(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Monk M. G. Lewis

The following entry presents criticism of Lewis's novel The Monk (1796).

Perhaps the most notorious English horror novel of the eighteenth century, M. G. Lewis's The Monk is considered one of the finest examples of Gothic fiction in the language. Sensationalistic and graphic in its depiction of violence and human sexuality, the novel created a scandal in England soon after its publication, and caused its author, then a member of the House of Commons, to be branded licentious and perverse. Extravagant and melodramatic in style, the work details the exploits of Ambrosio, a wayward monk whose excessive pride and vanity lead to murder, a pact with Satan, and his eternal damnation. The Monk is said to be composed from a variety of sources, many of them German, while its main plot comes from the story of Santon Barisa, which appeared in The Guardian in 1713. Lewis acknowledged his debts on many of these accounts, partially to divert possible charges of plagiarism, and included in his novel several pieces of original and translated verse, including the ballad "Alonzo the Brave and Fair Imogen." Although this and other poems are largely overlooked by modern scholars, The Monk is generally considered Lewis's masterpiece and one of the most fully realized visions of Gothic horror.

Plot and Major Characters

Ambrosio, the monk of the novel's title and a foundling of mysterious past and parentage, has risen to the position of abbot of the Capuchins, becoming a well-respected figure in medieval Madrid, revered by the populace. At the monastery a young novitiate named Rosario approaches Ambrosio and reveals that he is actually a woman named Matilda de Villanges, whose love for Ambrosio has led her to disguise herself in order to be nearer to him. The two consummate a sexual relationship, though Ambrosio later feels remorse and disgust for his actions. After his interlude with Matilda, while visiting the nearby convent of St. Clare, Ambrosio discovers that Agnes, a nun, desires to elope with her lover, Don Raymond de las Cisternas. The monk discloses this information to Mother St. Agatha, prioress of the convent, who punishes Agnes by imprisoning her in a dungeon beneath the convent. Later, Ambrosio travels to the house of the ailing Donna Elvira Dalfa and there falls in love with her young daughter, Antonia. With the aid of Matilda and her knowledge of black magic, the monk summons a demon so that he might violate the girl. Ambrosio returns to Donna Elvira's house, kills her, and abducts Antonia, now unconscious through the action of a magical potion. In the meantime, Agnes's brother, Lorenzo, accuses Mother St. Agatha of murdering his sister and wins a warrant for her arrest. An angry mob forms in response to the accusation, and the crowd razes the convent, murdering the prioress and many innocent nuns. Amid the chaos, Lorenzo enters the convent grounds in search of his sister. When he finds her she is close to death and clutches the decaying body of her dead child. Hearing the screams of a young girl nearby, Lorenzo discovers Antonia's ravished and stabbed body and observes her attacker, Ambrosio, as he flees; later he notifies the Inquisition of Ambrosio's crimes. Ordered to be burned at the stake, Ambrosio, at the urgings of Matilda, makes a pact with Satan, exchanging his soul for freedom. The devil appears and saves him from the flames of the Inquisition, only to reveal that in killing Donna Elvira and raping Antonia, he has murdered his own mother and committed incest with his sister. The story ends as the monk's forfeit soul is cast into hell.

Major Themes

Scholars observe that the thematic character of The Monk departs somewhat from that of the traditional Gothic novel. And while it favors the evocation of grotesque horror rather than the rendering of a sentimental theme of justice based upon divine Providence, Lewis's novel nevertheless presents a critique of human vice and explores the conflict between religion and human sexuality. This conflict is dramatized in the character of Ambrosio through the juxtaposition of the monk's pride and destructive sexual appetite with the innocent virtue of Antonia and the forthrightness of Lorenzo. Many commentators note, however, that the dullness of the novel's virtuous characters fails to match the depth and complexity of Ambrosio and Matilda, and instead locate evidence of the novel's primary theme in the psychological exploration of its fallen protagonist and his accomplice. Likewise, many have observed that Matilda's strong will and intelligence make her far more compelling than her counterpart Antonia, despite her manipulative behavior and demonic nature. Others have commented on Lewis's attempts to establish an unsettling parallel between the violence of the riotous mob in his novel and that of the French Revolution, or on his deft integration of legends and folk tales, such as those of the Bleeding Nun and the Wandering Jew, in order to illicit terror and add universal appeal to his story.

Critical Reception

First published in 1796, The Monk created a considerable stir and earned Lewis instant fame, even infamy, as its author—though none of his later works received the same notoriety as this, his first novel. Labeled obscene by a cast of critics, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge—who acknowledged that despite its immorality the novel was the "offspring of no common genius"—it was nevertheless extremely popular, and went through five editions before the end of the century. The controversy that the first edition sparked prompted Lewis to expurgate certain passages from these later printings, though scholars now agree that his changes were largely superficial. Coleridge's criticism of the work on one point was taken up by James Mathias, who emphasized the lewdness and irreligion of the work, especially of a scene in which Antonia reads an edited version of the Bible given to her by her mother. In 1800 the Marquis de Sade wrote that The Monk was a product of the revolutionary atmosphere of the late eighteenth century, while in the twentieth century critics have reevaluated the influence of the work on the writers of the Romantic movement.

