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.
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...
(The entire section is 977 words.)