Sunday, January 3, 2010

Bad, bad monk

My first read for 2010 is a gloomy novel that has one of the most evil characters I've met recently, and I absolutely enjoyed it! Matthew Lewis's The Monk, first published in 1796, still has the shock and sensational value when you read it today. The Monk is a very sinister read. Yes, you have to get used to the dated language, but it's worth it.

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:
  1. You're into Gothic fiction.
  2. You're wondering how an 18th century novel can be labelled as graphic.
  3. You love reading about murder happening in sinister places.

19 comments:

Mark David said...

Oh I just love endings where people get what they deserve. There's nothing like sweet justice :) Though I'm just not so sure if I'll take all the rape scenes you seem to be pointing at (are they rape scenes?).

About the Oxford Classics series, aren't they great? I love the paper they use and the extra material included like introductions and appendices seem quite helpful :)

line of flight said...

sounds like 9 out of 10 frailes during the colonial period here.

Amanda said...

Another blogging friend of mine just reviewed this about a month or two ago and it sounds excellent!

Peter S. said...

@Mark David: Yes, the introductions and the appendices are great! However, I prefer to read them after I read the novel. That way, I avoid the spoilers.

@line of flight: Hahaha. You are so right!

@Amanda: This is indeed an excellent novel.

Mark David said...

Yes I also prefer reading the extra material after the story. It's like watching DVD extras after the movie, hehe.

Peter S. said...

By the way, Mark David, the sole ravishing scene in the novel is somewhat integral to the story. Read The Monk to find out!

Diane said...

This is the first that I have heard of this book, but now I am very intrigued.

Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

In a word? Inspired! Your description on this book is fantastic. I am always afraid that I get so caught up on what is new and coming up next that I forget some of the older amazing books of our past!

I can always count on you Peter to real me in and make me see the wonders in the books of the past! :)

Peter S. said...

@Diane: I'm happy that you became curious about this book! I hope you get to read it.

@Sheila: The classics are indeed very satisfying reads. I hope to read more of them this year.

A Buckeye Girl Reads said...

I can't believe I haven't heard of this classic-it sounds like a good read for a classic! I've heard good things about the book you're reading now World War Z-can't wait for your review of it!

Peter S. said...

Hi, Buckeye Girl! Thanks! I'm enjoying World War Z!

SariJ said...

Oh Peter you picked a fine book to start the new year with. What captivated me was the writing style. The prose was wonderful! At times the book horrified me, but in a delightful way. There are not many books like this I would recommend. But I would just for the writing. It makes me wish more modern writers would take the time to write like this.

Peter S. said...

Hi, SariJ! I'm glad to finally meet someone who's read and enjoyed the book as much as I have.

savidgereads said...

If I do another sensation season this year then this is one that I will grab from the library for it as apparently it just falls into the catagory! Sounds like it is immense.

Peter S. said...

Hi, Simon! It is! It's a juicy, sensational read.

C.B. James said...

Good to see The Monk getting some attention. I read it in grad school and loved it. Seldom has anything anyone had to read it grad school been as much fun to read as The Monk.

Judging from the 18th century lit I've read, it's all pretty bawdy if not outright dirty. There was lots of sex in it, actually. Everything got very tame after Jane Austen, but before she came along it was a wild party. There's some stuff in Tom Jones that would shock a modern reader and Moll Flanders....well!

But, even among it's contemporaries, The Monk is darn racy.

Peter S. said...

Hi, C.B. James! Darn racy indeed!

Stepford Mum said...

Reading your review made the music from Carmina Burana play in my head - that was about monks and illicit pleasures as well, if I remember right! I definitely want to read this book, but have resolved not to buy any new ones until I've finished the still unread ones on my bedside table, so it may be a while before I get to this one :(

Cynewyn said...

I'd been meaning to read this for years, ever since coming across it mentioned in Jane Austen...wish I had sooner! Amazing to think Matthew Lewis was only about 20 when he wrote it, and pretty much a contemporary of Jane Austen! Very, very interesting psychologically - Lewis had an incredible grasp of the workings of the human mind for his age; love reading a book where you really feel you've learnt something at the end of it, and enjoyed reading it at the same time! And the ending...wow, just wow! :-)