In the late 18th century in Spain, we meet the monk Ambrosio, a Capuchin whose sermons and preachings are the talk of Madrid. He soon discovers that one of his beloved novices is actually a woman, who is a beautiful but devious and manipulative person named Matilda. Ambrosio and Matilda then carry on a very illicit affair while still in the monastery. Ambrosio then sees another beautiful maiden in the person of Antonia and becomes smitten with her. Matilda helps Ambrosio get the favor of Antonia by becoming the confessor of her dying mother. Ambrosio, with his passion uncontrolled, murders Antonia's mother so that he can rape her.
I can see why The Monk was tremendously popular when it was first published. And it also bore several negative feelings among the people who read it. With its images of naked women being ravished, The Monk was even perceived to be pornographic. I was actually quite surprised to be reading about women's body parts being touched in an 18th century novel. Nevertheless, these graphic descriptions only heighten the novel's atmosphere of menace and evil that men can have.
There are also other storylines in The Monk that support Ambrosio's evil character. In one of the first few chapters, we read how Ambrosio banishes Agnes, a nun, into the monastery's dungeon because he discovered that Agnes was carrying a child and was constantly seeing a man. Agnes's rescue becomes a pivotal point in the novel because it is through this instance that Ambrosio is revealed to be the monster that he is. Another storyline involves Antonia's romance with a young nobleman named Lorenzo, who was also instrumental in rescuing Agnes from the hands of those vengeful nuns.
Murder, rape, temptresses, lustful monks, and sadistic nuns. It appears that Lewis really wanted his novel to be controversial during its time. He even throws in scenes of demon summoning and magic to provide another dimension to The Monk, albeit a supernatural one. Lewis also incorporates humor, a certain playfulness in his narrative. (I think I identifed a couple of jokes in the novel.) Also, the ending has to be read to be believed. In a way, Lewis wrote an ending wherein all his characters deserved what's coming to them.
The Monk is indeed one of the best Gothic novels that I've read. It even comes close to my all-time favorite Gothic novel, The Woman in White. In certain aspects, what makes The Monk somewhat better than TWIW is that Lewis parodies the Gothic genre in his story. The chapter on the bleeding nun is the finest example of this parody. In the said chapter, Lewis injects the ghost-that-really-isn't-a-ghost in the story, playing homage to a common element in Gothic fiction.
For all the negative feelings the novel evokes, its themes of evil in persons of the cloth, and its graphic description of sex, The Monk is indeed a notable classical novel. It works on so many levels that I found myself reading it as if it were a contemporary page-turner. I'm glad I chose this novel to start my reading for 2010.
Read this book if:
- You're into Gothic fiction.
- You're wondering how an 18th century novel can be labelled as graphic.
- You love reading about murder happening in sinister places.