The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Monk: A Romance (1796)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Monk: A Romance was written by M.G. Lewis. Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775-1818) was a Member of Parliament, wrote several Gothic novels and over a dozen plays, and as the owner of a Jamaican plantation twice instituted progressive slave reforms, but he will always be known as the author of The Monk, one of the greatest of the Gothics and the quintessence, with The Castle of Otranto, The Mysteries of Udolpho, and Melmoth the Wanderer, of the form. Ambrosio, the protagonist of The Monk, is one of the classic characters of Gothic literature.
Father Ambrosio is the marvel of Madrid, universally recognized as the most learned and virtuous of the city’s monks. Ambrosio is a strict and proud man, and his brand of Catholicism is intolerant of sin and lacking in mercy. But the citizens of Madrid love him, and the women of Madrid visit his church not out of piety but out of adoration for him. In the audience one day is a lovely young woman, Antonia, and her mother, Elvira, who have come to Madrid to get financial help from one of their relatives, Marquis Raymond. Antonia is impressed with Ambrosio, immediately idolizing him. After the service Antonia meets Don Lorenzo de Medina, a young nobleman. Don Lorenzo is charmed by Antonia, who is a fetching and sweet innocent, and Lorenzo promises to intercede with Raymond on Antonia’s behalf. But Lorenzo learns that Raymond is the man supposedly responsible for Agnes, Lorenzo’s sister, entering the convent, and so Lorenzo confronts Raymond. Raymond asks Lorenzo to suspend his judgment until Raymond can explain himself. Agnes and Raymond had been in a relationship, but Agnes was persuaded by unscrupulous relatives that Raymond was dead, so she entered the convent. Raymond discovers that she is in the convent and begins visiting her by night, but when she discovers she is pregnant with his child and tries to arrange an escape with him, she is found out by Ambrosio, who shows no mercy to her, despite her pleas, and turns her over to the Mother Superior, the Prioress of the monastery, who imprisons her, intending to starve her to death, and then tells Lorenzo that Agnes is dead. Lorenzo does not believe it, though everyone else does, and begins investigating.
Meanwhile Ambrosio discovers that Rosario, a young man who is his best friend in the monastery, is actually Matilda, a young woman who is in love with him. Ambrosio wants her to leave immediately, but she pleads with him to let her stay and even threatens to kill herself if she is forced to leave. Ambrosio’s pride is flattered by this, and Matilda’s beauty appeals to him, so he allows her to stay. Matilda slowly leads him on, making him want her, and eventually, after pretending to save his life, she succeeds in seducing him. Ambrosio is initially ashamed of what he has done, but this taste of the sexual life is too much for his better impulses, and he and Matilda continue to have sex, but surreptitiously, since Ambrosio does not want to lose his reputation and good name. But Ambrosio eventually grows tired of sex with Matilda, and his infatuation with her turns to contempt. His opinion of her is not helped by the revelation that Matilda is using magic to summon up devils. Ambrosio’s action pains Matilda, but she admits there is nothing she can do about it. Ambrosio turns his attention to Antonia and becomes obsessed with her. Antonia has no clue that Ambrosio lusts after her and approaches him for help with her sick mother. Ambrosio visits and tries to manhandle Antonia, but Elvira walks in on them and Ambrosio flees. Matilda, now acting only as Ambrosio’s friend (i.e., withholding sex from him), gives him a magic myrtle which is guaranteed to put Antonia into a magical sleep so that Ambrosio can rape her without resistance. Ambrosio tries this, but Elvira, Antonia’s mother, is warned in a dream about the rape and interrupts Ambrosio, threatening to tell the city about what he really is. Ambrosio strangles Elvira and then returns to his cell. More obsessed with Antonia than ever, Ambrosio gets a magic potion from Matilda which plunges Antonia into a near death state. Everyone thinks Antonia is dead, and Ambrosio has her body put into a dungeon beneath the monastery. When she recovers from the drug he rapes her. When it is over she tries to escape, and in a panic Ambrosio stabs her in the chest.
Meanwhile, Lorenzo has received an order to arrest the Mother Superior for the murder of Agnes. The common people of Madrid are infuriated when they hear about this and form a mob, storming and burning the convent and tearing the Mother Superior to pieces in the street. The mob then attacks the monastery. Lorenzo discovers the nearly starved Agnes and her newborn baby in the dungeon and then finds Antonia. They express their love for each other and Antonia then dies. Ambrosio and Matilda are arrested by the Inquisition and put to the question. Matilda confesses to everything and is condemned to the auto-da-fé. Ambrosio confesses to the things he did but does not confess to having sold his soul to the devil. After being tortured he changes his tune and is condemned to be burned at the stake. Ambrosio is frightened of the torments to come, and at his low point Matilda appears and tells him she is going to escape and enjoy her life, because she has just sold her soul to Satan. She gives Ambrosio the means to do likewise, and after wrestling with temptation he gives in and sells his soul. The Devil takes him away from his cell, but then taunts him, telling him that he was about to be pardoned but now has sold his soul forever, and further that Elvira was his mother and Antonia was his sister. Then the Devil drops Ambrosio on to a mountain—he promised to rescue Ambrosio but said nothing about leaving him living—where he lingers in agony for six days before dying on the seventh.
