The Monk - Matthew Gregory Lewis, Howard Anderson, Emma McEvoy First off, I'd like to say, "Elizabeth (et al.) you are forgiven for the Kay Incident." The Monk more than makes up for any unconscious animus I may still harbor for The Lions of al-Rassan.

The Monk is not a great novel but it is a good book. The introduction (which should be read after reading the novel, if you’re going to read it at all) makes some interesting points about the Gothic tradition and how Lewis both follows and suborns it but I’m not a Lit major and I don’t want or need to know that Lewis absorbed the works of German writers like Goethe or that some see the book as an expression of the author’s homosexuality. I’m not insensitive nor adverse to having my mind expanded or my assumptions challenged by a novel, and if this had proven to be such a book I wouldn’t have minded the experience.

But it wasn’t – not for me, at any rate – it was a vibrant and lusciously written tale of love, lust, murder, rape, ghosts, demons, witchcraft and incest. Lewis carries you along on a breathless ride that culminates in the sepulcher under the Convent of St. Clare, where Ambrosio’s designs upon Antonia achieve horrid fruition. There is little subtle about the characters or the story, which is not to say that Lewis is a hack. The book is very carefully put together, and there are layers of meaning that deserve a careful reading for one so inclined.

But I wasn’t. Not on this first read. I simply wanted to read an entertaining story, and I got my wish.

I don’t have much more to say about the book but I did want to leave you with several examples of Lewis’s writing. You’ll forgive me if they’re all quite spoilering but I did mark the review so you’ve been warned.

The first example is Lewis’s description of Ambrosio, the monk of the title. A foundling who has lived his entire life within the walls of the Capuchin Monastery in Madrid, Ambrosio has only been forced out into the world because his fellow monks have elected him Abbot on account of his piety and perceived wisdom. It’s not hard to see that the author is setting Ambrosio up for a long, hard and thorough fall from grace:


“He was a Man of noble port and commanding presence. His stature was lofty, and his features uncommonly handsome. His Nose was aquiline, his eyes large black and sparkling, and his dark brows almost joined together…. He bowed himself with humility to the audience: Still there was a certain severity in his look and manner that inspired universal awe, and few could sustain the glance of his eye at once fiery and penetrating. Such was Ambrosio, Abbot of the Capuchins, and surnamed, ‘The Man of Holiness’….

“The monks having attended their Abbot to the door of his Cell, He dismissed them with an air of conscious superiority, in which Humility’s semblance combated with the reality of pride.

“He was no sooner alone, than He gave free loose to the indulgence of his vanity. When He remembered the Enthusiasm which his discourse had excited, his heart swelled with rapture, and his imagination presented him with splendid visions of aggrandizement. He looked round him with exultation, and Pride told him loudly, that He was superior to the rest of his fellow-Creatures.

“‘Who,’ thought He; ‘Who but myself has passed the ordeal of youth, yet sees no single stain upon his conscience? Who else has subdued the violence of strong passions and an impetuous temperament, and submitted even from the dawn of life to voluntary retirement? I seek for such a Man in vain. I see no one but myself possessed of such resolution. Religion cannot boast Ambrosio’s equal! How powerful an effect did my discourse produce upon its Auditors! How they crowded round me! How they loaded me with benedictions, and pronounced me the sole uncorrupted Pillar of the Church! What then now is left for me to do? Nothing, but to watch as carefully over the conduct of my Brothers, as I have hitherto watched over my own. Yet hold! May I not be tempted from those paths, which till now I have pursued without one moment’s wandering? Am I not a Man, whose nature is frail, and prone to error? I must now abandon the solitude of my retreat; The fairest and noblest Dames of Madrid continually present themselves at the Abbey, and will use no other Confessor. I must accustom my eyes to Objects of temptation, and expose myself to the seduction of luxury and desire. Should I meet in that world which I am constrained to enter some lovely Female, lovely…as you Madona…!’”
(p. 18, pp. 39-40)

The second example is Ambrosio’s first fall – his seduction by Matilda, a young woman who has infiltrated the abbey in the guise of the young monk, Rosario:

“As She uttered these last words, She lifted her arm, and made a motion as if to stab herself. The Friar’s eyes followed with dread the course of the dagger. She had torn open her habit, and her bosom was half exposed. The weapon’s point rested upon her left breast: And Oh! that was such a breast! The Moon-beams darting full upon it, enabled the Monk to observe its dazzling whiteness. His eye dwelt with insatiable avidity upon the beauteous Orb. A sensation till then unknown filled his heart with a mixture of anxiety and delight: A raging fire shot through every limb; The blood boiled in his veins, and a thousand wild wishes bewildered his imagination….

