The Monk, M. G. Lewis
The Monk M. G. Lewis
The following entry presents criticism of Lewis's novel The Monk (1796).
Perhaps the most notorious English horror novel of the eighteenth century, M. G. Lewis's The Monk is considered one of the finest examples of Gothic fiction in the language. 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.
Plot and Major Characters
Ambrosio, the monk of the novel's title and a foundling of mysterious past and parentage, has risen to the position of abbot of the Capuchins, becoming a well-respected figure in medieval Madrid, revered by the populace. At the monastery a young novitiate named Rosario approaches Ambrosio and reveals that he is actually a woman named Matilda de Villanges, whose love for Ambrosio has led her to disguise herself in order to be nearer to him. The two consummate a sexual relationship, though Ambrosio later feels remorse and disgust for his actions. After his interlude with Matilda, while visiting the nearby convent of St. Clare, Ambrosio discovers that Agnes, a nun, desires to elope with her lover, Don Raymond de las Cisternas. The monk discloses this information to Mother St. Agatha, prioress of the convent, who punishes Agnes by imprisoning her in a dungeon beneath the convent. Later, Ambrosio travels to the house of the ailing Donna Elvira Dalfa and there falls in love with her young daughter, Antonia. With the aid of Matilda and her knowledge of black magic, the monk summons a demon so that he might violate the girl. Ambrosio returns to Donna Elvira's house, kills her, and abducts Antonia, now unconscious through the action of a magical potion. In the meantime, Agnes's brother, Lorenzo, accuses Mother St. Agatha of murdering his sister and wins a warrant for her arrest. An angry mob forms in response to the accusation, and the crowd razes the convent, murdering the prioress and many innocent nuns. Amid the chaos, Lorenzo enters the convent grounds in search of his sister. When he finds her she is close to death and clutches the decaying body of her dead child. Hearing the screams of a young girl nearby, Lorenzo discovers Antonia's ravished and stabbed body and observes her attacker, Ambrosio, as he flees; later he notifies the Inquisition of Ambrosio's crimes. Ordered to be burned at the stake, Ambrosio, at the urgings of Matilda, makes a pact with Satan, exchanging his soul for freedom. The devil appears and saves him from the flames of the Inquisition, only to reveal that in killing Donna Elvira and raping Antonia, he has murdered his own mother and committed incest with his sister. The story ends as the monk's forfeit soul is cast into hell.
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.
First published in 1796, The Monk created a considerable stir and earned Lewis instant fame, even infamy, as its author—though none of his later works received the same notoriety as this, his first novel. Labeled obscene by a cast of critics, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge—who acknowledged that despite its immorality the novel was the "offspring of no common genius"—it was nevertheless extremely popular, and went through five editions before the end of the century. The controversy that the first edition sparked prompted Lewis to expurgate certain passages from these later printings, though scholars now agree that his changes were largely superficial. Coleridge's criticism of the work on one point was taken up by James Mathias, who emphasized the lewdness and irreligion of the work, especially of a scene in which Antonia reads an edited version of the Bible given to her by her mother. In 1800 the Marquis de Sade wrote that The Monk was a product of the revolutionary atmosphere of the late eighteenth century, while in the twentieth century critics have reevaluated the influence of the work on the writers of the Romantic movement.
Modern scholars have since observed that The Monk represents a successful synthesis of the techniques and materials used by Gothic horror writers, leading many to take a renewed interest in the work. Recent critics have applied the tools of psychological criticism to it, examining its sexual imagery and applying biographical information about Lewis's childhood development and psyche to understanding the novel.
"A Friend to Genius" (essay date 1797)
SOURCE: "An Apology for The Monk" in Monthly Mirror, Vol. 3, April, 1797, pp. 210-15.
[In the following essay, the anonymous critic maintains that The Monk expounds lessons of virtue, rather than of vice, as many reviewers have contended.]
