Volume 1, Chapter 1 Summary

Leonella and her niece, Antonia, have joined a crowd at the Capuchin church to hear the sermon of the celebrated priest. Leonella tells her niece's story to two young men, Don Lorenzo and Don Christoval.

Antonia is the child of the son of the marquis de las Cisternas, who was unhappy with his son’s marriage. The couple had left for the Indies, leaving their young son behind to be cared for by his unwilling grandfather, who later reports the child has died. Leonella has come to Spain to convince the marquis’ son, Raymond de las Cisternas, to resume their pension, which has been cut off.

As the story is told, Lorenzo finds himself falling in love with Antonia. In due time, the priest comes forth to deliver the sermon. His history is unknown, since he was left at the abbey’s doorstep as a foundling. Who his family is has never been discovered. Antonia is at once intrigued and fascinated with the priest.

Lorenzo vows to win the hand of Antonia, but must visit his sister, who is a nun at the nearby abbey. Having fallen asleep in the church, he awakens to find someone delivering a letter at the foot of the statue of St. Francis. He discovers that the letter is for his sister from Raymond de las Cisternas.

On the way home, Leonella and Antonia stop to have their fortunes read by a gypsy. The gypsy warns Antonia that she will soon depart from this earth, driven by the lust and evil of someone who appears to be honorable.

Volume 1, Chapter 2 Summary

Ambrosio, the eloquent priest, has the reputation of severity, which is revealed when Agnes (Lorenzo’s sister) comes with the other nuns to confession. She drops a letter, picked up by Ambrosio, which reveals her plans to run away with Raymond de las Cisternas. When Agnes confesses that she is pregnant with Raymond’s child, Ambrosio turns her over to the prioress of her abbey for punishment. Before she is led away, she curses Ambrosio.

A young novice, Rosario, is a constant companion to Ambrosio. Unexpectedly, Rosario admits that he is not a monk, but a woman (Matilda). She took the disguise so that she could be near Ambrosio. Ambrosio knows he must throw Rosario out of the monastery. She begs him not to, and vows to kill herself if he does. He relents unwillingly, but the next day he convinces her to leave of her own accord. Matilda asks Ambrosio to give her a rose to remember him by. As he picks the rose, he is bitten by a serpent and is rushed to his room where he battles death. It is predicated that he will die within three days. Rosario is deputed to be his nurse, and the next day it is discovered that Ambrosio is cured. It is proclaimed a miracle, but it is eventually revealed that Rosario sucked the poison from Ambrosio’s wound and is now dying herself. At the point of death, Rosario (Matilda) begs Ambrosio to make love to her, and he succumbs to the temptation at last.

Volume 1, Chapter 3 Summary

Lorenzo confronts Raymond concerning his relationship with his sister Agnes and his being identified as Alphonse d’Alvarada, who tried to elope with Agnes. Raymond tells his story.

Raymond desires to spend some time traveling. His father agrees supplying him with money, but on the condition that he conceal his rank. Raymond takes the name Alphonse d’Alvarada and sets out to Germany. On the way, his chaise is incapacitated. His servant finds him some lodging at a nearby cottage. Raymond is welcomed by Baptiste, the owner, but his wife is anything but congenial. Another party, a baroness and her retinue (whom Raymond had noticed earlier before he left the place where he had been staying), also stop for the night. Receiving a sign of bloody sheets on his bed from Marguerite, Baptiste’s wife, Alphonse realizes that something is amiss. Raymond discovers that he has fallen into a group of murderers, who waylay travelers to kill and rob them. He avoids being drugged and manages to escape with the others, along with Marguerite, who kills Baptiste. They make it to Strasbourg, where Marguerite shares her story of illicit love with a bandit, by whom she has two children, and being forced into marriage with Baptiste. She returns to the home of her father, and Raymond continues his travels, taking along Marguerite’s son, Theodore, as a servant.

Volume 2, Chapter 1 Summary

Raymond tarries at the home of the baroness and her husband when he meets her niece Agnes. The two fall in love, and Raymond goes to the baroness to ask for her blessing. Instead, the baroness speaks of her own love for Raymond. When he refuses her advances since his heart belongs to another, she vows vengeance on the woman he loves. She discovers that it is her own niece, Agnes, and intends to send her to the convent to which she had been pledged immediately.

Raymond and Agnes make plans to elope. Agnes tells him of the bleeding nun, a ghost who haunts the castle. Agnes plans to dress as the bleeding nun when she escapes with Raymond. On the night of the elopement, Agnes dressed as a nun meets Raymond, and the two drive away. The carriage crashes, and when Raymond awakens, he finds the nun Agnes is gone with no sign of her. He is seriously injured and requires several months to heal. He learns that it was not Agnes but the ghost of the bleeding nun herself who was with him.

With the help of an exorcist, Raymond learns that the bleeding nun is a distant ancestor, and he is responsible for burying her bones and so release her from her hauntings.

