History: This book was written by Matthew Gregory Lewis, published in 1796. It was written before the author turned 20, in the space of 10 weeks. Sensationalistic and graphic in its depiction of violence and human sexuality, the novel created a scandal in England soon after its publication, and caused its author, then a member of the House of Commons, to be branded licentious and perverse. Extravagant and melodramatic in style, the work details the exploits of Ambrosio, a wayward monk whose excessive pride and vanity lead to murder, a pact with Satan, and his eternal damnation. The Monk is said to be composed from a variety of sources, many of them German, while its main plot comes from the story of Santon Barisa, which appeared in The Guardian in 1713. Lewis acknowledged his debts on many of these accounts, partially to divert possible charges of plagiarism, and included in his novel several pieces of original and translated verse, including the ballad "Alonzo the Brave and Fair Imogen." Although this and other poems are largely overlooked by modern scholars, The Monk is generally considered Lewis's masterpiece and one of the most fully realized visions of Gothic horror.The first edition sold well, and a second edition was published in October of 1796. The good sales and reviews of the first had emboldened Lewis, and he signed the new edition with his full name, adding “M.P.” to reflect his newly acquired seat in the House of Commons. The book continued to rise in popularity, but in February 1797 review by a writer for the European Magazine, the novel was criticized for “plagiarism, immorality, and wild extravagance.
The Monk is one of the more lurid and of Gothic novels. It is also the first book to feature a priest as the villain.
Plot: The story concerns Ambrosio - a pious, well-respected monk in Spain - and his violent downfall. He is undone by carnal lust for his pupil, a woman disguised as a monk (Matilda), who tempts him to transgress, and, once satisfied by her, is overcome with desire for the innocent Antonia. Using magic spells, Matilda aids him in seducing Antonia, whom he later rapes and kills. Matilda is eventually revealed as an instrument of Satan in female form, who has orchestrated Ambrosio's downfall from the start. In the middle of telling this story Lewis frequently makes further digressions, which serve to heighten the Gothic atmosphere of the tale while doing little to move along the main plot. A lengthy story about a "Bleeding Nun" is told, and many incidental verses are introduced. A second romance, between Lorenzo and Antonia, also gives way to a tale of Lorenzo's sister being tortured by hypocritical nuns (as a result of a third romantic plot). Eventually, the story catches back up with Ambrosio, and in several pages of impassioned prose, Ambrosio is delivered into the hands of the Inquisition; he escapes by selling his soul to the devil for his deliverance from the death sentence which awaits him. The story ends with the devil preventing Ambrosio's attempted final repentance, and the sinful monk's prolonged torturous death. Ambrosio finds out by the devil that the woman that he had raped and killed, Antonia, was indeed his sister.
Review: Featuring demonic pacts, rape, incest, and such props as the Wandering Jew, ruined castles, and the Spanish Inquisition, The Monk serves more or less as a compendium of Gothic taste. Ambrosio, the hypocrite foiled by his own lust, and his sexual misconduct inside the walls of convents and monasteries, is a vividly portrayed villain, as well as an embodiment of much of the traditional English mistrust of Roman Catholicism, with its intrusive confessional, its political and religious authoritarianism, and its cloistered lifestyles.
The Monk is about veiling and disguise and it is possible to read into the novel a possible expression of the “open secret” of Lewis’s homosexuality through the characters of Ambrosio, Rosario/Matilda, and Lucifer. In the end, Ambrosio’s desires are insatiable... But Ambrosio’s desire may be insatiable because it is denied its true object. The closest the text gets to disclosing what this object might be is an elaborately staged event which obfuscates as it reveals. In the centre of the text, in quick succession, Matilda performs two acts of conjuration. In the first, Antonia’s coy, modest, naked body is displayed before Ambrosio in Matilda’s magic mirror. In the second, in labyrinthine caverns beneath the monastery, Matilda invokes an androgynous, decidedly camp ‘Daemon’: ‘a Youth seemingly scarce eighteen, the perfection of whose form and face was unrivalled’. The ‘beautiful’ figure, ‘perfectly naked’, with ‘silken locks’ and surrounded by ‘clouds of rose-coloured lights’, appears as the key to Ambrosio’s possession of Antonia. The figure, at Matilda’s strident behest finally relinquishes the ‘myrtle’ which will enable Antonia’s seduction. The parallelism of the stagin raises the question of causation: is the Daemon the key to the sexual possession of Antonia, or is Antonia’s image a screen for Ambrosio’s true object of desire, the epicene devil?”
Scholars observe that the thematic character of The Monk departs somewhat from that of the traditional Gothic novel. And while it favors the evocation of grotesque horror rather than the rendering of a sentimental theme of justice based upon divine Providence, Lewis's novel nevertheless presents a critique of human vice and explores the conflict between religion and human sexuality. This conflict is dramatized in the character of Ambrosio through the juxtaposition of the monk's pride and destructive sexual appetite with the innocent virtue of Antonia and the forthrightness of Lorenzo. Many commentators note, however, that the dullness of the novel's virtuous characters fails to match the depth and complexity of Ambrosio and Matilda, and instead locate evidence of the novel's primary theme in the psychological exploration of its fallen protagonist and his accomplice. Likewise, many have observed that Matilda's strong will and intelligence make her far more compelling than her counterpart Antonia, despite her manipulative behavior and demonic nature. Others have commented on Lewis's attempts to establish an unsettling parallel between the violence of the riotous mob in his novel and that of the French Revolution, or on his deft integration of legends and folk tales, such as those of the Bleeding Nun and the Wandering Jew, in order to illicit terror and add universal appeal to his story.
Opening Line: “Scarcely had the Abbey Bell tolled for five minutes, and already was the Church of the Capuchins thronged with Auditors.”
Closing Line: “They reached the spot where Ambrosio lay, and when they abated carried with them into the river the Corse of the despairing Monk.”
Quotes: “His unsatisfied Desires placed before him the most lustful and provoking Images, and he rioted in joys till then unknown to him.”
“Wild and desperate, She threw herself upon the ground, beating her bosom and rending her veil in all the delirium of despair.”
Rating: Very Good.