It is with no inconsiderable pain that I have remarked the numerous attacks which have been made by the host of critics on the ingenious author of The Monk , for the supposed vicious tendency of that excellent romance. The author is universally allowed to be endowed with nature's best gift, genius, and in the work before us is generally acknowledged to discover throughout an imagination, rich, powerful, and fervid. This able writer is, however, attacked on a point which, I am sure, must make him feel little satisfaction in the applause which his genius commands. It is asserted by almost all the critics who have sat in judgment on this admirable performance, that its tendency is to deprave the heart, to vitiate the understanding, and to enlist the passions in the cause of vice. Differing as I do with these censors, as to this and other objections, I wish, through the medium of your impartial publication, to rescue his production from this undeserved obloquy. I have not the pleasure of Mr. Lewis's acquaintance, and I know not how this apology may be received on his part, but...
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SOURCE: Review of The Monk, in Monthly Review, Vol. 23, August, 1797, p. 451.
[In the following review, the critic describes the literary sources of The Monk, adding that obscenity "pervades and deforms the whole organization of this novel. "]
This novel has a double plot. The outline of the monk Ambrosio's story was suggested by that of the Santon Barsisa, in the Guardian: the form of temptation is borrowed from the Devil in Love of Cazotte; and the catastrophe is taken from the Sorcerer. The adventures of Raymond and Agnes are less obviously imitations; yet the forest-scene near Strasburgh brings to mind an incident in Smollet's Ferdinand Count Fathom: the bleeding Nun is described by the author as a popular tale of the Germans; and the convent-prison resembles the inflictions of Mrs. Radcliffe. This may be called plagiarism; yet it deserves some praise. The great art of writing consists in selecting what is most stimulant from the works of our predecessors, and in uniting the gathered beauties in a new whole, more interesting than the tributary models. This is the essential process of the imagination, and excellence is no otherwise attained. All invention is but new combination. To invent well is to combine the impressive.
Of the poetry, we have been best pleased with the Water-Ring, and with A lonzo the brave and the fair Imogene, the...
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SOURCE: "Matthew Gregory Lewis," in The Gothic Quest: A History of the Gothic Novel, 1938. Reprint, Russell and Russell, Inc., 1964, pp. 202-308.
[In the following excerpt, Summers details the composition, contemporary critical reception, plot, style, sources, translations, adaptations, and literary influence of The Monk. Only those footnotes pertaining to the excerpt below have been reprinted.]
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SOURCE: "The Monk" in Imagination Indulged: The Irrational in the Nineteenth-Century Novel, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1972, pp. 27-40.
[In the following essay, Gose undertakes a psychoanalytic survey of The Monk, noting its "unresolved tensions" of "sexual conflict, violated taboos, and self-destructive impulses."]
According to Freud we must look behind conscious daydreaming, as well as behind unconscious sleep dreaming, for keys to the unsatisfied primitive desires of the self.1 According to Jung, when investigatingsuch fantasy, we sometimes find ourselves in the presence of a vision that transcends the bounds of the immediate self and its limitations.2 If we admit the premise of either theory, we are likely to find ourselves approaching fiction as something other than literature. We may if we wish search a novel for keys to the author's psychological problems, or for certain archetypes, universal "superhuman" types, or character relations. But if we do we will have subordinated art to psychological theory. If, on the other hand, we expect a certain kind of novel to reflect distinguishing psychic traits of its author and are not surprised to discover in it mythic patterns, we shall find psychoanalysis a help in approaching fiction, as I shall try to demonstrate in this chapter.
In the last analysis, neither Freud's approach nor Jung's can, in...
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SOURCE: "The Monk: Matilda and the Rhetoric of Deceit," in The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 5, No. 2, May, 1975, pp. 136-46.
[In the following essay, Grudin assesses the "formal coherence " of The Monk, claiming that evidence for its structural unity exists in an interpretation of Matilda as a demonic being.]
I charge thee to return and change thy shape;
Thou art too ugly to attend upon me.
Go, and return an old Franciscan friar,
That holy shape becomes a devil best.
