away from choked-up openings on every side and gave me a glimpse of prospects theretofore undreamed of; life appeared to me in a totally different aspect; I was born to a new order of ideas (Gautier p. 183)."
This acknowledgement is the beginning of the series of hesitations that Romuald would continue to experience as a result of the admonitions of Abbe Serapion and the love-filled advances of Clarimonde. The veracity of his duties as the priest and his nightly escapades in Venice would continue to befuddle his mind and drive him towards helplessness and the need to be salvaged by Abbe Serapion. This would indicate the stage where his hesitation and confusion would have reached such heights as to render Romuald incapable of reasonable thought and complete dependence on Serapion to force him to see the truth.
The Reality of the Existence of Clarimonde
After the incident where he first sees Clarimonde and wonders whether she is truth or reality he continue to seek her and thinks of ways to escape from his room to search for her. He tries to think of ways of getting past the bars and high walls of his room in the presbytery. It is however, only the fact of his being unable to locate her in a strange town that prevents him from trying to realize his fancies. He continues to wait for the appropriate time until the day when he is to be taken to his new parish by the Abbe Serapion. Even on the way to his new parish, he sees what he believes to be an image of Clarimonde in the Concini Palace, at a time when the rest of the village is hidden under the shadow of a great cloud and only the Concini Palace can be seen clearly, due to its higher elevation compared to the rest of the village. This vision of Clarimonde strengthens his belief that Clarimonde is real.
Another significant episode in this fantastical experience is when Romuald is called to the death-bed of Clarimonde by a surreal messenger boy in the middle of the night. Upon seeing the beautiful Clarimonde who is apparently dead by the time he reaches her castle, Romuald, by virtue of an apparently miraculous kiss is able to bring her back to life. He is unable to explain this experience except as a miracle, which again reflects his hesitation in accepting the reality. He believes that with the last remaining petal of the rose by Clarimonde's bedside, her soul has also left the room and she is now dead. Furthermore, when he awakens after being unconscious for three whole days, he is unable to explain whether his meeting with Clarimonde was a dream or reality. The surreal experience of the night when he was sent for seems to him a mix of reality and his own fancies about the beautiful Clarimonde. His only means of confirmation of the reality of his experience is through the verification of his housekeeper of seeing the messenger of the night in question, Margheritone, the groom employed by Clarimonde. At the same time, he is unable to find witnesses to account for the strange castle where he saw Clarimonde and brought her to life with a kiss. This again leaves Romuald in doubt about whether he was dreaming about the whole incident or whether he had really met and kissed Clarimonde.
"At first I thought that I had been the plaything of some trick of magic; but real and palpable circumstances soon dispelled that theory (Gautier, p. 214)."
The Reality of Clarimonde's Intentions
After this incident, Romuald receives a visit from Clarimonde one night after their meeting at her death-bed. As promised, she has apparently returned from the dead to meet her lover. He then continues to receive visits regularly from Clarimonde who explains that she has crossed over from the world of the dead to reenter her body so that she may be reunited with Romuald. Romuald hesitates to believe this explanation but Clarimonde's temptations are too much for him to resist. She makes passionate confessions of love and caresses him lovingly. Therefore, he accepts Clarimonde's proposal to visit Venice with her every night.
Hence, by day, Romuald performs his duties as priest of his parish while at night he becomes Signor Romuald and is transported to Venice with his beloved Clarimonde. His time in Venice is spent in pursuing carnal desires and he indulges in drinking, gambling and blasphemy. However, upon his return to his life as a priest where he diligently performs his duties and responsibilities towards the parish, he remains confused as to which of his dual lives is real and which is a dream:
"From that night my nature was in a sense halved, and there were within me two men, neither of whom knew the other (Gautier, p. 229)."
At another place, Romuald admits the perennial confusion in his mind about his two states:
"I always retained very clearly the consciousness of my two existences. But there was one absurd fact which I could not explain: that was that the consciousness of the same ego could exist in two men so entirely different. It was anomaly which I did not understand, whether I fancied myself the cure of the little village of C --, or Il Signor Romualdo, the titled lover of Clarimonde (Gautier, p. 230)."
The Role of the Abbe Serapion
The hesitation on the part of Romuald to accept the reality of his descent towards destruction is also demonstrated through the interactions between Romuald and the Abbe Serapion. The Abbe Serapion, who is the teacher and guide of Romuald, makes his visitations to…