The Monk was vastly influential. It popularized the supernatural version of the Gothic novel and acted as a repudiation of the rationalist tradition established by Ann Radcliffe in The Mysteries of Udolpho, setting the standard for the supernatural Gothic novels which followed. Traditional criticism of the Gothic has seen two kinds of Gothics, the “male” Gothic and the “female” Gothic. The female Gothic is usually a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story, about a female protagonist; the female Gothic is most often written by a female author and has rational, anti-supernatural ethics and subtle horrors. The male Gothic is the story of a male protagonist’s social transgression and often has implicit or overt supernatural content and explicit terrors (see: The Gothic). The Monk superseded the Radcliffean tradition, the female Gothic, and established the male Gothic format, which was dominant until Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, the high point of the Gothic genre.
The Monk was not, however, a particularly original creation. Lewis was influenced by German literature and folklore in the writing of The Monk1 and has been credited with introducing a German influence–a more graphic depiction of sexuality and violence–into the writing of the Gothic (see: The Gothic). But the truth is that Lewis borrowed a great deal from the Germans, particularly Goethe and Ludwig Tieck (see: Abdallah). One 1797 review of The Monk listed a number of German works whose motifs Lewis lifted for use in The Monk. And the figure of Matilda is clearly inspired by Biondetta, from Cazotte’s Diable Amoureux (see: The Fatal Woman). From the Germans Lewis also took the figures of the Bleeding Nun and the Wandering Jew. Lewis was the first Gothic author to use these character types, which would later become Gothic conventions. Lewis was also the first Gothic writer to use the Faustian bargain and make the villain the protagonist of the story.
The Monk was enormously popular when it first appeared and made Lewis’ name and fortune. It has inspired all sorts of fun quotes, both at the time of its publication and more recently. One reviewer, apocryphally Coleridge, said that it was such a morally foul book that “if a parent saw (it) in the hands of a son or daughter, he might reasonably turn pale,”2 and no less than Byron called it “the philtred ideas of a jaded voluptuary.”3 The modern reader, more accustomed to works of Satanism and sexual violence than their two-centuries-gone-by predecessor, will not be particularly shocked by The Monk but will nonetheless find the story enjoyable, if hardly flawless. The modern reader will find Lewis’ prose style unquestionably dated and stiff, and the novel is old enough to have a vocabulary whose usages and meanings are slightly different from our own, which can be disconcerting. Lewis occasionally pokes fun at women, and like many of his contemporaries is given to long-winded monologues. As in so many of the Gothics, the villain is more interesting than the hero, and the story of Don Lorenzo and Agnes is significantly less interesting than that of Ambrosio and Matilda and can be skipped with little loss. And, like many of his fellow authors of Gothics, Lewis indulges in no small amount of Catholic bashing (see: The Abbess, Melmoth the Wanderer). However, Lewis’ objection to the Church is not a simplistic and tautological Catholicism-is-evil-because-it-is-wrong-argument, as is customary in the Gothics. The Monk’s argument against Catholicism lies not so much in the wickedness of its practitioners as in the way in which, according to the novel, the religion represses human sexuality and leaves no room for men’s and women’s natural urges. This still results in Catholic bashing, but it is a more solidly reasoned Catholic-bashing than writers like Eugène Sue, in The Wandering Jew, and Charles Kingsley, in Hypatia and Westward Ho!, engaged in.
But even with its flaws The Monk is the most readable and purely enjoyable, from a modern reader’s perspective, of all the great, classic Gothics. The Monk is not of the best quality but is more enjoyable than anything Ann Radcliffe wrote, more than The Castle of Otranto, and more than Melmoth the Wanderer.
The reason that The Monk is remembered when Lewis’ many sources are forgotten is his style. Lewis took the sex and violence and horror and supernatural content of his predecessors, both English and German, and turned the knob to eleven on all of them, exaggerating them far beyond what previous writers had written or conceived of. Lewis was a firm believer in the dictum that “too much is too much, but way too much is just enough,” and The Monk shows this. This excess creates a powerful text.
The Monk has some plot twists which might surprise even jaded modern readers: Rosario turning out to be a woman, for example, and sweet, loving Matilda becoming a temptress. The magic sequences, especially Matilda’s summoning of the devil, are vivid and memorable and the equal of what appears in many modern dark fantasy novels. Lewis sets a good pace for the plot, does not linger over scenes, and, although there is a lot of plot to get through, the pages still turn. The book is shot through with sex; it is easy to see why previous generations considered it pornography. And there is some real acuity to the characterization of Ambrosio. He is a realistic character with recognizable traits and flaws, and his struggle with his urges, his inability to resist temptation, and his descent into hypocrisy and evil are plausible and real to life.
