The Monk, which was instrumental in establishing the Gothic subgenre of English fiction, has many Gothic elements. The plot includes numerous features that became characteristic of Gothic fiction: secrets, deceptions, and twists and turns. The setting also is squarely within the Gothic realm: a foreign land (in this case Spain) featuring numerous dark, old, sinister buildings, many associated with religion, such as churches and convents. Many of the characters, who appear in elaborate outfits and seem to harbor mysterious secrets, also exemplify the genre. They often advance their less-than-noble goals through the dark arts as well as outright violence, as they aim to overpower or corrupt virtuous young women and other devout people. The monk character who is central in this novel was to become a standard feature in Gothic tales.
The monk Ambrosio’s origin forms one of the plot’s central mysteries. He was an abandoned infant, not only raised within the abbey but never having ventured outside it except for a weekly cathedral service. His holiness is much admired, we learn quite early—but the praise is so lavish that we suspect corruption lurks beneath this pious surface.
No one has ever appeared to claim him, or clear up the mystery which conceals his birth…In truth the singular austerity of his life gives some countenance to the report. He is now thirty years old, every hour of which period has been passed in study, total seclusion from the world, and mortification of the flesh. Till these last three weeks…He had never been on the outside of the Abbey walls: Even now He never quits them except on Thursdays, when He delivers a discourse in this Cathedral which all Madrid assembles to hear.
The church setting is actually called “gothic”: with its “gothic obscurity” under the faint moonlight, the church inspires the noble young Lorenzo to melancholic reflections.
Lorenzo found himself unable to quit the Spot…[His] melancholy of mind…accorded but too well with the religious gloom surrounding him…A soft and cooling air breathed along the solitary Aisles: The Moonbeams darting into the Church through painted windows tinged the fretted roofs and massy pillars with a thousand various tints of light and colours…
In his dreams, the virtuous, pure, and innocent Antonia is accosted by a proud, lustful monster, just as Lorenzo is about to marry her. This fiend’s power is so strong that, Lorenzo imagines, he even brings down the Church.
[A]n Unknown rushed between them. His form was gigantic; His complexion was swarthy, His eyes fierce and terrible; his Mouth breathed out volumes of fire; and on his forehead was written in legible characters—'Pride! Lust! Inhumanity!'
Antonia shrieked. The Monster clasped her in his arms, and springing with her upon the Altar, tortured her with his odious caresses. She endeavoured in vain to escape from his embrace. Lorenzo flew to her succour, but ere He had time to reach her, a loud burst of thunder was heard. Instantly the Cathedral seemed crumbling into pieces…