Title page of the second edition, 1796
|Author||Matthew Gregory Lewis|
|Media type||Print (novel)|
The Monk: A Romance is a Gothic novel by Matthew Gregory Lewis, published in 1796. A quickly written book from early in Lewis's career (in one letter he claimed to have written it in ten weeks, but other correspondence suggests that he had at least started it, or something similar, a couple of years earlier), it was published before he turned twenty. It is a prime example of the male Gothic that specialises in the aspect of horror. Its convoluted and scandalous plot has made it one of the most important Gothic novels of its time, often imitated and adapted for the stage and the screen.
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The Monk has two main plotlines. The first concerns the corruption and downfall of the monk Ambrosio, and his interactions with the demon in disguise Matilda and the virtuous maiden Antonia. The subplot follows the romance of Raymond and the nun Agnes. At various points, the novel also includes several extended anecdotes of characters with Gothic backstories who tell their tales.
Newly arrived in Madrid, Antonia goes to hear a sermon by Ambrosio, who had been left at the abbey as an infant and is now a famously celebrated monk. She meets Lorenzo, who falls in love with her. Lorenzo visits his sister Agnes, a nun at the nearby abbey. He sees someone delivering a letter for Agnes from Raymond. Later, Ambrosio is visited by nuns, including Agnes, for confession. When Agnes confesses that she is pregnant with Raymond's child, Ambrosio turns her over to the Prioress of her abbey for punishment.
Ambrosio's closest friend among the monks reveals that he is a woman named Matilda, who disguised herself to be near Ambrosio. While picking a rose for her, Ambrosio is bitten by a serpent and falls deathly ill. Matilda nurses him. When he recovers, Matilda reveals that she sucked the poison from Ambrosio's wound and is now dying herself. At the point of her death, Matilda begs him to make love to her, and he succumbs to the temptation.
Lorenzo confronts Raymond about his relationship with his sister Agnes. Raymond tells their long history. Raymond was travelling in Germany when a carriage accident stranded him at a cottage owned by a bandit who kills and robs travellers. Thanks to a warning from the bandit's wife, Raymond avoided being killed, and escaped with a Baroness who was also staying at the cottage. Visiting the Baroness afterward, Raymond fell in love with her niece Agnes. However, the Baroness was in love with Raymond; when he refused her advances, she made arrangements to send Agnes to a convent. Raymond and Agnes made plans to elope. Agnes planned to dress as the Bleeding Nun, a ghost who haunts the castle and exits its gates at midnight. Raymond accidentally eloped with the real ghost of the real Bleeding Nun. Exorcizing the ghost of the Bleeding Nun required assistance from the Wandering Jew. When he was free, he found Agnes in the convent. There he seduced Agnes. When she discovered that she was pregnant, she begged him to help her escape.
When Raymond finishes his story, Lorenzo agrees to help him elope with Agnes. He acquires a papal bull, releasing Agnes from her vows as a nun so that she may marry Raymond. However, when he shows it to the Prioress, she tells Lorenzo that Agnes died several days before. Lorenzo does not believe it, but after two months, there is no other word concerning Agnes. In the meantime, Lorenzo has secured his family's blessing for his marriage with Antonia.
After having sex with Ambrosio, Matilda performs a ritual in the cemetery which cures her of the poison. She and Ambrosio continue to be secret lovers, but Ambrosio grows tired of her. Ambrosio meets Antonia and is immediately attracted to her. He begins visiting Antonia's mother Elvira regularly, hoping to seduce Antonia. During a visit, Ambrosio embraces Antonia, but she resists him. Elvira enters, and tells him to stop visiting. Matilda tells Ambrosio she can help him gain Antonia's charms, the same way she was healed of the poison: witchcraft. Ambrosio is horrified. However, when she shows him a magic mirror that shows him Antonia bathing, he agrees. Matilda and Ambrosio return to the cemetery, where Matilda calls up Lucifer, who appears young and handsome. He gives Matilda a magic myrtle bough, which will allow Ambrosio to open any door, as well as satisfy his lust on Antonia without her knowing who is her ravisher. Ambrosio accepts, without, he believes, selling himself to the devil.
