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The Monk

The Monk


Matthew G. Lewis
1796






Gothic novel by Matthew G. Lewis, The Monk was first published in 1796. The story's violence and sexual content made it one of the era's best-selling and most influential novels. The novel is the story of a monk, Ambrosio, who is initiated into a life of depravity by Matilda, a woman who has disguised herself as a man to gain entrance to the monastery. The book differed from other gothic novels of the time because it concentrated on the sensational and the horrible rather than on romance and because it did not attempt ot explain the supernatural events of the plot.

--Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature, 1995


The Monk The Monk is Matthew Lewis's only substantial piece of fiction and even so it shows strong influences from the theater. The most prominent of these influences is Shakespeare. The structure of the novel, with two plots which reflect each other and converge in a final climax, mimics Shakespearean tragedies such as King Lear, and various scenes and characters owe something to Shakespeare; for example, the meeting of Ambrosio and Antonia among the tombs in Chapter XI clearly derives from the last act of Romeo and Juliet.

The main plot, centering on the Monk himself, Ambrosio, dominates the first and last parts of the book. It opens with a grand scene, in which several important characters are drawn together. The spectacle of Ambrosio's preaching is a public one, but the real interest of the scene, as of the novel as a whole, is in individuals and their private lives. Lewis skillfully encourages this interest in the reader, too, by the acounts of Ambrosio in the first chapter, which make us wish to know more, a wish which is granted when in Chapter II we are allowed not only into the monk's private room but into his mind itself, where we find a dangerous conflict between Ambrosio's public reputation and his inner self: "humility's semblance combated with the reality of pride."

This theme, of the conflict between individual desire and the expectations of the community, is immediately reinforced by the next scene, the discovery of Agnes's breach of the vows of chastity enforced on her as a nun. Here Lewis introduces his secondary plot, but neatly links it thematically to the main one and at the same time foreshadows its development; like Agnes, Ambrosio, despite his vows, falls to sexual temptation and steps on the path which will divide him from the community to which he belongs.

The message of the novel seems to be that, though we need the institutions of society, a terrible price is paid for them in terms of personal repression. Oppressive forces, such as the Holy Inquisition, loom over the characters. Whatever else Lewis did, or though he did, in writing The Monk, he also set up a representation of aspects of the human which still fascinate us and still ask us to explain them.

The most serious criticism of Lewis, brings up the subject of plagiarism. There are several passages in the novel for which parallels, sometimes almost word for word, can be found, especially in German poems and stories. The Monk was regarded as relying for its success chiefly on its imitation of German originals. This underestimates both the influence of other literary elements, including English novels and plays, and lewis's part in bringing these materials together.

Gothic novels conventionally play games with ideas of authenticity and textual origin. The Castle of Otranto first appeared as a "translation" from a rediscovered manuscript, and later works such as Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and Bram Stoker's Dracula combine various kinds of test. For all that, Lewis's novel often seems closely related to him as author. It is now accepted wisdom that the precarious universe of Gothic fiction is a reflection of its times. In some darkly secret way that representation is based on "Monk" Lewis himself, so that after all his nickname was not ill-judged.

--CHRISTOPHER MACLACHLAN, from the introduction
to The Monk, Penguin Classics Edition, 1998.




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