When it was first published, Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk was popular, sensationalistic, and quickly censored — many versions cut out the racier scenes. The Monk is notable because it was one of the first books to cast a religious character as a villain. It is additionally notable because everyone in it is completely insane.
The Monk opens at a church, where Antonia and her chaperon, Leonella, encounter two cavaliers: Don Lorenzo, who immediately takes an interest in Antonia, and Don Christoval, who sets about distracting her mother. They are all waiting to hear Ambrosio, the title character, who is renowned for his devotion, eloquence, and chastity. Antonia and Lorenzo become infatuated with each other, but Elvira, Antonia’s mother, notices and tries to discourage them because she thinks that Lorenzo’s uncle, who is rich and powerful, will disapprove.
Later, Ambrosio is alone in his cell when he is visited by Rosario, a young monk he feels an affinity for. Within minutes, Rosario reveals himself as Matilda, a young woman who cross-dressed to sneak into the monastery and be closer to Ambrosio, whom she loves.
She’s also evil. She doesn’t mention this for a while, but it can be conferred early on by the strategic presence of snakes and her habit of seducing religious figures.
This is a problem. Ambrosio is a monk — and not just any monk. He’s the Lady Gaga of the Spanish religious community, which, because this is the late 1790s, seems to be just about everyone. Matilda’s mere presence is scandalous, however, when she nearly kills herself in order to save him from snake venom, Ambrosio is overcome with lust for her and all his monky virtue goes flying out the window.
There is also Agnes — a young woman forced by her parents to become a nun despite her love for Don Raymond, who fails to orchestrate her rescue but visits her in secret in the nunnery, where he compromises her virtue to the scandal of the St. Clare abbesses but who winds up happily married anyway.
The novel winds through the tale of Ambrosio’s downfall; Antonia’s death; and Agnes’ love, imprisonment, and eventual marriage; and ends with Ambrosio rotting alive on the banks of a river.
Corruption, sexual repression, power, and religious satire are at the heart of The Monk, and Lewis uses each of them well. In the opening scene in the church, he details the numerous attendees — but warns that only a few are motivated by piety or learning.
“The women came to show themselves, the men to see the women: some were attracted by curiosity to hear an orator so celebrated; some came, because they had no better means of employing their time till the play began; some, from being assured that it would be impossible to find places in the church; and one half of Madrid was brought thither by expecting to meet the other half.”
A masculine-styled Gothic novel, The Monk is far from being light reading, but — after the first eighty pages or so, when Rosario is revealed as Matilda and the erotic corruption begins — is engaging and surprisingly funny. It also has the benefit of being a fairly accessible Gothic novel which is still removed from more mainstream classics such as Austen’s Northanger Abbey, so at the very least, you feel smarter for having read it.
Matthew Gregory Lewis
Modern Library, December 2009. 476 pages.