To try to find Agnes, Raymond's servant disguises himself as a beggar and goes to the convent. As he leaves, Mother St. Ursula gives him a basket of gifts, concealing a note that tells Raymond to have the cardinal arrest both Mother St. Ursula and the Prioress for Agnes's murder.
Ambrosio uses the magic bough to enter Antonia's bedroom. He is on the point of raping her when Elvira arrives and confronts him. In panic, Ambrosio murders Elvira and returns to the abbey, unsatisfied in his lust and horrified that he has now become a murderer. Antonia, grief-stricken at the death of her mother, sees her mother's ghost. Terrified, Antonia faints and is found by her landlady, who asks Ambrosio to come help. Matilda helps Ambrosio acquire a concoction that will put Antonia in a deathlike coma. While attending to Antonia, Ambrosio administers the poison, and Antonia appears to die.
Lorenzo arrives back in Madrid with a representative of the Inquisition. During a procession honouring Saint Clare, the Prioress is arrested. Mother St. Ursula publicly describes Agnes's death at the hand of the sisters. When the procession crowd hears that the Prioress is a murderer, they turn into a rioting mob. They kill the Prioress, begin attacking other nuns, and set the convent on fire. In the confusion, Lorenzo finds a group of nuns and a young woman named Virginia hiding in the crypt. Lorenzo discovers a passage leading down into a dungeon, where he finds Agnes, alive and holding the dead body of the baby she had given birth to while abandoned in the dungeon. With Virginia's help, Lorenzo rescues Agnes and the other nuns from the crypt. Meanwhile, Antonia awakens from her drugged sleep in the crypt, and Ambrosio rapes her. Afterwards, he is as disgusted with Antonia as he was with Matilda, who comes to warn him about the riot. Ambrosio kills Antonia in her attempt to escape.
Virginia visits Lorenzo as he is recovering from his grief and the two become closer. Agnes tells the story of her miserable experience in the dungeon at length. Agnes and Raymond are married, and the couple leaves Madrid for Raymond's castle, accompanied by Lorenzo and Virginia, who are also eventually married.
Ambrosio and Matilda are brought before the Inquisition. Matilda confesses her guilt and is burned to death. Ambrosio insists upon his innocence and is tortured. He is visited by a vision of Matilda, who tells him to yield his soul to Satan. Ambrosio again proclaims his innocence, but when faced with torture, he admits to his sins of rape, murder and sorcery and is condemned to burn. In despair, Ambrosio asks Lucifer to save his life, who tells him it will be at the cost of his soul. Ambrosio is reluctant to give up the hope of God's forgiveness, but Lucifer tells him that there is none. After much resistance, Ambrosio signs the contract. Lucifer transports him from his cell to the wilderness. Lucifer informs him that Elvira was his mother, making Antonia his sister, adding to his crimes the sin of incest. Lucifer reveals that it has long been his plan to gain Ambrosio's soul, and Matilda was a demon helping him. Lucifer then points out the loophole in the deal Ambrosio struck: Ambrosio only asked to get out of his cell. Lucifer has completed his side of the deal and is now free to kill Ambrosio and claim his soul. He carries Ambrosio into the sky and drops him onto rocks below. Ambrosio suffers for six days before dying alone and damned for eternity.
The first edition of The Monk was published some time between 1795 and 1796. Older scholarship tended toward a 1795 publication year, but because no copies of the book so dated could be found, and because contemporary sources did not begin announcing or referencing the work until March 1796, the latter date began to be preferred. It was published anonymously, but for Lewis's initials after the preface and was highly praised by reviewers in The Monthly Mirror of June 1796 as well as the Analytical Review.
The first edition sold well, and a second edition was published in October 1796. The good sales and reviews of the first had emboldened Lewis, and he signed the new edition with his full name, adding "M.P." to reflect his newly acquired seat in the House of Commons. The book continued to rise in popularity, but in February 1797 review by a writer for the European Magazine, the novel was criticised for "plagiarism, immorality, and wild extravagance."