Modern scholars have since observed that The Monk represents a successful synthesis of the techniques and materials used by Gothic horror writers, leading many to take a renewed interest in the work. Recent critics have applied the tools of psychological criticism to it, examining its sexual imagery and applying biographical information about Lewis's childhood development and psyche to understanding the novel.

"A Friend to Genius" (essay date 1797)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

"A Friend to Genius" (essay date 1797)

SOURCE: "An Apology for The Monk" in Monthly Mirror, Vol. 3, April, 1797, pp. 210-15.

[In the following essay, the anonymous critic maintains that The Monk expounds lessons of virtue, rather than of vice, as many reviewers have contended.]

It is with no inconsiderable pain that I have remarked the numerous attacks which have been made by the host of critics on the ingenious author of The Monk , for the supposed vicious tendency of that excellent romance. The author is universally allowed to be endowed with nature's best gift, genius, and in the work before us is generally acknowledged to discover throughout an imagination, rich, powerful, and fervid. This able writer is, however, attacked on a point which, I am sure, must make him feel little satisfaction in the applause which his genius commands. It is asserted by almost all the critics who have sat in judgment on this admirable performance, that its tendency is to deprave the heart, to vitiate the understanding, and to enlist the passions in the cause of vice. Differing as I do with these censors, as to this and other objections, I wish, through the medium of your impartial publication, to rescue his production from this undeserved obloquy. I have not the pleasure of Mr. Lewis's acquaintance, and I know not how this apology may be received on his part, but the defence of genius is the common cause of all men of the least pretensions to literature; and every person who can enjoy works of taste, has the right of rescuing them from unmerited attacks. I should, as little as the critics, wish to be the apologist of vice, or the defender of lasciviousness; but justice requires that error, and error of such magnitude, as it regards Mr. Lewis's character, should be detected and exposed.

The error of the principal objection to this romance, viz. that of its vicious tendency, appears to me entirely to arise from inaccuracy of observation of the author's work, of the human heart, and of the meaning of the word tendency. It is not a temporary effect, produced upon the imagination or the passions, by particular passages, which can fairly be cited as the tendency of the work; we must examine what are the probable general results from the whole, and not judge from these partial and fleeting effects.

In this view, I maintain, this beautiful romance is well calculated to support the cause of virtue, and to teach her lessons to man. I am not old enough to have my heart steeled against the effects of the strongest of the human passions, nor young enough to riot in lascivious description, or wanton in the regions of obscene imagery. I can feel as disgusted as the critics with such defects; but I entreat these grey bearded gentleman to consider again whether there are any such images in the work before us. The lessons of virtue which I see in the Monk, are striking and impressive. In the character of Ambrosio we see a man delineated of strong passions, which have been for a long period subdued by as strong resolution; of a natural disposition to virtue, but, like all other men, with some portion of vice, which has been fostered by the situation into which his fate had thrown him; he is haughty, vindictive, and austere. The greatest error of which he is guilty, is too great a confidence in his own virtue, too great a reliance on his own hatred of vice. We are taught by his conduct that this unbounded confidence, by blinding the mind as to the real consequences which result, lays the foundation for vice, and opens an easy road to great excesses. We have again a very forcible illustration in Ambrosio, a man of the strongest understanding and the highest powers of reason, of the danger of receding even in the least from the path of virtue, or giving way in the slightest degree to the insidious approaches of vice. C'est le premier pas qui coute, is a truth long established, and is well illustrated in the present instance. We see and feel strongly this danger, and the lesson is the more forcible, in proportion to the strength of understanding which is shown in the Monk. We learn that when once a man ventures into the pool of vice, that he plunges deeper and deeper till he is completely overwhelmed. These are striking and impressive lessons.

There are many other moral lessons which are inculcated by the work in the strongest manner; the tendency, therefore, i. e. the general effect likely to result, is favourable to the cause of virtue and morality. We are however told, that "the temptations of Ambrosio are described with a libidinous minuteness, which leaves the painful impression of great acquirements and splendid genius, employed to furnish poison for youth, and a provocative for the debauchee." [Critical Review, for February, 1797.] If this were the case, I must give up my author in part, though still the tendency of the whole would be good. But I deny the fact. I request that the character and circumstances of Ambrosio may be seriously considered. To a man of strong understanding, austerity of manners, and great self command, strong temptations must be offered. If the author had made the Monk sink under a slight temptation, he would have offended against the laws of probability, and shocked the reason of his readers. I ask if it be possible to describe such temptations as were calculated to seduce such a man, with greater delicacy and decorum than our author has done: and I will take for example the strongest instances—the conclusion of chapter 2. vol. I. p. 253 of vol. 2. and his attack on Antonia in p. 36 and 37 of vol. 3. The answer, I am persuaded, must be—No! Highly coloured as these passages are, I maintain that no heart but one already depraved, could rise from them, if the preceding part of the work had been perused, with the least impurity. The mind that could draw food for vicious appetites from this work, must have made no little progress in the paths of profligacy and debauchery; so strong are the entrenchments erected before the heart, by the general tendency of the work.