(Doctor Faustus, iii, 25-28)
Until recently Matthew Gregory Lewis' The Monk has hardly sustained the critical and popular interest it inspired when it first appeared in 1796 when Coleridge, one of the novel's earliest reviewers, found it so attractive and appalling.1 Subsequent changes in taste and literary decorum soon relegated the novel to relative obscurity. During most of the twentieth century those who have discussed it have barely outnumbered those who have actually read it, and the work has been confined to surveys of the Gothic novel and reading lists of Ph.D. candidates.
In the last few years, however, The Monk has enjoyed a revival among serious critics. John Berryman helped to stimulate this interest in his introduction to the novel, where he...
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SOURCE: "Ghostly Rhetoric: Ambivalence in M. G. Lewis' The Monk," in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 10, No. 2, April, 1979, pp. 65-79.
[In the following essay, Lydenberg investigates "Lewis's ambivalence toward his authorial responsibility" as moral judge in The Monk.]
The Gothic novel is rarely, if ever, celebrated for its stylistic or thematic subtlety, and Matthew Gregory Lewis' The Monk is usually considered one of the more exaggerated and crude examples of the genre. Such assessments, however, overlook a basic ambivalence shared by most Gothic novelists towards the supernatural and sexual extravagance associated with this mode of popular fiction.1 The consistency with which a Gothic novelist of such major influence as Ann Radcliffe collapses her supernatural and superstitious fictions with rational explanations suggests that ambivalence towards the excesses of Gothic terror may be characteristic of the genre itself.2
This ambivalence is particularly interesting in Lewis' work because his discomfort with the sexual and fantastical elaborations of his own novel reflects a deeper uncertainty about his role as a writer. Lewis' repeated ironic undercutting of the trappings of Gothic fiction, which he nevertheless persists in employing to maximum effect, reveals the same tentativeness which leads him to affect a flippancy...
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SOURCE: "On the Release from Monkish Fetters: Matthew Lewis Reconsidered," in Dutch Quarterly Review, Vol. 19, No. 4, 1989, pp. 264-80.
[In the following essay, Kauhl examines the motif of transgression, as both a psychological and a political fact in The Monk.]
In the Madrid of the Inquisition, "a city where superstition reigns with such despotic sway",1 a young man (Raymond) loves a girl (Agnes) who has been destined for a monastic life from her birth; they experience separation and loss, but in the end they obtain the consent of their families and get married. A second young man, the monk Ambrosio, is led to a radical break with the religious tradition in which he believed; guided by "philosophy" towards his self-realization (which involves the murder of his mother and the rape and murder of his sister Antonia) he finally faces death as his punishment. A third young man (Lorenzo) falls in love with a girl (Antonia), who is socially not his equal. He loses her (she is murdered by the monk), but in the end he finds some quiet happiness in a marriage which was favoured by his family all along. A story of transgressions thus ends with two deaths and two marriages.
Transgression and punishment—transgression followed by an eventual liberation: the tension between these two endings characterizes the historical moment in which the novel was written and published. The...
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B[aker], E. A. Introduction to The Monk: A Romance, by M. G. Lewis, edited by E. A. Baker, pp. vii-xvii. London: George Routledge & Sons, 1929.
Underscores the novel's historical significance as "the most notorious exemplar of the 'Gothic' school of romance."
Brooks, Philip. "Notes on Rare Books." The New York Times Book Review (27 January 1935): 21.
Recounts the publication history of The Monk for the benefit of rare book collectors.
Conger, Syndy M. "An Analysis of The Monk and Its German Sources." In Romantic Reassessment: Matthew G. Lewis, Charles Robert Maturin and the Germans, an Interpretive Study of the Influence of German Literature on Two Gothic Novels, edited by James Hogg, pp. 12-125. Salzburg Studies in English Literature, edited by Erwin A. Stürzl, no. 67. Salzburg: Universität Salzburg, 1977.
Explores the nature and extent of Lewis's reliance on German sources in writing The Monk.
Coykendall, Frederick. "Lewis's Monk." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 1734 (25 April 1935): 276.
Addendum to Peck's article on variations in later editions of The Monk.
Hume, Robert D. "Gothic Versus...
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