In Matthew Lewis's The Monk, how are the female characters portrayed (i.e. passive, active, powerful, weak, corrupt, feminine, masculine, etc.)?
When Mathilda corrupts and seduces Ambrosio--who was already by all means already on a road to corruption, with his eroticism of the religious painting--she shows a sort of modern-age feminist mindset when it comes to sex. She says to him,
“unnatural were your vows of celibacy; man was not created for such a state: and were love a crime, God never would have made it so sweet, so irresistible...Indulge in those pleasures freely, without which life is a worthless gift” (227)
In this case, Mathilda is not so much a sexual object as she is a sexual being; she acts sexually and does so confidently. She takes control of her sexual desires and brings them out in Ambrosio, instead of the stereotypical reverse situation.
Agnes, however, is shown to some degree to be a victim. After an unplanned pregnancy of which she was ashamed, Agnes is brought to a monastery where she is abused. Kept prisoner, raped, and abused, she is never truly given the opportunity to choose her own fate. The cruel Mother St. Agatha, another woman in the novel, exercises her significant power of Agnes. Thus, St. Agatha is corrupt, yet powerful, and she chooses her own fate.
Antonia, another object of Ambrosio's lust, is also made generally powerless throughout the course of the novel. She is entirely innocent and naive when it comes to sexuality, and so her innocence is literally stolen from her by Ambrosio. From the beginning of the novel, she is marked as an image of lust in Lorenzo's lurid dream of a demon attacking Antonia with the word 'LUST' appearing repeatedly. Though she is one of the most psychologically realized characters, she is never allowed to escape her fate of being a mere object of lust.
There are many female figures who weave their way through the complex plot of Matthew Lewis's The Monk. The most important women in the plot fall into traditional typologies of women in the Gothic novel. First, there is a clear moral division among the women, with Antonia, Virginia, and Agnes being morally good and Matilda and Mother St. Agatha being evil.
Both Antonia and Agnes share in common a position of innocent young girls as victims. As is typical in the Gothic novel, they combine tenacity in virtue and stoical endurance, without a great deal of active strength or power. They are characterized by external beauty and purity of soul, but otherwise function to a great degree as objects propelling the active men in the novel through the plot. Virginia mainly functions as a nurse and helpmate, and eventually suitable wife.
The most powerful women in the book are the evil ones, Matilda and Mother St. Agatha. Matilda gains her power through her knowledge of sorcery, her pact with the Devil, and an intense, predatory sexual attractiveness portrayed as darker than the "love" the heroes feel for the innocent heroines. Mother St. Agatha, as the Mother Superior of a convent, actually held one of the few genuine positions of power open to a women, not based on heredity, physical attractiveness, or marriage but on her own intellectual and managerial ability. In some ways, her age and religious vocation makes her almost without gender, and she is portrayed as in many ways closer to a traditional male villain than to the more sexualized evil of Matilda.