“The hour was night. All was silence around. The faint beams of a solitary Lamp darted upon Matilda’s figure, and shed through the chamber a dim mysterious light. No prying eye, or curious ear was near the Lovers: Nothing was heard but Matilda’s melodious accents. Ambrosio was in the full vigour of Manhood. He saw before him a young and beautiful Woman, the preserver of his life, the Adorer of his person, and whom affection for him had reduced to the brink of the Grave. He sat upon her Bed; His hand rested upon her bosom; Her head reclined voluptuously upon his breast. Who then can wonder, if He yielded to the temptation? Drunk with desire, he pressed his lips to those which sought them: His kisses vided with Matilda’s in warmth and passion. He clasped her rapturously in his arms; He forgot his vows, his sanctity, and his fame: He remembered nothing but the pleasure and opportunity.”
(pp. 65 and 90)

My third example, a twisted reflection of that above, is Ambrosio’s rape of Antonia, the too innocent child of Elvira and – as it turns out – Ambrosio’s sister, surrounded by moldering corpses:


“With very moment the Friar’s passion became more ardent, and Antonia’s terror more intense. She struggled to disengage herself from his arms: Her exertions were unsuccessful; and finding that Ambrosio’s conduct became still freer, She shrieked for assistance with all her strength. The aspect of the Vault, the pale glimmering of the Lamp, the surrounding obscurity, the sight of the Tomb, and the objects of mortality which met her eyes on either side, were ill-calculated to inspire her with those emotions, by which the Friar was agitated. Even his caresses terrified her from their fury, and crated no other sentiment than fear. On the contrary, her alarm, her evident disgust, and incessant opposition, seemed only to inflame the Monk’s desires, and supply his brutality with additional strength. Antonia’s shrieks were unheard: Yet She continued them, nor abandoned her endeavours to escape, till exhausted and out of breath She sank from his arms upon her knees, and once more had recourse to prayers and supplications. This attempt had no better success than the former. On the contrary, taking advantage of her situation, the Ravisher threw himself by her side: He clasped her to his bosom almost lifeless with terror, and faint with struggling. He stifled her cries with kisses, treated her with the rudeness of an unprincipled Barbarian, proceeded form freedom to freedom, and in the violence of his lustful delirium, wounded and bruised her tender limbs. Heedless of her tears, cries and entreaties, He gradually made himself Master of her person, and desisted not from his prey, till He had accomplished his crime and the dishonour of Antonia.” (pp. 383-84)

And the final example, is Lucifer’s brutal slaying of the monk:


“As He said this, darting his talons into the Monk’s shaven crown, He sprang with him from the rock. The Caves and mountains rang with Ambrosio’s shrieks. The Daemon continued to soar aloft, till reaching a dreadful height, He released the sufferer. Headlong fell the Monk through the airy waste; The sharp point of a rock received him; and He rolled from precipice to precipice, till bruised and mangled He rested on the river’s banks. Life still existed in his miserable frame: He attempted in vain to raise himself; His broken and dislocated limbs refused to perform their office, nor was He able to quit the spot where He had first fallen. The Sun now rose above the horizon; Its scorching beams darted full upon the head of the expiring Sinner. Myriads of insects were called forth by the warmth; They drank the blood which trickled from Ambrosio’s wounds; He had no power to drive them from him, and they fastened upon his sores, darted their stings into his body, covered him with their multitudes, and inflicted on him tortures the most exquisite and insupportable. The Eagles of the rock tore his flesh piecemeal, and dug out his eye-balls with their crooked beaks. A burning thirst tormented him; He heard the river’s murmur as it rolled beside him, but strove in vain to drag himself towards the sound. Blind, maimed, helpless, and despairing, venting his rage in blasphemy and curses, execrating his existence, yet dreading the arrival of death destined to yield him up to greater torments, six miserable days did the Villain languish. On the Seventh a violent storm arose; The winds in fury rent up rocks and forests: The sky was now black with clouds, now sheeted with fire: The rain fell in torrents; It swelled the stream; The waves overflowed their banks; They reached the spot where Ambrosio lay, and when they abated carried with them into the river the Corse of the despairing Monk.” (pp. 441-42)

All is not misery and violence. The mood of the novel veers from comic to tragic, from the scene where Don Christoval pretends to woo Leonella so Lorenzo can talk privately with Antonia or Jacintha’s vow to force Simon Gonzalez to marry her so she won’t have to re-enter the home now haunted by Elvira’s ghost or the reactions of the convent nuns when faced with remaining among the crypts or facing a murderous mob – they opt to face the rioters before the terrors of the tombs – to Raymond and Marguerite’s desperate escape from the banditti or Lorenzo’s discovery of his emaciated sister Agnes and her dead child beneath the statue of St. Clare. Lewis manages to carry it off without jarring the reader, however, and it was one of the story’s strengths.

And he manages to get off a few jibes at literary critics when Raymond discusses the merits of his servant Theodore’s verse:

“An Author, whether good or bad, or between both, is an Animal whom every body is privileged to attack; For though All are not able to write books, all conceive themselves able to judge them. A bad composition carries with it its own punishment, contempt and ridicule. A good one excites envy, and entails upon its Author a thousand mortifications. He finds himself assailed by partial and ill-humoured Criticism: One Man finds fault with the plan, Another with the style, a Third with the precept, which it strives to inculcate; and they who cannot succeed in finding fault with the Book, employ themselves in stigmatizing its Author…. In short to enter the lists of literature is willfully to expose yourself to the arrows of neglect, ridicule, envy, and disappointment.” (pp. 198-99)

Overall, I feel good recommending this to all my GR friends who’ve put it on their “to-read” or “wish list” shelves. And even if you haven’t, I’d still recommend it as an enjoyable way to idle away an afternoon or weekend.