My rating: 3 of 5 stars
After Walpole and Radcliffe, The Monk (1796) is the third classic early entry in the Gothic genre, which, in its counter-Enlightenment skepticism about reason’s untroubled reign, would go on to influence later Romantic poetry and fiction as well the development of horror as a popular genre of fiction and film. Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho keeps one foot solidly planted in the 18th century by dispelling its supernatural terrors with verbose mundane explanation; the novel moreover extols at length the reasoned self-government of its intrepid heroine. By contrast, Lewis, writing at the callow and energetic age of 19, produces a far more delirious, dream-like performance in his own Gothic outing.
Lewis claims throughout The Monk an intention superficially similar to Radcliffe’s: an English, Protestant, Enlightened exposé of Catholic barbarity set in a Madrid still ruled by the Inquisition. His anti-hero is the eponymous Ambrosio, an abbott revered throughout Madrid as “the man of holiness” for his unequalled virtue. His adamantine rectitude, however, conceals forbidden desires, drawn out first by Matilda, an attentive novice who proves to be a seductive woman in disguise, and then by Antonia, a beautiful and innocent young girl who appeals to him to attend her dying mother and thus inadvertently makes herself the prey of his uncontrollable lust. Lewis weaves a sometimes irritatingly complex narrative in and around the story of Ambrosio’s downfall—this is a relatively long novel—and the adventures of the blandly heroic Dons Raymond and Lorenzo and the sometimes ill-fated women they love provide opportunity for more scandalous and supernatural adventure. But the novel is well-titled in the end: it belongs to its corrupt cleric.
Lewis reproves Catholicism for its superannuated institutions—the “cloistered virtue” of monasteries and convents; vows of celibacy almost destined in their extremism to breed rebellion—especially in the passage describing how Ambrosio, abandoned in infancy, was reared in the unnatural and suffocating atmosphere of the abbey, an experience that distorted his character:
His instructors carefully repressed those virtues whose grandeur and disinterestedness were ill-suited to the cloister. Instead of universal benevolence, he adopted a selfish partiality for his own particular establishment: he was taught to consider compassion for the errors of others as a crime of the blackest dye: the noble frankness of his temper was exchanged for servile humility; and in order to break his natural spirit, the monks terrified his young mind by placing before him all the horrors with which superstition could furnish them: they painted to him the torments of the damned in colours the most dark, terrible, and fantastic, and threatened him at the slightest fault with eternal perdition. No wonder that his imagination constantly dwelling upon these fearful objects should have rendered his character timid and apprehensive. Add to this, that his long absence from the great world, and total unacquaintance with the common dangers of life, made him form of them an idea far more dismal than the reality. While the monks were busied in rooting out his virtues and narrowing his sentiments, they allowed every vice which had fallen to his share to arrive at full perfection. He was suffered to be proud, vain, ambitious, and disdainful: he was jealous of his equals, and despised all merit but his own: he was implacable when offended, and cruel in his revenge…
Lewis also shows penetrating insight into transgression and addiction, describing how a person who has once given in to forbidden desire soon requires newer and more intense stimulants to satisfy the same lust:
Her charms becoming accustomed to him, they ceased to excite the same desires which at first they had inspired. The delirium of passion being past, he had leisure to observe every trifling defect: where none were to be found, satiety made him fancy them. The monk was glutted with the fullness of pleasure: a week had scarcely elapsed before he was wearied of his paramour…
This psychological acuity is not wholly secular, however, despite Lewis’s censure of Catholic “superstition.” Unlike Radcliffe, Lewis treats ghosts and demons as real forces able to affect and even determine human lives. The novel’s climactic plot twist blunts its psychological study of Ambrosio’s spiritual decline with the revelation that Lucifer has been the agent of his destruction for his entire life, adding to his consciously committed crimes of sorcery, rape, and murder the further trespasses of parricide and incest (Ambrosio, thought to be an orphan, rapes Antonia, who proves to have been his own sister; in the course of pursuing Antonia, he also strangles her mother to death, little knowing that she is his mother too).
The novel is too unwholesome, then, too pervaded by a glee in the untrammeled imagination of horrors both mundane and unearthly, to even pretend to enlightenment (I haven’t even mentioned the Wandering Jew, who also makes an appearance). It’s occasionally silly but always sulfurous. Radcliffe also had her romance both ways, teasing readers with titillating terrors and then revealing them to be within reason’s compass after all, but the insouciant Lewis goes much further. His romance revels in the illicit, its tangled plot punctuated by perverse images: a tender young novice is revealed to be a seductive femme fatale, a spectral nun with a dagger at her bloody bosom walks in the dead of night, a man’s hand swollen with insect venom is sucked free of its poison by a would-be lover’s mouth, a dead baby crawls with worms until they ring its sorrowing mother’s fingers, a maddened mob immolates a convent and tramples the fleeing nuns to death.
