(Oxford World Classics e-book 2010, originally published 1794)
This eighteenth century “Gothic” novel brought its 19-year old author fame and notoriety. In places, it’s almost a pastiche of the genre, and with many moments of comedy amongst the supernatural and infernal happenings. It is set sometime in the fifteenth century, with the main action of the novel taking place in Madrid. Apologies in advance for the spoilers, but I found I couldn’t write about the novel without discussing things that happen at the climax.
The first chapter introduces us to the main protagonists. Leonella and her niece Antonia, Don Lorenzo and his friend Don Christoval, amongst many others, have come to hear the preaching of the renowned and pious Capuchin friar, Ambrosio (the ‘monk’ of the title). All the visitors are favourably struck by the friar’s eloquence and doctrine, except Leonella, who thinks him too stern. Although she’s presented as a rather ludicrous and comedic figure (convincing herself, for example, that young Don Christoval has fallen in love with her), we discover that she’s more percipient than her companions, since shortly we discover evidence for Ambrosio’s rather hard and merciless character. The nuns of St Clare’s convent come to Ambrosio’s monastery for confession from the famous monk: one of the nuns, Agnes, picks up a letter left for her in the church. Unfortunately she drops the letter and Ambrosio finds and reads it: it reveals that Agnes (who is sister to Don Lorenzo) has been carrying out a clandestine correspondence with her lover, Raymond, by whom she is pregnant. She pleads with Ambrosio for mercy and to keep her secret, but he betrays her to the stern and proud prioress, who is outraged by Agnes’ conduct and determines to punish the younger woman.
Ambrosio, once returned to the monastery. is visited by his friend, the novice Rosario, who later reveals himself to be a beautiful young woman, Matilda, who has come to the monastery for love of Ambrosio. While at first shocked by this revelation, Ambrosio is persuaded not to reveal Matilda’s deception, and a few days later, after Matilda saves his life from snake poison at risk of her own, he declares his love for her. She performs a spell to rid herself of the poison, and they become lovers.
Meanwhile, the narrative shifts focus to that of the romance between Raymond and Agnes, told by him to her brother, and the adventures, jealousy and ghostly happenings which contrived to part them. These are set largely in France, and the lovers falls foul of Agnes’ aunt, who imagines Raymond has fallen in love with her. The story of the Bleeding Nun is woven in with that of the Wandering Jew in his tale, but Raymond has come to Madrid in the hope of getting Agnes released from her vows, and then to marry her.
However, the pleasures of sex with a very willing woman soon pall on Ambrosio, and in turn he fixes his desires on the pure Antonia, herself in love with Don Lorenzo. Matilda, somewhat surprisingly (to the reader, at least, if not to Ambrosio) takes this in good part, and supplies plans and sorcery to enable Ambrosio achieve his aim. Needless to say these involve witchcraft, murder (of Antonia’s mother, Donna Elvira, who is suspicious of the friar) and rape.
Agnes’ story has a happier ending than Antonia’s, rescued by her brother from a terrible dungeon beneath the convent, and eventual reunion with Raymond. Ambrosio, however, is condemned by the Inquisition and dies horribly.
It’s an interesting example of the Gothic Novel, with moments of comedy, black or otherwise. The ending feels rather pat and rushed, after the drawn-out telling of the rest of the novel, with the awful revelations losing their force by the way they’re stated. However, the rest of the book seems to show that the truly innocent (as well as the truly guilty) are rewarded with death, even if their post-death fates are quite different; whereas those who have sinned a little are given a relatively happy ending (though poor Agnes’s baby dies). Apart from Ambrosio, all the victims in the novel are women – in fact one could argue that Lewis reserves his greatest villainy for the Prioress of the convent, with her unmerciful treatment of Agnes. Ambrosio sins, it is true, eventually adding to his crimes by selling his soul to the Devil, but he is tempted to do so (naturally) by a woman, Matilda. One gets the impression that Lewis had a rather jaundiced view of the female sex: Donna Elvira is both virtuous and wise, but that doesn’t save her from death. I also found interesting the way Ambrosio, while enjoying sex with Matilda during the act, soon has a revulsion of feeling, but takes out his feelings of guilt on her, not himself, and can barely look at her afterwards.
As the introduction and notes indicate, Lewis was not an accurate researcher, and made up a good deal of the details, particularly with respect to ecclesiastical procedure, and seems to have an Anglican scorn for Catholic superstition. The writing is rather overblown, as one would expect, and to the modern reader is often ludicrously coy: Lewis was actually criticised for the salacious parts, and he was forced to cut some of those bits for the fourth edition; only for the readers to protest at the expurgated version!
I haven’t read many Gothic novels, but the Introduction helpfully places The Monk in this context, indicating also how different it is compared to, say, the novels of Ann Radcliffe. Radcliffe’s heroines are placed in danger of assault, but are always rescued before a fate worse than death overcomes them: that doesn’t happen to Lewis’s female protagonists. This imbalance in the treatment of men and women is rather unsettling to read about: Ambrosio doesn’t even pretend to himself that he loves Antonia; his feelings are merely of lust, and he can consider keeping her a prisoner in a sepulchre merely to slake that lust.
The novel drags occasionally, and the behaviour of some of the characters seems hysterically overdone. However, it’s a very readable book, holding the attention, and is, I think, worth reading in itself, as well as an example – and part parody – of the Gothic novel genre.