Matthew Gregory Lewis

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Analysis: The Monk

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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...

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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 understanding why this particular monk is deserving of such special demoniac effort. Lust, perfidy, rape, and murder so much direct his actions that the reader is at a loss to understand how Ambrosio has ever been considered virtuous. Those last pages, however, cast the preceding four hundred pages in a quite different light. After revealing that Elvira and Antonia (the murdered mother and daughter) were, in fact, Ambrosio’s own mother and sister, the Devil goes on to brag, “It was I who threw Matilda in your way; it was I who gave you entrance to Antonia’s chamber; it was I who caused the dagger to be given you which pierced your sister’s bosom; and it was I who warned Elvira in dreams of your designs upon her daughter, and thus, by preventing your profiting by her sleep, compelled you to add rape as well as incest to the catalogue of your crimes.”

The prior existence of that virtue is suddenly given credibility by this surprise revelation of the total manipulation that was necessary for its destruction.

These concluding revelations come as such a surprise that some critics regard them as merely tacked on to the action of the novel. In particular, the revelation of Matilda’s true nature suggests that the conclusion was a kind of afterthought. Early in the novel, disguised as a young monk, she wins the friendship of Ambrosio. When she reveals her true sex, friendship turns to lustful love, and when Ambrosio’s lust cools, her love becomes utter dedication to satisfying his every desire, even his desire for Antonia. Matilda is, in some ways, the most interesting and complex character in the novel. In the conclusion, however, Lewis does his readers the dubious favor of unraveling her complexity by having the Devil finally announce that she is not a woman at all but a lesser demon in human form, whose every action has followed the Devil’s own blueprint for Ambrosio’s destruction. This is especially puzzling for the careful reader, who remembers that in earlier pages, Matilda professed love for Ambrosio while thinking him asleep, and that on more than one occasion, even the narrator presented her affection as sincere.

The Monk’s conclusion, then, both damages the credibility of the narrator and clouds whatever moral might be found in the fall of Ambrosio. More accurately, he does not fall; he is pushed. Those late eighteenth and early nineteenth century critics for whom morality was a measure of artistic accomplishment had some cause for their attack on The Monk. A more generous interpretation will allow that Lewis did not construct his plot or characters to illustrate morals; he only tried to salvage what morality he could from a plot that was allowed to go its own way in search of excitement and adventure.

While there was much in The Monk to surprise and shock readers of the day, the novel was, in many ways, highly conventional. For example, the death of Antonia was demanded by convention. Once “deflowered,” an unmarried female character was useless as a symbol of virtue. Although the woman was raped against her will, her very participation in an extramarital sex act destroyed her aura of purity for eighteenth century audiences. If the association of purity with that particular character was still needed to move the plot or motivate other characters, as Antonia’s purity is clearly still needed as a contrast to Ambrosio’s final sin, the selling of his soul, then something must be done to remove the taint of sex and reestablish the woman in her former symbolic role. She must pay for her unintentional sin through sacrifice, and Lewis’s audience expected the ultimate sacrifice: death. After her rape, Antonia, alive, is of no use to the novel; her marriage to her sweetheart, Lorenzo, a man of wealth and breeding, would be unthinkable. Dead, however, her purity is restored and can effectively serve as a foil to Ambrosio’s depravity. Antonia’s fate could not have been otherwise.

Romantic conventions also demanded a happy ending for the characters left alive. Lorenzo’s all too rapid recovery from the loss of his beloved Antonia and his speedy attachment to Virginia, a minor character introduced late in the plot as an obvious replacement, is perhaps Lewis’s most awkward attempt to satisfy convention.

Lewis’s handling of Agnes, the other major female character, is considerably more skillful. In a cast of one-dimensional characters, Agnes stands out, if only as a slightly more believable human being. She displays moral frailty without becoming a caricature of lust; she is possessed of a sense of humor and at least enough intelligence to remind the reader that the quality is generally lacking among the other characters. Agnes, like Antonia, loses her virginity. That she does so with her own true love, Raymond, whom she hopes to marry, helps only a little. Lewis recognized that it would be awkward indeed to kill off Agnes in addition to Antonia. He would then be forced to end his story with a miserable Raymond or to find some way to kill him as well. Either solution would detract from the utter misery of the monk, whose fate is seen as all the more wretched in contrast to the final happiness of the other characters. Another Virginia created in the last pages to help Raymond forget his lost love would be more than even a reader of romances could accept. Forced by his plot to allow Agnes to live, Lewis at least attempted to satisfy his audience’s predictable indignation at her indiscretion by bringing her as close to death as possible.

Before her happy reunion with Raymond, Agnes passes through a purgatory as horrible as any in literature. Thought dead by all but a very few, the pregnant Agnes is imprisoned by the evil prioress in a hidden dungeon under the convent’s crypt. There, alone, with barely enough bread and water to sustain her, she gives birth. The child soon dies, and the nearly insane Agnes is left to lavish a mother’s love on its putrefying corpse until her rescue by Lorenzo. Lewis was certainly aware that here he was walking a fine line between pity and disgust. If the audience reacts with repugnance, Agnes would acquire a new taint that would make her happy union with Raymond unacceptable. To avoid this, Lewis carefully chooses his words when Lorenzo comes upon the despairing Agnes. The dead baby is only a “bundle” with which Agnes refuses to part, and while the bundle’s contents is obvious, Lewis wisely—and uncharacteristically—renders the scene vague and withholds description. Several pages later, a fully recovered and quite sane Agnes is allowed to tell her own story, and she tells it with such sensitivity and self-understanding as to convince the audience that she has passed through the fire, learned from the experience, and is now a proper wife for Raymond.

The destinies of the individual characters—Antonia, Lorenzo, Agnes, the monk himself—show that Lewis was not naïve. He knew what his readers demanded to satisfy their moral expectations and sense of justice, and as far as was convenient, he was willing to comply, but if popular expectation conflicted with his own sense of what made a good story—adventure, graphic detail, action rather than characterization, and no rationalization of the fantastic—then he was committed to disappointing expectation.

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Lewis, Matthew Gregory (1775 - 1818)