Matthew Gregory Lewis Analysis: The Monk - Essay

Analysis: The Monk

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

While The Monk is seldom read today, few students of English literature have not heard of this scandalous example of the gothic novel. While the modern devotee of popular gothic literature and film whose sensitivity has long since been dulled by graphic, technicolor horrors may find The Monk mild stuff indeed, the novel is not without excitement, and its relation to modern gothic cinema is closer than that of most other classic gothic novels, especially those of Ann Radcliffe. Radcliffe would not allow her imagination to break free from eighteenth century rationalism; the supernatural, in the end, had to be given a natural explanation. Matthew Gregory Lewis’s gothic vision looked toward nineteenth century Romanticism. He endowed certain characters with total confidence in tangible reality only to deflate their skepticism with head-on encounters with the supernatural that defy reason’s best efforts at explanation. Magic works in The Monk; the ghosts are real and interfere with human destiny; demons interact with humans, and Satan himself, as a deus ex machina, finally resolves the plot.

The plot of The Monk, like the plot of most classic gothic novels, is not easily summarized. Father Ambrosio, a renowned priest and orator of Madrid who symbolizes all that is chaste and holy, falls in love with Antonia, an innocent girl in his congregation. He is, at the same time, pursued by the bolder Matilda, who enters the order disguised as a novice to be near Ambrosio. She and Ambrosio become passionate lovers, and Matilda, seeing that Ambrosio still pines for the young Antonia, promises to grant her to him by the aid of magic. Ambrosio bungles the staged seduction, kills Antonia’s mother, Elvira, by mistake, and is forced to abduct Antonia to the dungeon of the monastery, where he drugs and rapes her. Seized with remorse and fear of exposure, he drives a knife in her heart when she returns to consciousness and begins to cry out. Imprisoned and faced with an inquisitional investigation, he yields to Matilda’s entreaties to sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for release from prison. He soon bitterly realizes that he faces far worse punishment at the Devil’s hands than he would have, had he faced the inquisitors, who were preparing to pardon him.

A subplot of the novel involves Agnes, a youthful nun who has given birth to the child of her lover, Raymond. She and the child are condemned to languish without food or water in the deepest part of the dungeon. In the final chapters of the book, she is discovered, half-dead, and restored to Raymond.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about Lewis the novelist is that he was also a successful playwright for the popular stage. Readers of The Monk do not have to concern themselves with questions of interpretation; they need not be bothered with understanding complex characters and subtle motivations. Lewis has made all the important decisions, principally that the supernatural is not only real but also a controlling force in human affairs, and with that decision, complex characterization becomes impossible and unnecessary. While Lewis denied his creation some of the elements that make a novel great, he added enough action to produce a good story.

Critics in Lewis’s time generally agreed that the disreputable member of Parliament who authored The Monk had indiscriminately heaped immoral action upon blasphemous action to create a plot utterly devoid of moral purpose. Such a charge is not entirely fair, for The Monk obviously teaches a number of moral lessons. Antonia demonstrates that innocence alone is no defense against evil. The adventures of Agnes could hardly be said to promote promiscuity, and the decline and fall of Ambrosio, the monk, provides the major theme: Pride is a vice that can pervert all virtues, even religious piety.

Nevertheless, those early critics were not altogether unfair in their severe judgment, for Lewis’s morality is only shallowly rooted in his plot. Antonia, a model of virtue, is forcibly raped and then stabbed to death by the panic-stricken monk. Agnes, in the heat of passion, gives herself to Raymond; her reward, after suffering the loss of her child and imprisonment in a subterranean crypt, is finally to be united in matrimony with her dashing and well-to-do lover. Ambrosio is proud of the spirituality and dedication to priestly celibacy that sets him above men bound to the flesh. A truly tragic Ambrosio would finally come to understand that his pride was misplaced, for, indeed, he is a man like his fellows. In fact, the events of the book viewed in the light of the revelations at the conclusion may even support Ambrosio’s original pride. The monk is enticed to damnation by the personal attention of the Devil himself, who is apparently unwilling to trust this prize to the temptations that are sufficient to damn normal men.

Until the final two or three pages of the novel, Ambrosio seems quite capable of damning himself with no outside help, and more than one sentence would be helpful in...

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