The previous part is calculated to prevent all the evil which may arise from warmth of description, by the interest we take in observing the gradual progress of vice in Ambrosio's bosom, and the hatred we of course must feel for this insiduous adversary. The work can be read only by three descriptions of persons; either those whose minds, by...

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Monthly Review (review date 1797)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of The Monk, in Monthly Review, Vol. 23, August, 1797, p. 451.

[In the following review, the critic describes the literary sources of The Monk, adding that obscenity "pervades and deforms the whole organization of this novel. "]

This novel has a double plot. The outline of the monk Ambrosio's story was suggested by that of the Santon Barsisa, in the Guardian: the form of temptation is borrowed from the Devil in Love of Cazotte; and the catastrophe is taken from the Sorcerer. The adventures of Raymond and Agnes are less obviously imitations; yet the forest-scene near Strasburgh brings to mind an incident in Smollet's...

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Montague Summers (essay date 1938)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Matthew Gregory Lewis," in The Gothic Quest: A History of the Gothic Novel, 1938. Reprint, Russell and Russell, Inc., 1964, pp. 202-308.

[In the following excerpt, Summers details the composition, contemporary critical reception, plot, style, sources, translations, adaptations, and literary influence of The Monk. Only those footnotes pertaining to the excerpt below have been reprinted.]

(The entire section is 14867 words.)

Elliot B. Gose, Jr. (essay date 1972)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Monk" in Imagination Indulged: The Irrational in the Nineteenth-Century Novel, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1972, pp. 27-40.

[In the following essay, Gose undertakes a psychoanalytic survey of The Monk, noting its "unresolved tensions" of "sexual conflict, violated taboos, and self-destructive impulses."]

According to Freud we must look behind conscious daydreaming, as well as behind unconscious sleep dreaming, for keys to the unsatisfied primitive desires of the self.1 According to Jung, when investigatingsuch fantasy, we sometimes find ourselves in the presence of a vision that transcends the bounds of the immediate self and...

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Peter Grudin (essay date 1975)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Monk: Matilda and the Rhetoric of Deceit," in The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 5, No. 2, May, 1975, pp. 136-46.

[In the following essay, Grudin assesses the "formal coherence " of The Monk, claiming that evidence for its structural unity exists in an interpretation of Matilda as a demonic being.]

I charge thee to return and change thy shape;
Thou art too ugly to attend upon me.
Go, and return an old Franciscan friar,
That holy shape becomes a devil best.

(Doctor Faustus, iii, 25-28)

Until recently Matthew Gregory Lewis'...

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Robin Lydenberg (essay date 1979)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ghostly Rhetoric: Ambivalence in M. G. Lewis' The Monk," in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 10, No. 2, April, 1979, pp. 65-79.

[In the following essay, Lydenberg investigates "Lewis's ambivalence toward his authorial responsibility" as moral judge in The Monk.]

The Gothic novel is rarely, if ever, celebrated for its stylistic or thematic subtlety, and Matthew Gregory Lewis' The Monk is usually considered one of the more exaggerated and crude examples of the genre. Such assessments, however, overlook a basic ambivalence shared by most Gothic novelists towards the supernatural and sexual extravagance associated with...

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Gudrun Kauhl (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "On the Release from Monkish Fetters: Matthew Lewis Reconsidered," in Dutch Quarterly Review, Vol. 19, No. 4, 1989, pp. 264-80.

[In the following essay, Kauhl examines the motif of transgression, as both a psychological and a political fact in The Monk.]

In the Madrid of the Inquisition, "a city where superstition reigns with such despotic sway",1 a young man (Raymond) loves a girl (Agnes) who has been destined for a monastic life from her birth; they experience separation and loss, but in the end they obtain the consent of their families and get married. A second young man, the monk Ambrosio, is led to a radical break with the religious tradition in...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

B[aker], E. A. Introduction to The Monk: A Romance, by M. G. Lewis, edited by E. A. Baker, pp. vii-xvii. London: George Routledge & Sons, 1929.

Underscores the novel's historical significance as "the most notorious exemplar of the 'Gothic' school of romance."

Brooks, Philip. "Notes on Rare Books." The New York Times Book Review (27 January 1935): 21.

Recounts the publication history of The Monk for the benefit of rare book collectors.

Conger, Syndy M. "An Analysis of The Monk and Its German Sources." In Romantic Reassessment: Matthew G....

(The entire section is 488 words.)