In Matthew Lewis's The Monk, how are the female characters portrayed (i.e. passive, active, powerful, weak, corrupt, feminine, masculine, etc.)?

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thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.