Although invented by Horace Walpole (The Castle of Otranto) in 1764, the gothic novel flourished especially in the 1790’s, a period in England dominated by concerns over the French Revolution. The English response was conservative and reactionary, marked by fears of a loss of faith in the established authority of government, church, law, and family. Gothic novels of this period can be read as part of this general reaction.
Lewis claimed to have written his only novel in a period of ten weeks in 1794. Evidence from his correspondence suggests, however, that he spent at least two years compiling materials for the work. When it was published in 1796, Lewis was twenty years old and at the beginning of his short career as a dramatist. The novel itself at first was praised but subsequently was attacked for being indecent and blasphemous. Such attacks increased its notoriety and popularity, and four editions were issued between 1796 and 1798, the last being bowdlerized by Lewis in response to negative reviews. The work has appeared under various titles, including Ambrosio: Or, The Monk, Rosario: Or, The Monk, and Rosario: Or, The Female Monk.
Although seen by its critics as a dangerously subversive work, The Monk responds to the terrors of revolution by demonstrating that an absence of individual and institutional restraint leads to a chaos of uncontrollable desires and irrational behaviors threatening established order. In the novel, the results of unrestrained sexual desire in characters such as Ambrosio, Matilda, and even the Bleeding Nun include rape and murder. Likewise, after the mob turns its wrath on the innocent and guilty alike, sacking and looting the convent, many of its members are killed when the walls collapse on them. The Monk, despite its indulgence in eroticism and violence, serves as a warning about the dangers of uncontrolled passion.
Lewis thus develops the central theme of the gothic novel, the assertion of the irrational over the rational in a nightmare world of demoniac, obsessive behaviors. Like other gothic writers, Lewis sets his narrative in a remote time and place. He does so in part to lower the pressure to conform to the demands of realism in characterization and action, but more so because he can extrapolate contemporary anxieties about the irrational in human behavior and institutions into unfamiliar and supernatural settings. These anxieties can be intensified but safely handled because of the geographical and chronological distancing. In this manner, Lewis can flirt with dangerous ideas about corruption in religious and social institutions, superstition and authoritarianism in the family, and the chaos of desires in the human individual, and still achieve a narrative resolution by resuscitating both his characters and the social order through the institution of marriage and by restabilizing religious order through the Inquisition.