Lewis wrote to his father on 23 February 1798, attempting to make reparations: the controversy caused by The Monk was a source of distress to his family. As recorded by Irwin: "twenty is not the age at which prudence is most to be expected. Inexperience prevented my distinguishing what should give offence; but as soon as I found that offence was given, I made the only reparation in my power: I carefully revised the work, and expunged every syllable on which could be grounded the slightest construction of immorality. This, indeed, was no difficult task, for the objection rested entirely on expressions too strong, and words carelessly chosen; not on the sentiments, characters, or general tendency of the work."
The fourth edition of the novel was published in 1798, and, according to Peck, "contains nothing which could endanger the most fragile virtue... He expunged every remotely offensive word in his three volumes, with meticulous attention to lust. Ambrosio, formerly a ravisher, becomes an intruder or betrayer; his incontinence changes to weakness or infamy, his lust to desire, his desires to emotions. Having indulged in excesses for three editions, he committed an error in the fourth." Lewis wrote an apology for The Monk in the preface of another work; as recorded by Peck: "Without entering into the discussion, whether the principles inculcated in "The Monk" are right or wrong, or whether the means by which the story is conducted is likely to do more mischief than the tendency is likely to produce good, I solemnly declare, that when I published the work I had no idea that its publication could be prejudicial; if I was wrong, the error proceeded from my judgment, not from my intention. Without entering into the merits of the advice which it proposes to convey, or attempting to defend (what I now condemn myself) the language and manner in which that advice was delivered, I solemnly declare, that in writing the passage which regards the Bible (consisting of a single page, and the only passage which I ever wrote on the subject) I had not the most distant intention to bring the sacred Writings into contempt, and that, had I suspected it of producing such an effect, I should not have written the paragraph."
In the same month as the second edition was published, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a piece in The Critical Review, an important literary magazine of the day, in which he both praises and harshly criticises the novel. He acknowledges that it is "the offspring of no common genius," that the "underplot... is skilfully and closely connected with the main story, and is subservient to its development," that the story Lewis weaves in about the bleeding nun is "truly terrific" and that he cannot recall a "bolder or more happy conception than that of the burning cross on the forehead of the wandering Jew." Coleridge gives his highest praise to the character of Matilda, who he believes is "the author's master-piece. It is, indeed, exquisitely imagined, and as exquisitely supported. The whole work is distinguished by the variety and impressiveness of its incidents; and the author everywhere discovers an imagination rich, powerful, and fervid. Such are the excellencies" (7). Coleridge continues by saying that "the errors and defects are more numerous, and (we are sorry to add) of greater importance." Because "the order of nature may be changed whenever the author's purposes demand it" there are no surprises in the work. Moral truth cannot be gleaned because Ambrosio was destroyed by spiritual beings, and no earthly being can sufficiently oppose the "power and cunning of supernatural beings." Scenes of grotesquery and horror abound, which are a proof of "a low and vulgar taste." The character of Ambrosio is "impossible... contrary to nature." Coleridge argues that the most "grievous fault... for which no literary excellence can atone" is that "our author has contrived to make [tales of enchantments and witchcraft] ' 'pernicious' ', by blending, with an irreverent negligence, all that is most awfully true in religion with all that is most ridiculously absurd in superstition," commenting with the immortal line that "the Monk is a romance, which if a parent saw in the hands of a son or daughter, he might reasonably turn pale." Coleridge finishes the piece by explaining that he was "induced to pay particular attention to this work, from the unusual success which it has experienced" and that "the author is a man of rank and fortune. Yes! the author of the Monk signs himself a LEGISLATOR! We stare and tremble."
Thomas James Mathias followed Coleridge's lead in The Pursuits of Literature, a poem in the 18th-Century satiric tradition, but takes a step farther than Coleridge by claiming that a specific passage made the novel indictable under law. The passage, found in Chapter Seven Volume II, discusses an interpretation of the Bible as too lewd for youth to read.
These two major pieces led the way for a multitude of other attacks on the novel, from such sources as the Monthly Review, the Monthly Magazine, and the Scots Magazine; the last of these attacked the novel six years after its publication. It was a general trend amongst those who criticised, however, to offer praise of some aspect of the novel. "It looked," writes Parreaux, "as if every reviewer or critic of the book, no matter how hostile he was, felt compelled to at least pay lip-service to Lewis's genius."
