Matthew Lewis: The Monk

The Monk, written when Matthew Lewis was only 20 and published in 1796, caused a sensation with its powerful blend of the supernatural, the terrible and the indecent. It is a violent tale of sexual transgression, ambition and murder set in Madrid in the days of the inquisition. The story-line follows a quintessential Gothic pattern, with every narrative strand moving towards the discovery of danger or exposure of immorality beneath an apparently harmless and respectable surface. Ambrosio, the venerated superior of the Capuchins, hides his pride beneath a veneer of humble devotion, hypocrisy early hinted at by the epigraph from Measure for Measure. He falls to the temptations of Matilda, a licentious girl capable of witchcraft who has disguised herself as a male novice in order to gain access to Ambrosio. Thus corrupted, the Monk then falls in love with the virtuous and beautiful Antonia, and aided by satanic supernatural powers and his own violent impulses, succeeds in raping her and finally murdering her in an effort to avoid detection. This is in vain and he is discovered, tortured by the inquisition and sentenced to death. The only escape left to him is to join with the Devil, but this rescue from human punishment only results in a more horrific destruction in Hell.

Lewis is clearly heavily influenced by Radcliffe, but he exploits her technical innovations for far more graphic descriptions of violence and sexual licentiousness, so much so that Radcliffe's The Italian is often seen as a sober response to the publication of The Monk. Despite the similarities to the terror narratives of earlier Gothic fiction and the sexual and violent excesses of Vathek, the novel was immediately condemned by the majority of critics as obscene and immoral. The key difference is that while Radcliffe explains away or defers her Gothic terrors to the point where virtue triumphs over evil, Lewis realises the apprehensions of the Radcliffean heroine and graphically creates the horrors that Radcliffe leaves purely psychological.

The story-line in The Monk follows the pattern of a development from innocence to experience in the quintessential Gothic use of the 'Bildungsroman' format. Antonia and Ambrosio both have cloistered and heavily guided childhoods, responsible, in Lewis's eyes, for an unnatural repression of the needs of the flesh and an illusory idealisation of the spirit. Many Gothic fictions illustrate the evils of a superstitious religious education, which creates a schism between the essentially good self and the artificially conditioned adult. Ambrosio and Antonio are both sexually innocent and inexperienced in the ways of the world, but Antonia's ignorance means she is unable to defend herself from the monk's advances, while he himself was originally disposed to virtue but:

"The noble frankness of his temper was exchanged for servile humility; and in order to break his natural spirit, the monks terrified his young mind, by placing before him all the horrors with which superstition could furnish them."

Antonio's self-division is a result of this childhood conditioning, and the Monk thus retains the reader's sympathy to some extent because he is a victim of social and supernatural forces that conspire to expose his fatal flaws of passion and pride. These social forces are fully revealed as dangerous and damaging to the individual, and this exposure is manifested in the proliferation of characters that disguise themselves (Theodore, Matilda, Raymond) and the use of religion as a cover for sexual encounters. For example Raymond and Agnes consummate their love in the gardens of the convent, the vaults below are the scene of Antonia's rape, and the service that opens the book is an excuse for lascivious attentions, foreshadowing the more serious unmasking of the church at the end of the novel:

"The Women came to show themselves, the Men to see the Women."

Foreshadowing is used more specifically throughout, in scenes such as the gypsy's palm reading and Lorenzo's dream, creating suspense in an atmosphere of impending doom. This rigid determination of the text gives the reader a sense of control and a frisson of expectant horror, unlike the ambiguous and delayed narratives of Radcliffe.

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