But The Monk is also a dark book, and for many people their enjoyment of the novel will be tempered by this darkness. The Monk is not just saturated with sex, it is obsessed with it. Ambrosio becomes so goatish that he even dreams of having sex with the Madonna, and the book, like Ambrosio himself, fixates on Antonia, so that the reader would be justified in feeling a queasy voyeuristic complicity in her rape. The Monk is more sensual and carnal, more concerned with basic human drives and urges and emotions, than other Gothics. It is a more visceral story, and Lewis uses the carnality not for sensationalism’s sake but as a part of his anti-Catholicism, pro-sexuality argument.
The Monk does not stint on violence and savagery. There is the incestuous rape of Antonia on a bed of rotting corpses, a scene which (understandably) lingers in the mind. There is the Prioress killed in the street, torn apart by the enraged mob. There is the emotional cruelty which Ambrosio uses first against Agnes and then Matilda during that period when Ambrosio has tired of Matilda and before she has gone given in to evil. There are the murders—described at length—of Elvira and Antonia, Ambrosio’s matricide and sororicide, and the torment of Agnes. The Monk has a wide range of vile human behaviors, and while such things are a part of the schauerroman, or “shudder novel” (see: The Gothic), the German genre of novels which Lewis was attempting to imitate, there is always the feeling that Lewis is reveling in the horrors he shows the reader, rather than reviling them along with us. Lewis lingers over some moments, and draws others, like Antonia’s suffering, out too long. To say that The Monk is indulgent is to understate the case. It wallows in its showcasing of humanity’s darker urges; however, the real energy and liveliness in this lack of restraint is a big reason why the novel is so readable. The Monk may wallow in its excess, but in doing so it shows more verve and life than the comparatively wooden The Mysteries of Udolpho.
Ambrosio is the classic Gothic Hero-Villain. Although Manfred in The Castle of Otranto was the first, and William Beckford’s Vathek (see: Vathek) another important one, it was Ambrosio who was most influential on succeeding Hero-Villains. The following passage from The Monk wonderfully describes both Ambrosio and the typical Hero-Villain:
Had his Youth been passed in the world, He would have shown himself possessed of many brilliant and manly qualities. He was naturally enterprizing, firm, and fearless: He had a Warrior's heart, and He might have shone with splendour at the head of an Army. There was no want of generosity in his nature: The Wretched never failed to find in him a compassionate Auditor: His abilities were quick and shining, and his judgment, vast, solid, and decisive. With such qualifications He would have been an ornament to his Country...The fact was, that the different sentiments with which Education and Nature had inspired him were combating in his bosom: It remained for his passions, which as yet no opportunity had called into play, to decide the victory...for a time, spare diet, frequent watching, and severe penance cooled and represt the natural warmth of his constitution: But no sooner did opportunity present itself, no sooner did He catch a glimpse of joys to which He was still a Stranger, than Religion's barriers were too feeble to resist the overwhelming torrent of his desires. All impediments yielded before the force of his temperament, warm, sanguine, and voluptuous in the excess.4
As Jack G. Voller writes,
As the critic Joseph Irwin has remarked, The Monk is “a culmination of the Gothic movement. [Lewis] originated nothing; he only brought together techniques and materials that had been used before and gave them an almost unmistakable Lewisian touch” (162). That “touch” was the novel’s unrestrained libidinal energies and cataclysmic sociosexual upheavals, heavily spiced with a supernaturalism given free rein within a metaphysical framework both recognizable and radical. Lewis’s masterwork is populated with demons and religious characters whose moral deformity is unfolded in the language and imagery of both biblical apocalypse and political revolution. The novel’s near-breathless pace creates a sense of catastrophe that develops so quickly as to create the impression of an implacable and inevitable fate.5
And as William Hughes writes,
The novel follows the declining morals of an outwardly pious Spanish monk, Ambrosio, who is tempted by Satan in the form of a beautiful woman. This particular temptation is doubly problematic, however, as Ambrosio is first approached by the tempter in the guise of a young male novice. The Queer Gothic implications of this cross-dressing are obvious, though their sexual intimacy does not take place until the physical sex of the tempter is revealed.6
Print: Matthew Lewis, The Monk. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2016.
1 Bridgwater, The German Gothic Novel, 66 ff.
2 Qtd. in Leslie A. Fielder, Love and Death in the American Novel (Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2003), 129.
3 Qtd. in Nicola Trott, “Lewis, Matthew (1775-1818),” in Marie Mulvey-Roberts, ed., The Handbook of the Gothic, second edition (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 57.
4 M.G. Lewis, The Monk (London: Brentano’s, 1924), 136.
5 Jack G. Voller, “Matthew Gregory ‘Monk’ Lewis,” in Frederick S. Frank, Douglass H. Thomson, and Jack G. Voller, eds., Gothic Writers: A Critical and Bibliographic Guide (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002), 255.
6 Hughes, The Historical Dictionary of Gothic Literature, 186.