The Monk: A Romance consists of two intersecting plots along with about thirty interpolated minor stories. Both main stories are introduced simultaneously in the opening scene at the Capuchin Cathedral, where a crowd has gathered to hear Ambrosio preach. He is abbot of a prestigious monastery and reputed idol of Madrid. The narrative splits after the sermon into the story of Ambrosio’s temptation and the related adventures of two pairs of lovers—Lorenzo de Medina and Antonia Dalfa, and Raymond de las Cisternas and Agnes de Medina.
Lorenzo, who first meets Antonia during the sermon, lingers afterward and sees a cloaked figure deposit a letter under a statue. He discovers that this figure is his friend, Raymond. In a story that takes up a quarter of the novel, Raymond recounts how he fell in love with Agnes, Lorenzo’s sister, at Lindenberg Castle, and how her aunt, Rodolpha, became jealous and forced Raymond’s departure.
Up to this point, the novel is realistic in its social commentary and criticism. The narrative expands into the supernatural as Agnes plots to escape from Lindenberg by posing as the ghost of the Bleeding Nun. Her plan goes awry, and Raymond escapes with the ghost herself, while Agnes is sent to the Convent of St. Clare in Madrid. Eventually ridding himself of the ghost, Raymond sets out to find Agnes, who was the intended recipient of his letter. Ambrosio discovers this letter and the fact that Agnes is pregnant. He turns her over to the strict prioress of the convent.
Once sexual desire enters the narrative as a motivating force in the stories of Raymond and Ambrosio, Matthew Lewis’ novel becomes a full-blown gothic tale, with the interpolated stories and poems helping to blur the boundaries between reality and the supernatural. In the parallel plot, the proud Ambrosio is seduced by Matilda, a demon sent to tempt him. He soon turns his lustful attention to Antonia and, with Matilda’s supernatural assistance, attempts to rape her. He succeeds only in murdering Antonia’s mother, Elvira Dalfa. He and Matilda plot to drug Antonia and order her burial beneath the Convent of St. Clare, where Ambrosio can have his way with her.
Meanwhile, having heard that Agnes has been poisoned by the prioress, Lorenzo plots revenge. He arrests the prioress during a public religious procession, but an incensed mob, learning of her alleged crime, kills her and destroys the convent. Beneath the burning convent, Ambrosio rapes and murders Antonia before being captured by Lorenzo, who has discovered Agnes still alive and imprisoned in the vaults.
The two narratives, intersecting briefly in scenes taking place under the convent, are split again into different denouements. The good characters are rewarded through marriages—Agnes to Raymond, and Lorenzo to Virginia de Villa-Franca, a young noblewoman. Matilda and Ambrosio are brought before the Inquisition. Matilda tempts Ambrosio to sell his soul before she escapes from prison. He does so at the last minute but is dropped from a precipice by Satan, who tells him that in murdering Elvira and raping Antonia he has committed matricide and incest.
Church of the Capuchins
Church of the Capuchins. Elaborate religious complex in Spain’s capital city, Madrid, with multiple interconnected institutions. Typical of churches in gothic fiction, this one has a monastery with secret tunnels that lead to a nearby convent, which is itself built over top of a deep catacomb that serves as a burial ground and a prison. This novel made significant changes to the gothic novel genre. In the first place, most novels before this one were set in...
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either France or Italy; this one, however, made use of Spain and was thus able to tap into longstanding English hostility to Spain and to Roman Catholicism. For instance, Matthew Gregory Lewis chose a cathedral as the centerpiece setting of his novel and linked various other institutions to it: The villain, Ambrosio, is the abbot of a nearby monastery; his female counterpart, a tyrannical mother superior, dominates a linked convent. With the use of this setting, Lewis presents Spain as a country in which “superstition reigns with . . . despotic sway.” Everything about Spain, from the point of view of this novel, revolves around either repressed sexuality or religious hypocrisy.
Nowhere is this more true, according to Lewis, than in the main monastery. Ambrosio is represented as the archetype of repressed sexuality, and the setting is to blame. As Lewis puts it, Ambrosio’s naturally powerful character might have led him to virtue and greatness in society; however, the monks “[rooted] out his virtues, and . . . allowed every vice which had fallen to his share, to arrive at full perfection.” Thus the monastery serves in this novel to thwart natural feelings and channel them in unhealthy directions. Instead of being a place of devotion, it is a place of resentment and perversion. Predictably, the monastery is the setting for other vices—including various forms of repressed sexuality and black magic.
Convent of Saint Clare
Convent of Saint Clare. Place of living death and of barbarous incarceration for the female characters of the novel. The novel explores female and male religious devotion, and the convent serves as a counterpart setting to Church of the Capuchins. Like the latter, the convent is represented as a place in which the emotions and human drives are sublimated not into religious devotion but into cruelty and vice. The female characters suffer intensely under the tyranny of various religious figures, none so barbaric as the sister who is in charge of the convent. The suffering they undergo is extreme, as, for instance, one character is bound to the corpse of her stillborn infant and locked into an underground chamber. Although scenes like this one earned Lewis a considerable amount of critical condemnation, they were highly believable to many English readers and were copied by later gothic writers.
Monastery garden. Place of natural beauty and hidden temptation. As in other gothic novels, Lewis’s work introduces a garden that replays and transforms the biblical story of Eden. In this novel Adam is represented by the titular character, Ambrosio, whose life in the monastery has not prepared him to resist temptation; representing Eve is a young woman who has disguised herself as a monk in order to be close to Ambrosio, whom she claims to love. As is typical of gothic settings, however, the tempter is never far away. In this case, the young woman is in reality a demon who has taken on human form in order to lead Ambrosio into damnation.
Andriano, Joseph. “The Feminine in The Monk.” In Our Ladies of Darkness: Feminine Daemonology in Male Gothic Fiction. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993. Provides a Jungian reading of the novel, demonstrating a movement from the sublime (the Madonna in the form of the demoniac Matilda) to the supernatural (the Bleeding Nun).
Conger, Syndy M. “Sensibility Restored: Radcliffe’s Answer to Lewis’s The Monk.” In Gothic Fictions: Prohibition/Transgression, edited by Kenneth W. Graham. New York: AMS Press, 1989. Notes that The Monk stands apart from the norm of the horror fiction of its time because it makes explicit what writers like Radcliffe implied, shocking the sensibilities of both writers and readers.
Kendrick, Walter. The Thrill of Fear: 250 Years of Scary Entertainment. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991. Discusses the value of The Monk in its own time as a success and scandal. Emphasizes the novel’s influence on Nathanial Hawthorne, Mary Shelley, E. T. A. Hoffman, and other writers through the late twentieth century.
Lyndenberg, Robin. “Ghostly Rhetoric: Ambivalence in M. G. Lewis’ The Monk.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 10, no. 2 (1979): 65-79. Asserts that the use of Beatrice, the Bleeding Nun, suggests that the Bleeding Nun’s ghost is a mere stock device and a composite of clichés.
Watkins, Daniel P. “Social Hierarchy in Matthew Lewis’s The Monk.” Studies in the Novel 18, no. 2 (Summer, 1986): 115-124. Discusses the social hierarchy that evolves in the novel, using the monastery and the Inquisition as the norm invaded by the supernatural.