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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 977

Cathinka, the virgin prioress who governs Cloister Seven, a nonreligious convent in northern Europe, and her little gray monkey play a sinister role to bring about the marriage of Boris, her favorite nephew and godson, and Athena Hopballehus, the freedom-loving daughter of a neighboring nobleman, Count Hopballehus. From the story’s title, the reader expects the monkey to be the central character, but the creature is absent during most of the story. The reader therefore has the ominous feeling that the monkey is up to some potent machinations behind the scenes, or is present in another guise. This constant presence of an unidentified evil lends to the eeriness of this gothic tale.

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One October when the monkey is away for a few weeks (as is its practice every autumn) to enjoy the freedom of the outdoors, Boris comes to his aunt, the prioress, in a desperate state. To avert the wrath of the authorities, he must get married in a hurry, for the voice of moral indignation has been raised against him: It is implied that Boris is homosexual. His resourceful and energetic aunt promptly sends him off to Count Hopballehus with a letter proposing the marriage of Boris and Athena. She allays Boris’s doubts as to Athena’s consent and, to his wonderment, adds that if Athena will not have him, she herself will.

The count, having that very day won an old lawsuit (a victory that makes him immensely rich), is delighted to share his jubilation with Boris, for he has been a great admirer of the latter’s mother. He also receives with philosophical joy the proposal for his daughter’s marriage to Boris, who is very handsome in his white uniform. Athena, eighteen, six feet tall, fair-skinned, and strong, makes Boris uneasy; he thinks of the ballad of the giant’s daughter who could break a man—a foreboding of things to come. His return at night through the forest is full of terror. A crashing branch, his shying horses, the wind and the shadows, and “glinting” eyes in the dark—all suggest the presence of strange powers.

The next morning, the count informs Boris in a letter, in words full of pathos and poetry, that Athena has rejected his suit; indeed, she says that she will never marry. Boris finds himself torn by the opposing wills of two determined women: a young “fanatic virgin” and an old woman who would not be crushed by a “vacuum.” Boris understands beyond a doubt that his aunt wants him to suffer, in order to make her own (unnamed) torture bearable.

Hearing the news of Athena’s refusal, the prioress suddenly goes to the window as though to throw herself out but returns ready with a plan; she invites Athena to supper, urging her to give her answer in person to Boris, the playmate of her childhood. Confident that Athena will respond to duty, the prioress delights in her strategy for his “happiness.” Athena must not leave the next day, she tells Boris, without being “ours.”

The prioress, decked in jewels and finery, presides over an elegant dinner and convivial conversation. The wine flows freely until the three diners are drunk. Athena, though conscious of danger, feels confident of walking out to freedom. Boris, who finds the theater more real than life, sees Athena and himself as tragic players. The prioress is drunk with a mysterious joy that “glints” in the dark.

After Athena leaves for her room, the prioress shows Boris a letter from the capital naming him as a corrupter of youth; there is now no salvation for him but a hasty marriage. She urges him to follow Athena and helps him with a mysterious potion. Even with that, however, he is not able to overpower Athena, who knocks out two of his teeth. He presses his mouth, full of blood, on her mouth, and they grapple with each other in a revolting scene, while Boris decadently imagines the beauty of Athena’s skeleton. Predictably, and true to her classic namesake, Athena wins, and Boris retreats defeated.

The next morning, however, the prioress informs the puzzled but still self-possessed Athena that, now that she has been seduced under the roof of the convent and will no doubt bear Boris’s bastard child, and furthermore, because the repentant Boris is ready to make amends, she must not leave without making two promises: to keep the night’s happenings secret from her father out of concern for his health and to marry Boris for the sake of honor.

Incredulous that she would be with child from the events of the previous night, Athena is nevertheless unsure of what happened, or whether she was drunk or clearheaded after the supper. The reader cannot resist an amused smile at Athena’s pastoral innocence. Concerned though she feels, Athena still resembles an invincible martyr who may not be possessed by her torturers. She makes not two but three promises, adding to the other two that as and when possible, she will surely kill Boris after the wedding.

Just as things come to this impasse, the monkey returns. The prioress, far from welcoming it, dashes about in fear. A wild struggle ensues between the two. Boris and Athena witness a strange metamorphosis: The monkey is transformed into the gentle prioress they have known in the past, and the prioress of recent events turns into the monkey.

Their shared experience brings Boris and Athena together and divides them from the rest of the world. Through unnatural means, inscrutable and incredible as well as uncanny, the two are bound to each other for life. The prioress declares serenely in Latin, “Discite justitiam, et non temnere divos”: “Learn justice, and [learn] not to spurn the divine ones.” What is divine to her, however, is demonic to the others, and to the reader.

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