The criticism of his novel, extending even into criticism of his person, never truly left Lewis, and an attack on his character was published by the Courier posthumously, calling itself a "just estimate of his character." As recorded by MacDonald: "He had devoted the first fruits of his mind to the propagation of evil, and the whole long harvest was burnt up ... There is a moral in the life of this man ... He was a reckless defiler of the public mind; a profligate, he cared not how many were to be undone when he drew back the curtain of his profligacy; he had infected his reason with the insolent belief that the power to corrupt made the right, and that conscience might be laughed, so long as he could evade law. The Monk was an eloquent evil; but the man who compounded it knew in his soul that he was compounding poison for the multitude, and in that knowledge he sent it into the world."
There were those who defended The Monk as well. Joseph Bell, publisher of the novel, spent half of his essay Impartial Structures on the Poem Called "The Pursuits of Literature" and Particularly a Vindication of the Romance of "The Monk" defending Lewis; Thomas Dutton, in his Literary Census: A Satirical Poem, retaliated against Mathias and praised Lewis; Henry Francis Robert Soame compared Lewis to Dante in his The Epistle in Rhyme to M. G. Lewis, Esq. M. P.
"Assurances that The Monk was not as dangerous as its enemies maintained failed to dampen its success with the reading public," writes Peck. "They had been told that the book was horrible, blasphemous, and lewd, and they rushed to put their morality to the test." Indeed, the novel's popularity continued to rise and by 1800 there were five London and two Dublin editions.
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Ambrosio displays traces of hubris and lust very early in the novel. It is explained that "he [Ambrosio] dismissed them [the monks] with an air of conscious superiority, in which humility's semblance combated with the reality of pride. Similarly, "he fixed his eyes on the Virgin... Gracious God, should I then resist the temptation? Should I not barter for a single embrace the reward of my sufferings for thirty years?" Both passages explicitly show the conflicting forces, that is, the moral choices that rage within Ambrosio. His nature instructs him to exult himself above others and lust for the Virgin Mary, while his religious inclinations, or at least his awareness of his position within the church, command him to humility and chastity. Ambrosio begins to deviate from his holy conduct when he encounters Matilda, a character revealed at the end of the novel to be an emissary of Satan. All of these circumstances are consistent with the classic model of the morality tale, and, true to form, once Ambrosio is tempted into sin he enters into a tailspin of increasing desire, which leads him to transgression and culminates in the loss of his eternal salvation and his grisly murder at the hands of the devil.
This pattern of wicked actions leading to ill consequences is exactly what is expected in a morality tale and is reflected in other Gothic novels. For example, Lewis's work is often discussed in conjunction with that of Ann Radcliffe's. Robert Miles writes that "Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis were the two most significant Gothic novelists of the 1790s, an estimate of their importance shared by their contemporaries.". Indeed, the repercussions of malevolent and self-serving actions are represented extraordinarily well in Radcliffe's The Romance of the Forest. The Marquis in the story was driven to murder for "the title of his brother... and riches which would enable him to indulge his voluptuous inclinations." Similar to Ambrosio, the Marquis was tempted and succumbed to sin, which sets him on a wicked path leading to his public shame and suicide.
Despite its outcome, The Monk does have some very marked discrepancies from the normal morality tale setup used in gothic novels. In most morality tales, both vice and virtue are represented equally, but in Lewis's work, the powers of evil are disproportionately represented. Technically speaking, Ambrosio is surrounded by virtue in the sense that he is always conscious that what he is doing is wrong and, until the end of the novel, never believes that he cannot repent. In fact, he tells Matilda that "the consequences [of witchcraft] are too horrible: I... am not so blinded by lust as to sacrifice for her enjoyment my existence both in this world and the next." However, this general sense of right and wrong is a feeble, inefficacious defence for Ambrosio when he is confronted by the physical presence and influence of demons. There are no corresponding angels who appear before Ambrosio to counter the influence of the devil and try to dissuade him from his path of destruction. As a result, his depravity is accelerated and magnified from the minor character foibles that are congenital to him to the egregious evils that possess him by the end of the novel. The only apparition that is potentially heaven-sent is that of Elvira's ghost. She comes back from the grave to caution her daughter, Antonia that "yet three days, and we shall meet again!" While the apparition may seem to be trying to warn Antonia of her impending death, the ghost's appearance causes Jacintha to fetch Ambrosio to dispel the spirit, allowing him to drug Antonia and take her under his power, a chain of events ultimately leading to the demise of Antonia, which the ghost foretold. As a result of the ghost's intrusion, Antonia is put directly into harm's way, an action much more apropos for a demonic presence rather than a heavenly one.
