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 entire section is 946 words.)