The word 'Infidel' is often used as a slur, which should signal the modern reader of a Gothic story to look for complex ideological problems the text might explore through the so-named character. It is traditionally used to refer to foreigners and non-Christians in the a disdainful sense. The flexibility of the term 'infidel', however, also allows authors to use it to critique any character's morality on many levels.
For an excellent example of the flexibility of the term, consider Jane West's 1802 triple-decker The Infidel Father. The title character Earl Glanville is an Englishman, not a foreigner, but he is characterized again and again as an infidel, not just on religious grounds, but also based on his troublesome (for West) social and cultural ideologies. In the narrator's words, "his prejudices against religion received insuperable strength from the sarcasms of Voltaire; and in the varying sophisms of Rousseau he found convincing argument against revelation" (Vol. I, 145). West didactically devotes a great deal of ink to the folly of these secular sources of wisdom, and her narrator accuses Granville of abandoning religion in favor of cold rationality for egocentric reasons, "Selfishness was the predominant quality in Lord Glanville's mind; and, indeed, we may call it a constituent part of every infidel" (Vol. I, 147).
West also uses a play on words, using the term 'infidel' to refer to Glanville's infidelity to his family. Quite the scoundrel, Glanville abandoned his secret first wife and two children to marry another woman and start a family with her. West suggests his motivations were purely financial; his first wife was the daughter of a common tradesman, and well beneath his station, and was therefore never publicly acknowledged as Lady Glanville. His second marriage was well-known to have been a mercenary one; gossips maintained that "had the daughter of King Midas been among the competitors, and possessed of her father's power of transmutation, she would have become lady Granville" (Vol. I, 199). His heartlessness is so notorious that granddaughter Sophia, who is his heir via his secret first marriage, is afraid to be acknowledged, saying "I cannot forget Lord Glanville's cruel conduct. I dread his dark machinations, I detest his hypocrisy" (Vol II, 65-66). Sophia's beloved guardian characterizes Glanville as having committed "enormous offenses against divine and human laws" and having "prospered in his wickedness" (Vol II, 82).
His infidelity also includes the betrayal and murder of his former brother-in-law Aubrey. Earl Granville, in covering the secret of his first marriage, killed Aubrey to silence him, and then ran away to travel in luxury through several foreign countries until the rumors had died down, and he could return home safe in the knowledge that no one had the means to bring suit against him for Aubrey's murder. There are two critiques in this aspect of Granville's infidelity; first, that he would break the bond of brotherhood by murdering a family member, and second that he used his wealth and power to flaut the legal process of justice.
Finally, Glanville is an infidel in the way he raises his acknowledged daughter, Caroline. Her upbringing is Rousseauian; but West maligns Rousseau's ways by having Glanville twist them, as if he "intended that his daughter, though feminine in her person, and attractive in her manners, should possess a masculine mind, and be in every respect superior to the little vanities, weaknesses, and terrors of her sex" (Vol. I 237). Glanville's plans are thwarted as Caroline grows to rebel against him, and he learns to hate her in turn until she stabs herself to death at his feet. Glanville's betrayal of Caroline begins with his decision to raise her in a scientific, atheistic manner, which West portrays as an unforgivable offense. Both Granville and his daughter die in a welter of blood and madness as a result of their lack of faith and familial fidelity.
For another example of the multiple Gothic uses of the word 'infidel', readers can turn to Lord Byron's epic 1813 poem The Giaour. The word 'Giaour' is a Turkish interpretation of the Persian word for 'infidel', used as a nasty slur against non-Muslims. In Byron's poem, the Giaour is punished for his sins (adultery and murder) by being cursed to become a vampire who feeds on his family:
Beneath avenging Monkir's scythe;
And from its torments 'scape alone
To wander round lost Eblis' throne;
And fire unquenched, unquenchable,
Around, within, thy heart shall dwell;
Nor ear can hear nor tongue can tell
The tortures of that inward hell!
But first, on earth as Vampire sent,
Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent:
Then ghastly haunt thy native place,
And suck the blood of all thy race;
There from thy daughter, sister, wife,
At midnight drain the stream of life;
Yet loathe the banquet which perforce
Must feed thy livid living corse:
Thy victims ere they yet expire
Shall know the demon for their sire,
As cursing thee, thou cursing them,
Thy flowers are withered on the stem.
(Lines 747- 766)
The term 'giaour' is also used for 'infidel' in William Beckford's Vathek. In this case, the state of being an 'infidel' is alarmingly transferrable. First, Vathek uses the word as an insult toward a mysterious stranger. Soon enough, the stranger proves to be a giaour in truth, enticing Vathek to drink a potion, and seducing him to abjure Muhammed and sacrifice fifty children in exchange for knowledge and power. By the end, the word "Giaour' seems to be interchangeable with 'demon', when the giaour's temptations lead to Vathek's damnation.
Courtesy of Wendy Fall, Marquette University
Beckford, William. The History of the Caliph Vathek. London, Paris, New York & Melbourne: Cassell and Company Ltd, 1887. Project Gutenberg. Gutenberg.org. 12 June 2015.
Byron, George Gordon, Lord. The Works of Lord Byron. A New, Revised, and Enlarged Edition, with Illustrations. Poetry. Vol. III. Ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge. London: John Murray, 1900. Project Gutenberg. Gutenberg.org. 12 June 2015.
West, Jane. The Infidel Father. London: Printed by A. Strahan, for T.N. Longman and O. Rees, 1802. Digitized by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Call 2061027. Accessed via archive.org. 11 June 2015.
Fatal Jealousy; or, Blood Will Have Blood! Containing the History of Count Almagro and Duke Alphonso; Their Combat in the Dreadful Tournament and the Death of the Beautiful Bellarmine, Through the Artifice of Sophronia, Her Rival, Unknown