Raymond afterward is waylaid by assassins sent by the baroness. He finds Agnes in the convent and takes the disguise of the convent gardener. There he overcomes Agnes, earning her rejection. However, when she discovers that she is pregnant, she begs him to come to rescue her.

Volume 2, Chapter 2 Summary

When Raymond finishes his story, Lorenzo agrees to help him elope with Agnes. He then goes to visit Elvira (Raymond’s half-sister and the mother of Antonia) to ask for permission to court Antonia. However, Elvira is very fearful of her daughter facing the prospect of being rejected by Lorenzo’s family, just as she herself was rejected by the Cisternas. Despite Lorenzo’s pleadings, Elvira suggests to both Raymond and to Antonia that they resist their love. Lorenzo promises that he will get his family’s blessing so that will calm Elvira’s fears.

In the meantime, Lorenzo tries to visit his sister Agnes in the convent, but is told that she is too ill to see him. He has sent to Rome to receive a papal bull releasing Agnes from her vows so that she may honorably marry Raymond without fear of retribution. When the prioress of the abbey is presented with the papal bull, she tells Lorenzo that his sister died several days before. Lorenzo does not believe it, but knows that is simply the prioress’s way to relieve the shame that having a pregnant nun would have on the abbey. However, after two months, there is no other word concerning Agnes. In the meantime, he has secured his family’s blessing on his hoped-for marriage with Antonia.

Volume 2, Chapter 3 Summary

Ambrosio and Matilda spend the night making love, Ambrosio no longer feeling the guilt of sin. Matilda speaks of a plan by which she can be healed from her poisoning. The next night in the cemetery, she performs some ritual of which Ambrosio can only see flashes of light and quaking of the ground. When Matilda returns, she is free of the poison, and free to be Ambrosio’s secret lover. (On a side note, while waiting for Matilda, Ambrosio overhears the prioress and another nun speaking of their plans concerning the punishment of Agnes). Yet as the week progresses, Ambrosio grows tired of her, using her only as an object to satiate his lust. His eye begins to wander, noticing the attractiveness of other ladies in his parish.

Ambrosio is approached by Antonia, who asks him to provide a confessor for Elvira, her dying mother. Ambrosio is immediately attracted to Antonia, and goes himself. He prays for Elvira, who begins to improve. Ambrosio agrees to come to visit them often, for the simple purpose of being with Antonia and hopefully seducing her.

Elvira confesses that she sees something familiar in Ambrosio, but she cannot pinpoint what it is. She and Antonia review the stories of the priest’s appearing at the monastery’s door as an infant, as if dropped from heaven.

Volume 2, Chapter 4 Summary

Ambrosio continues his visits to Antonia. He asks if there is not a man whom she has ever loved. She confesses that she has loved him since she first heard him speak. Misinterpreting her, he embraces her with passion. She resists him, insisting that she did not love him in that way, yet the priest continues to ravish her until her mother enters. Ambrosio pretends that nothing was happening, but Elvira had already suspected his designs on her daughter and tells him that his services are no longer needed. Rejected, Ambrosio returns to the monastery.

Matilda comes to his room and tells him she can help him to gain Antonia’s charms, even though she realizes she herself no longer holds his interest. He is interested in her help until she tells him that she can arrange for him to have Antonia for his own in the same way in which she was healed of the poison—witchcraft. Ambrosio is horrified and rejects her suggestion. However, when she shows him a magic mirror that reveals to him Antonia bathing, he agrees.

Matilda and Ambrosio return to the cemetery, where Matilda calls up the fallen angel, Lucifer, and receives his help. The devil’s help is in the form of a magic myrtle, which will allow Ambrosio to open any door, as well as satisfy his lust on Antonia without her knowing who is her ravisher. Ambrosio agrees, his lust is so strong. He has sold himself to the devil, and waits eagerly for midnight, at which time Antonia’s virtue will be his for the taking.

Volume 3, Chapter 1 Summary

Raymond is prostrate with grief over the death of his sister Agnes, so Theodore plots to disguise himself as a beggar and go to the convent to find out what has become of her. He is taken into the convent, where he hopes somehow that Agnes will somehow hear his voice and recognize him, sending some word of her state. He is disappointed when no word comes. However, as he leaves, an elderly nun, Mother St. Ursula, hands him a basket with gifts.

Theodore takes the basket back to Raymond, where they find a note hidden in the linen cover, stating that they should have the cardinal arrest both Mother St. Ursula and the prioress, so that Agnes’s murder can be requited.

Ambrosio instigates out his plot to rape Antonia. With the magic myrtle he enters her chamber and finds her asleep. He performs the magic rite that will prevent her resistance. He is on the point of raping her when Elvira enters the room and confronts him, promising that she will make his true nature public. Ambrosio has not other recourse but to murder Elvira, without carrying out his true purpose of ravishing Antonia. He returns to the abbey, unsatisfied in his lust and horrified that he has now become a murderer.