Lewis also deviates from what is typically expected from morality tales when he includes the sacrifice of innocent people in the latter chapters of the novel. As a result of Ambrosio's personal vices, both Elvira and Antonia are slain. Elvira finds Ambrosio, "the man whom Madrid esteems a saint...at this late hour near the couch of my unhappy child" on the verge of committing rape and Ambrosio murders her to prevent her from revealing his crimes. Elvira was guilty of no crime and throughout the novel was committed to the welfare of her family and her daughter in particular. Likewise, Antonia is murdered to prevent her from alerting Officers of the Inquisition of Ambrosio's crimes. Antonia is also undeserving of her fate, as she was always a loyal daughter and honest woman throughout the novel.
Another Gothic novel in which one individual's quest for a gratification of the senses leads to the ruin of others is Vathek. In the novel, Vathek attempts to sacrifice fifty children to a demon to gain his favour. Without mercy he "pushed the poor innocent into the gulph [open to hell]." Similarly, in The Necromancer, an entire village is sacrificed to a troop of banditti who are angered at their hideout being revealed. The leader of group explaining that "the villagers are not yet punished... for having assisted them, but they shall not escape their doom." Admittedly, Vathek can be more readily identified as a morality tale, but The Necromancer warns against the pernicious effects of a legal system that is bereft of mercy. A criminal declares during his confession that his life "will afford a useful lesson to judges, and teach the guardians of the people to be careful how they inflict punishments if they will not make a complete rogue of many a hapless wretch..."
The Monk is one of many Gothic novels that criticises the Catholic Church and Catholic tradition. Lewis's condemnation of the Church is apparent throughout the novel in his characterisation of Catholic clergy members, as well as his treatment of Catholic superstition. Ambrosio and the Prioress represent all that is seen as wrong with the Catholic Church. The vow of celibacy, which many Protestant writers at the time condemned as unnatural, contributes significantly to Ambrosio's repressed sexuality, which in turn leads to the heinous acts he commits against Antonia. Agnes's breaking of her vow is seen by the Prioress as an unforgivable crime, which drives her to punish Agnes so severely. Lewis also appears to mock Catholic superstition through use of iconoclasts repeatedly over the course of the novel, such as when Lorenzo moves a statue of the virgin St. Clare to reveal the chamber in which Agnes is being kept prisoner. This demystification of idols makes light of Catholic superstition in relation to statues and sacred objects. Lewis's treatment of the Catholic Church clearly shows that he harbours negative sentiments about the Church's activities. Depictions of Catholic clergy as villains who feel empowered to do as they please in the name of the divine is a continuing theme among Protestants today as it was in Lewis's time.
The lack of divinity shown throughout the novel is not unique to The Monk. John Moore's Zeluco focuses on the nefarious plots of a single man who cannot control his passions. Like Ambrosio, Zeluco's disposition is shown very early in the novel to be disagreeable. In his youth Zeluco "seized it [his pet sparrow] with his hand, and while it struggled to get free, with a curse he squeezed the little animal to death." Zeluco continually gratifies his vices much to his discredit and dishonor, and, as in The Monk, his sins compound upon themselves culminating in the infanticide of his only son. Unlike Ambrosio, however, Zeluco has no physical demons spurring him onwards, but rather his insatiable appetite for sin.
