Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 946
To say that Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk was a succès de scandale when it was first published is an understatement. Edition followed edition, some with alterations, others with variations on the ending. A society for the prevention of vice encouraged England’s attorney general to suppress the novel’s publication. Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought the novel the “offspring of no common genius” and noted that the face of parents who saw the novel in the hands of a son or daughter would turn pale. A circulating library in Dublin kept the book, but underscored the passages that young ladies might find offensive. The novel shocked the scandalous Lord Byron and was high on the reading list of the Marquis de Sade. Despite all the initial attention, Lewis’s work became less popular in the twentieth century, but its place in literature is important.
The Monk is a variation of the gothic novel. Restrained by rationalism, the gothic novel as written by Ann Radcliffe had to have a natural explanation for its supernatural aspects. As written by Lewis, the gothic novel works under no such constraints. The book unfolds with one supernatural encounter after another. Interfering ghosts tamper with human destiny, and magic works as demons and men interact. The plot is resolved in a deus ex machina conclusion that involves Satan himself. Lewis, who was first and foremost a playwright, does not present complex characters and motivations in The Monk. Because the supernatural is a controlling force in human affairs as of the novel’s outset, complex characterization is impossible. Lewis denied his creation some of the elements that make a novel great, but he produced a good story, and the novel is not without moral purpose and lessons.
One such lesson is shown by Antonia’s fate, for her innocence is no defense against evil. Another lesson is contained in the major theme of the novel, that pride is a vice that can pervert all virtues, even religious piety. This theme is exemplified in the decline and fall of Father Ambrosio. Lewis passes moral judgments on characters who transgress. Agnes loses her virginity and suffers Purgatory on earth. The model of virtue, Antonia, is raped by a monk, who then stabs her to death in an attack of panic and conscience.
The most tragic of these characters is Ambrosio, the monk who dedicates his life to celibacy—something in which he takes pride and that he feels sets him above other men. It is this misplaced pride that makes Ambrosio a prize for the devil, who appears in person to entice the monk to damnation. Satan is unwilling to tempt such a prize with that which damns mere mortals. Ambrosio is directed by lust, rape, perfidy, and murder. This leaves the reader at a loss to understand why the monk is deserving of Satan’s attention as a man of high virtue. Satan reveals that Elivira and Antonia (the murdered mother and daughter) are Ambrosio’s mother and sister, that Satan throws Matilda in Ambrosio’s way (inciting lust), that Satan allows Ambrosio into Antonia’s chamber (inciting him to kill his sister), and that Satan warns Elvira in her dreams of Ambrosio’s designs on her daughter, which keeps Antonia awake (inciting him to rape his sister and thus adding the charge of incest). Satan’s manipulations make plausible the monk’s lapsed virtue.
The most intriguing of all the characters is Beatrice, the Bleeding Nun. Early in the novel, Agnes tells Raymond the story of the Bleeding Nun, a ghost that yearly haunts Agnes’s family’s castle. The family is opposed to Agnes’s marriage to Raymond, and the couple...
(This entire section contains 946 words.)
arrange for Agnes to masquerade as the Bleeding Nun to escape the castle to marry Raymond. When Raymond comes to fetch Agnes, he carries away the Bleeding Nun instead. In a Freudian view, the nun is a projection of Raymond’s guilt. A Jungian reading makes the spectral figure, like the Jungian anima, a being in conflict with a real woman—Agnes. Because she is unconsciously projected onto Agnes, she seems to emanate from her; Agnes paints her, even though she does not believe in her and ridicules anyone who does. The actual appearance of the ghost, thwarting the elopement, may be Lewis’s way of arguing against rationalism.
Of all the characters in this cast of one-dimensional figures, perhaps Agnes stands out as the most human. She loses her virginity (which destroys her aura of purity for eighteenth century audiences) to her true love, Raymond. That she hopes to marry him redeems her somewhat. Lewis realizes he cannot kill off both Antonia and Agnes, so he inflicts a series of terrible events on Agnes in a chamber of horrors before she is allowed to be happily reunited with Raymond.
The female figures in The Monk reveal striking archetypal aspects that cannot be dismissed as conventions. Matilda, the Madonna figure, represents the ultimate wish fantasy, that the beloved echo the inner ideal; the Bleeding Nun represents the ultimate dread fantasy, that the beloved turn out to be the worst possible feminine image, an animated corpse. The character of Ambrosio can be read as an attack on the Catholic practice of celibacy, as the monk cannot overcome his destructive wish fantasy, to make love to the Madonna.
Lewis’s The Monk relies on the psychological effects of horror and the supernatural, and it flouts the Radcliffean gothic conventions with rational explanations of the supernatural. Plot is privileged over character. This accounts for the assertion that Lewis’s true successors are such twenty-first century novelists as Peter Straub and Steven King.