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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1186

Whenever Father Ambrosio speaks in the church, all Madrid goes to hear him. He is the most learned, the most virtuous, and the most admired monk in the city. Such is his purity that he will tolerate no sin in others, and he berates the worshipers viciously. In the audience one day is a young woman named Antonia, who comes to Madrid with her mother to seek the financial aid of their relative, the Marquis Raymond de las Cisternas. At the church, Antonia meets Lorenzo de Medina, a wealthy young nobleman who, charmed by her sweetness, promises to petition Raymond in her behalf. Before he leaves the church, Lorenzo sees Raymond and learns that he is the man who supposedly spurned Lorenzo’s sister Agnes and caused the heartbroken girl to enter the convent of St. Clare. Lorenzo challenges his former friend, but Raymond begs him to hear the story and then make his judgment.

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The marquis does not know the fate at that moment befalling Agnes. Father Ambrosio intercepted a note written to Agnes by Raymond, acknowledging that the child she will soon bear is his and laying plans for her escape from the convent. Ambrosio summons Mother St. Agatha, the prioress, and Agnes is carried away to torture and probable death. The young girl begs Ambrosio for mercy, but he is cold to her pleas. Then she curses him, calling on him to remember her when he himself yields to temptation.

Ambrosio is to remember Agnes’s words when he yields to the passions of Matilda, an evil woman who disguises herself as a novice at the monastery and who is known to the monks as Rosario. Ambrosio struggles with his conscience, but his lust overcomes him and he surrenders completely to Matilda. He cannot let the monks learn that a woman is in the monastery, however, for then he will be exiled and reviled by all who now honor him.

After hearing Raymond’s story, Lorenzo forgives his friend for his supposed betrayal of Agnes. Agnes entered the convent of St. Clare in sorrow after she was persuaded by unscrupulous relatives that Raymond deserted her. Raymond found her there and by bribing the gatekeeper managed to see her each night. When she found that she was to have his child, she sent a note to him; it was his note, in reply, planning the escape and their subsequent marriage, that Ambrosio intercepted. Neither Raymond nor Lorenzo is aware of the fate that befell her, and they plan to rescue her together.

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Before the proposed rescue, Lorenzo pays court to Antonia. Her mother, Elvira, fears, however, that his family will not permit his union with a girl without noble family or fortune, and she begs him not to call again until he secures his family’s permission to marry Antonia. He is unable to consult his family until after his sister’s rescue. When Agnes does not appear at the appointed time, Lorenzo goes to the convent and demands to see her. For several days, Mother St. Agatha tells him that Agnes is too ill to receive him. When he insists, the prioress tells him the girl died while delivering a stillborn child. Wild with anger, Lorenzo and Raymond swear vengeance on the prioress. Raymond refuses to believe that his beloved is really dead.

In the meantime, Ambrosio, satiated by his lust, learns to his horror that Matilda works magic and consorts with the devil. Although his desire for Matilda is gone, his passion for women is still great, and he turns his attention toward Antonia, who comes to beg him to go to her sick mother. The innocent girl does not suspect his intentions, but her mother does. Elvira comes upon them once when the monk is attempting to rape Antonia, but the girl is so innocent that she does not understand the monk’s actions. Matilda comes to his aid and casts a spell so that he can rape Antonia as she sleeps. The plan would have succeeded if Elvira had not come into the room. When Elvira tries to call out for help, Ambrosio strangles her to death.

Raymond becomes ill after learning of Agnes’s fate. Lorenzo learns from another nun that Mother St. Agatha murdered Agnes; he then lays plans to have the prioress seized. Ambrosio, meanwhile, does not give up his plan to possess Antonia. With the aid of a magic potion mixed by Matilda, he takes the girl to a dungeon in the monastery and rapes her there. Immediately afterward, he is penitent and begs her forgiveness, but she will not hear his pleas and tries to escape from him. Fearing the consequences if she does escape, he plunges a dagger into her heart. She lives only long enough to die in the arms of Lorenzo, who suddenly appears.

Lorenzo obtains from the cardinal an order to arrest Mother St. Agatha and to have her tried for the murder of Agnes. News of the arrest turns the fury of the mob against the prioress, and she and several of the other nuns are killed by the crowd. While the mob storms the convent, Lorenzo is led by screams for help into the cellar of the convent. There in the darkness he finds a pitiful figure clutching a baby. The woman’s ravings are almost insensible, and she is almost dead of starvation. Lorenzo sends her to the home of Virginia de Villa Franca, a beautiful heir. Searching the rest of the crypt, he comes upon the dying Antonia.

Ambrosio and Matilda are arrested by the Inquisition. Lorenzo and Raymond learn that the pitiful woman they saved from death is Agnes, who was imprisoned and starved by the prioress. Raymond’s love and the kind ministering of Virginia restore her to health, and she and Raymond are married. For a long time, Lorenzo lies ill of grief for his lost Antonia, but at last, Virginia’s kindness heals his spirit, and they, too, are married.

The Inquisitors torture Matilda and Ambrosio to make them confess their crimes and their sorcery. Matilda confesses and is condemned to death by fire. Ambrosio refuses to confess and is to be tortured again the following day. That night, Matilda comes to his cell a free woman. The devil releases her, and she begs the monk to give his soul to Lucifer and thus escape death. The monk wrestles with his conscience, but his fear of the torture overcomes his fears of hell and he sells his soul to the devil.

His freedom is short-lived. Lucifer takes him through the sky to a high precipice. There he taunts him with the knowledge that he would have been released by the Inquisition had he been true to his faith. The monk also hears that, through the accident of a mixed-up family relationship, Antonia is his own sister and Elvira his mother. Lucifer, who promised the monk only release from prison in exchange for his soul—not freedom—holds the monk high in the heavens; then he dashes him to death on the rocks below.

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