Rare books: The Monk by Matthew Lewis

Plot Overview

The Monk (1796; Matthew Lewis) serves as a landmark work in the history of Gothic literature. It is a story that concerns events which can be considered scandalous and courageous even today. Spoilers for the book follow.

The people of Madrid love and respect Ambrosio, the monk in the Abbot of a Capuchin monastery. Ambrosio works with rigid principles and never allows thoughts of sin to enter and manipulate his head. But his life is about to change. A novice called Rosario comes to the monastery one day. Soon, he becomes a disciple of Ambrosio. Gradually, they become friends and come close to each other. But Rosario has a secret identity that he hides by hiding his face under the cowl. When one day he finally reveals to Ambrosio that he is, in fact, a woman who is physically attracted to Ambrosio, the monk’s ideology gets challenged. Even though Ambrosio tries hard to overcome temptation, finally he succumbs to physical pleasure.

And so begins Ambrosio’s new journey as an altered soul. One day he comes across a young girl called Antonia. At once an intense physical desire overwhelms him. Even though Antonia is in love with someone else, the monk applies corrupt and evil schemes to quench his physical thirst for her. What he does, and how Antonia rescues herself from such evil deeds form the basic plotline of the rest of the story.

A World of Horrors

The Monk showcases all the key themes that have characterized the core of the history of Gothic literature. Such themes include politics, betrayal, sex, seduction, violence, the supernatural, and death. Moreover, it pushed the limits of Gothic literary fiction by incorporating occurrences that are horrific because they reflected the general society. Rape, revolution, and public lynching were regular events that plagued the society post the French Revolution. Emerging as a movement sympathetic towards the plight of the common denizens, the French Revolution soon became a catastrophe written in blood. The deaths and tortures of thousands rendered the revolution to become a central threat to the peace of Britain. The results of mob politics and rage find their way critically into the pages of the Monk.

However, the novel’s setting in Spain raises the possibility that the book has more layers. It shifts the focus to the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. The central ideology of establishing the dominance of Catholic orthodoxy had expanded to vast unrest and violence in the state. The novel probes into the corruptness of the Spanish Catholic orthodoxy. By doing so, it showcases the disastrous consequences of concretizing an internalized world that justifies sin through spiritualism. Thus simultaneously, the Monk also questions the regime of the papacy.

The Legacy

Matthew Wickman had defined horror as a showcasing of events whose simple signs held much more significance than the actual objects performing the action. With regard to this, the signs presented in the Monk have significances that reflect even in the modern era. Consequently, this work attained the position of a major guiding force of the course of the history of Gothic literature. It has inspired a wide range of artists, from Romantic writers like Alexander Pushkin to surrealists like Andre Breton. Though strongly criticized back then and sometimes even now, the work’s influence can be strongly observed in modern graphic novels and films. The great filmmaker Luis Bunuel even once tried to make the Monk into a film.


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