The Monk is a violent tale of ambition, murder, and incest. The great struggle between maintaining monastic vows and fulfilling personal ambitions leads the monk Ambrosio, into temptation and the breaking of his vows, then to sexual obsession and rape, and finally to murder in order to conceal his guilt. Written when Matthew Lewis was only 19, The Monk was criticised when first published in 1796 for its lewdness and impiety, but this criticism only added to its popularity.
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Matthew Lewis' notorious and influential Gothic novel The Monk (1796) takes place during the heyday of the Spanish Inquisition. Ambrosio, the monk/friar/abbot/idol of Madrid, is nicknamed "the Man of Holiness" by the people of the sinful city, because he stands so piously above human failings, especially lust. When we read, "He looked round him with exultation, and Pride told him loudly that He was superior to the rest of his fellow-Creatures," however, we sense that he may be heading for a fall. Indeed, soon enough Matilda, a sexy groupie who uncannily resembles Ambrosio's beloved portrait of the Madonna, reveals herself to him, rocking his sense of self, religion, and life learned during his thirty years of warped Capuchin education and seclusion from the world. Meanwhile, the young aristocrat Don Lorenzo is trying to woo the teenage, ultra innocent Antonia, while his friend Don Raymond has gotten a little too close to Lorenzo's unsuitably convent-bound sister Agnes. Lewis intertwines his characters' destinies in a narrative that is by turns interesting, suspenseful, lurid, and comical. Some moments really shock, scare, or titillate.
There are, however, too many long monologues, uninterrupted personal narratives, and detailed descriptions. Late 18th century misogyny informs the novel: women bear the greater burden of protecting themselves from male lust, and female characters are generally wicked, vengeful, foolish, or weak. And some of the writing reads like a corny (if not creepy) romance:
"her lips were of the most rosy freshness; Her fair and undulating hair, confined by a simple ribband, poured itself below her waist in a profusion of ringlets; Her throat was full and beautiful in the extreme; Her hand and arm were formed with the most perfect symmetry; Her mild blue eyes seemed an heaven of sweetness, and the crystal in which they moved sparkled with all the brilliance of Diamonds: She appeared to be scarcely fifteen."
Nigel Carrington gives a stellar reading of the novel, doing fine voices for gloating Lucifer, lusting monk, persecuting prioress, and earnest protagonists, and making it possible to survive (and even enjoy) the long, overwrought and overwritten passages.
The Monk is an odd book. It features typical Gothic elements (or ones that it helped make typical): haunted castles, walled monasteries, labyrinthine caverns, secret dungeons, fetid sepulchers, trick statues, secret stairways, black magics, potent opiates, illicit loves, prophetic dreams, false identities, oracular gypsies, murderous bandits, decomposing babies, bleeding ghosts, demonic servants, damsels in distress, and compelling anti-heroes. Although superstition is criticized, reason cannot account for or protect from the supernatural. The novel is remarkable in that innocent victims are not always saved, The Bible is deemed unsuitable reading for children and virgins ("the annals of a Brothel would scarcely furnish a greater choice of indecent expressions"), and the psychology of the sexual predator in a position of power and prestige is convincingly depicted. The good characters are ineffectual and the bad ones potent, which may be Lewis' point.
Perhaps Lewis was trying to place his work in the context of classic literature via the epigraphs by the likes of Shakespeare, Tasso, and Cowper which begin his chapters and the poetry which his characters read or sing: poems like Love and Age, ballads like Alonzo the Brave and Fair Imogene, a Gypsy song, an Inscription in an Hermitage, a Midnight Hymn, and a "Spanish" street Serenade. Judging by the controversy the novel has provoked, its literary claims have not always justified its outre elements. Nonetheless, The Monk is a much more serious and sustained (if less focused) work than The Castle of Otranto.
Lewis does do plenty of compelling writing, as when Ambrosio sees a breast:
His eye dwelt with insatiable avidity upon the beauteous Orb. A sensation till then unknown filled his heart with a mixture of anxiety and delight: A raging fire shot through every limb; The blood boiled in his veins, and a thousand wild wishes bewildered his imagination.
Or when Don Raymond examines an illustration of the Bleeding Nun:
Here was One upon his knees with his eyes cast up to heaven, and praying most devoutly; There Another was creeping away upon all fours. Some hid their faces in their cloaks or the laps of their Companions; Some had concealed themselves beneath a Table, on which the remnants of a feast were visible; While Others with gaping mouths and eyes wide-stretched pointed to a Figure, supposed to have created this disturbance. It represented a Female of more than human stature, clothed in the habit of some religious order. Her face was veiled; On her arm hung a chaplet of beads; Her dress was in several places stained with the blood which trickled from a wound upon her bosom. In one hand She held a Lamp, in the other a large Knife, and She seemed advancing towards the iron gates of the Hall.
Or when Ambrosio meets Lucifer: Enchanted at a vision so contrary to his expectations, Ambrosio gazed upon the Spirit with delight and wonder: Yet however beautiful the Figure, He could not but remark a wildness in the Daemon's eyes, and a mysterious melancholy impressed upon his features, betraying the Fallen Angel, and inspiring the Spectators with secret awe.
Or when Antonia does some inappropriate bedtime reading: The perusal of this story [a ballad in which worms creep in and out of the empty eye sockets of a vengeful lover's ghost] was ill-calculated to dispel Antonia's melancholy.
Or when a silly woman tries to get Ambrosio to exorcise her house: ''Oh! That Chicken's wing! My poor soul suffers for it!''
Readers interested in the Gothic genre should try The Monk, but I'd recommend listening to an audiobook version read by a fine narrator (like Nigel C.) rather than the physical book.