Volume 3, Chapter 2 Summary

Antonia is grief-stricken at the death of her mother. She is alone, with her aunt Leonella married and distant, Raymond ill and ignorant of her plight, and Lorenzo off to procure from the Inquisition an arrest order in the death of his sister. One night she wanders into Elvira’s room and sees what she takes to be her mother’s ghost. The ghost warns her that it will return in three nights and Antonia will die. Terrified, Antonia faints and is found by her landlady, Jacintha, who goes to Ambrosio, requesting him to exorcise her home.

Under Matilda’s advice, Ambrosio prepares a concoction that will induce a condition appearing to be death for Antonia. While he is attending Antonia, he slips the potion into her medicine and waits.

While he is waiting, he sees what he fears is, in actuality, the ghost of Elvira retreat across the room. He pursues it and discovers it is merely Flora, Antonia’s maid, who is spying on him on the advice of Elvira before she died. As they are speaking, Jacintha cries out that Antonia is dying, as it indeed appears.

With her "dying" breath, Antonia confesses how much she admired Ambrosio and desired his friendship, against her mother’s wishes. She leaves everything to her aunt Leonella, and releases her half-uncle Cisternas from all obligations to her, though she waited for him to come rescue her from her dire straits. Thus she appears to die.

Volume 3, Chapter 3 Summary

Lorenzo arrives back in Madrid with a representative of the Inquisition. During the procession honoring St. Clare, the prioress is arrested. Mother St. Ursula publicly relates the account of Agnes’s trial by the sisters. The majority voted for the most extreme punishment, which would entail Agnes being thrown in a dungeon and left for dead. However, at Mother St. Ursula’s instigation, the punishment is mitigated to death by poison. Agnes is then forced to drink the potion, which causes her to expire.

At Mother St. Ursula’s revelation that the prioress is a murderer, the crowd turns to rioting. Despite the Inquisitor’s pleas, she is attacked and killed by the crowd. Then they turn on the other nuns, vowing that all of them must be destroyed and the convent torn down.

In the confusion, Lorenzo finds a group of nuns and a young woman named Virginia hiding in the cemetery vault near the statue of St. Clare. Groans coming from the statue arouse Lorenzo’s suspicions. He manages to move the statue to find a passage leading down into a dungeon, where he finds Agnes, alive and holding the body of her baby. Lorenzo removes Agnes from the dungeon and with Virginia’s help, takes the group of nuns to safety.

Volume 3, Chapter 4 Summary

Ambrosio is by Antonia’s side when she awakens from her drugged sleep in the crypt. He forces himself on her and rapes her. Afterwards, he is as disgusted with Antonia as he was with Matilda, who comes to warn him about the riot. In the confusion, Ambrosio kills Antonia in her attempt to escape.

Virginia visits Lorenzo as he is recovering from his grief, and the two become closer. Lorenzo convinces Agnes to tell of her experiences at the hands of the prioress. She tells of having awakened to the horrors of the tomb. With the putrid conditions of her surroundings and the pangs of hunger not expected to be assuaged, she many times contemplates suicide, but the thought of her unborn child prevents her. At length she is visited by the prioress, who admits that she purposely gave her an opiate rather than poison, so that she could carry out the punishment that she sees as fitting for Agnes’s sin. She will be imprisoned in the dungeon, with enough food to ensure her survival, nothing more. In the dungeon, Agnes gives premature birth to her baby, which soon dies. At length, no food is brought, and Agnes resigns herself to die, when she is rescued by Lorenzo.

Agnes and Raymond are married, and the couple leaves Madrid for Raymond’s castle, accompanied by Lorenzo and Virginia, who are also eventually married.

Volume 3, Chapter 5 Summary

Ambrosio and Matilda are brought before the Inquisition. Both proclaim their innocence, which means they must submit to the tortures. Matilda then confesses her guilt and is condemned to be burned at the Auto de Fe.

Ambrosio insists upon his innocence and is tortured. When returned to his cell to regain his strength for a second "questioning", he is visited by a vision of Matilda, who tries to convince him to completely yield his soul to Satan as she has. She leaves him the volume by which the rite is performed.

Ambrosio faces the Inquisition again. He again proclaims his innocence, but when faced with the instruments of torture once again, he admits to his sins of rape, murder, and sorcery. He too is condemned to burn. In despair, he calls up the image of Lucifer. Ambrosio requests Lucifer to save his life, who tells him it will be at the cost of his soul. Yet still Ambrosio resists, hoping eventually for God’s pardon. Lucifer informs him that there is none, and Ambrosio, after much resistance, signs the contract. He is rescued from the cell by Lucifer and brought to a wilderness.

Lucifer informs him that Elvira was his mother, making Antonia his sister, adding to his crimes the sin of incest. Lucifer reveals that it has long been his plan to gain Ambrosio’s soul, and Matilda was his servant in the process. Lucifer then carries Ambrosio up and drops him on the rocks below. Ambrosio suffers for six days, dying alone and damned for eternity.