The Bleeding Nun, who appears in the subplot of Raymond and Agnes, epitomises the sin of erotic desires. Raymond mistakes her for his lover, Agnes, because she is veiled and he cannot see her face. The veil "conceals and inhibits sexuality comes by the same gesture to represent it." Both Antonia and Matilda are veiled to protect their virginity and innocence and it is expected that Agnes also covers her face for this reason when she meets Raymond. However, the removal of the veil reveals the Bleeding Nun, dead and punished because of her sins. While she was alive, she was a prostitute and a murderer before she was murdered by her lover. Her story is the first we receive of how giving in to sexual desires leads to death and eternal unrest. Raymond expects to find Agnes's beautiful, virgin face beneath the veil, but instead finds death. Her unveiling connects the loss of virginity and the giving in to sexual desires with death and punishment. Both the Bleeding Nun and Ambrosio begin pious, but then fall prey to their sexual desires. Ambrosio has already given into his desire for Matilda and the story of the Bleeding Nun told in the subplot foreshadows his further downfall with Antonia and his eternal punishment in the hands of the devil.
The Bleeding Nun also introduces the world of the supernatural into The Monk. The supernatural something "that is above nature or belonging to a higher realm or system than that of nature" This introduction brings another Gothic element into the book. Up until this point, the plot has relied on natural elements of the sublime to invoke the terror expected of a Gothic novel. The entrance of the Bleeding Nun transforms this natural world into a world where the supernatural is possible. When she gets into Raymond's carriage, "Immediately thick clouds obscured the sky: The winds howled around us, the lightning flashed, and the Thunder roared tremendously." Nature is acknowledging the presence of a supernatural force.
When Agnes tells Raymond the story of how the Bleeding Nun's ghost haunts the Castle of Lindenberg, Raymond asks her whether she believes the story and she replies "How can you ask such a question? No, no, Alphonso! I have too much reason to lament superstition's influence to be its Victim myself." It is not until the Bleeding Nun appears to Raymond at night that the idea of the existence of the supernatural begins to be a reality. The Wandering Jew's appearance coincides with this first instance of the supernatural. He can see the Bleeding Nun, proving that she is not a figment of Raymond's imagination. His supernatural abilities give access to the Bleeding Nun's story and provide plausibility to the existence of the supernatural. He also has the power to free Raymond from her presence. The later confirmation of Raymond's uncle to the existence of the Wandering Jew allows the whole story to be taken for fact. This establishes the reality of the supernatural and lays the groundwork for Matilda's later use of magic and her and Ambrosio's interaction with evil spirits.
La nonne sanglante (The Bloody Nun), freely based on The Monk, is a five-act opera by Charles Gounod to a libretto by Eugène Scribe and Germain Delavigne. Written between 1852 and 1854, it was first produced on 18 October 1854 at the Salle Le Peletier by the Paris Opéra. Soprano Anne Poinsot created the role of Agnès.
La nonne sanglante, a 5-act play by Auguste Anicet-Bourgeois and Julien de Mallian, which premiered on 16 February 1835 in Paris at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin, was very popular in its day. The legendary actress Mlle Georges created the role of Marie de Rudenz. The melodrama derives its title and certain images and motifs from The Monk.
Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière attempted to film a version of The Monk in the 1960s, but the project was halted due to lack of funds. Buñuel's friend, the Greek director Ado Kyrou, used this script as the basis for his 1972 film version. Le Moine (English The Monk) boasted an international cast with Franco Nero in the title role. The film also starred Nathalie Delon, Eliana de Santis, Nadja Tiller and Nicol Williamson.
Maria de Rudenz is a tragic opera by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848). The libretto by Salvadore Cammarano is based on a 5-act French play (1835), La nonne sanglante, by Auguste Anicet-Bourgeois and Julien de Mallian, a drama informed by motifs and imagery from The Monk. The opera premiered at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, 30 January 1838, with soprano Carolina Ungher (1803-1877) singing the eponymous role.
A film adaption, The Monk, was made by French-German director Dominik Moll in 2011, it was shot in Madrid and stars Vincent Cassel, Déborah François, Geraldine Chaplin, and Sergi López. Shooting began in mid-April and was set for 12 weeks.
A stage adaptation by Benji Sperring for Tarquin Productions ran at Baron's Court Theatre, London, from 16 October to 3 November 2012.
A musical comedy based on the novel is being developed, written and composed by Tug Rice. It was workshopped at Carnegie Mellon University, starring Grey Henson, Jessie Shelton and Corey Cott.