There is not one but two conjurations of Lucifer. In the first, described with pederastic relish, he is a “perfectly naked youth” who is “more beautiful than fancy’s pencil ever drew,” while in the second he appears sublimely as a tailed and taloned monster ready rend captive souls. There’s rape, murder, and incest, forbidden desires festering in cloisters, sweaty and compulsive. Some passages, like the one where the monk uses an occult mirror to spy on young Antonia, approach outright pornography:
The scene was a small closet belonging to her apartment. She was undressing to bathe herself. The long tresses of her hair were already bound up. The amorous monk had full opportunity to observe the voluptuous contours and admirable symmetry of her person. She threw off her last garment, and advancing to the bath prepared for her, she put her foot into the water. It struck cold, and she drew it back again. Though unconscious of being observed, an inbred sense of modesty induced her to veil her charms; and she stood hesitating upon the brink, in the attitude of the Venus de Medicis. At this moment a tame linnet flew towards her, nestled its head between her breasts, and nibbled them in wanton play. The smiling Antonia strove in vain to shake off the bird, and at length raised her hands to drive it from its delightful harbour. Ambrosio could bear no more: his desires were worked up to phrenzy.
Whatever Lewis’s own reading—he traveled in Germany, was inspired by its lore and poetry, and made the acquaintance of Goethe—there is more of Sade here than of Radcliffe. With Lucifer’s retrospective disclosure that Ambrosio’s first paramour, the cross-dressing novice Matilda, was really a male demon in disguise, we learn—as Camille Paglia delightedly points out in Sexual Personae—that half the novel’s sex scenes are gay sex scenes. The 19th century’s literary Aestheticism and Decadence wait in the cloister’s wings, from Poe and Baudelaire to Pater and Wilde. 20th-century America’s own poète maudit, John Berryman, writes an introduction to the 1952 Grove Press edition. So impressed by Lewis’s insight into sin and perversion that he pronounces Mann’s Doctor Faustus “frivolous by comparison”—an absurd judgment—he also speculates that The Monk influenced not only the Byronic hero but also the great Romantic novels of the mid-19th century, Wuthering Heights and The Scarlet Letter. How will contemporary readers judge The Monk? One character makes witty aside on the perils of authorship:
An author, whether good or bad, or between both, is an animal whom everybody 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. They maliciously rake out from obscurity every little circumstance which may throw ridicule upon his private character or conduct, and aim at wounding the man, since they cannot hurt the writer. In short, to enter the lists of literature is wilfully to expose yourself to the arrows of neglect, ridicule, envy, and disappointment.
The novel was celebrated and reviled as a sensationalist bestseller in its own time. When Berryman was writing, in the wake of modernism, its offenses, its status as a dirty book, seemed quaint. Our own century’s revival with identity politics of strong moral criticism may restore the savor of the illicit to The Monk—isn’t this rape scene problematic? aren’t these Latin Catholic stereotypes Orientalist?—unless, that is, the work is claimed for queerness as a multifarious attack on the sexually repressive and normative. Biographically speaking, Lewis was gay. In the interests of “wounding the man,” I note he also died the wealthy owner of two Caribbean plantations, as well as of the 500 Africans who worked them, implicating him in the New World barbarism that has long been the baleful goad of American Gothic narratives from Stowe to Morrison.
I’ll give Lewis the last word, with one of the novel’s most controversial passages. In one scene, the monk discovers Antonia reading a redacted version of the Bible. She explains to the bemused cleric, in what must be Lewis’s anticipatory riposte to critics of his own novel’s sex and violence, that her mother has forbidden her to read scripture in its unexpurgated form, precisely because it is a dirty book:
That prudent mother, while she admired the beauties of the sacred writings, was convinced that, unrestricted, no reading more improper could be permitted a young woman. Many of the narratives can only tend to excite ideas the worst calculated for a female breast: every thing is called plainly and roundly by its name; and the annals of a brothel would scarcely furnish a greater choice of indecent expressions. Yet this is the book which young women are recommended to study; which is put into the hands of children, able to comprehend little more than those passages of which they had better remain ignorant; and which but too frequently inculcates the first rudiments of vice, and gives the first alarm to the still sleeping passions.
Like much else in The Monk, this is a startling observation—and a true one. Whether his intent was ethically and artistically serious or merely sensational and prurient, Lewis here cautions his critics—perhaps people as deludedly secure in their own virtue as his abbot—that fiction, especially fiction that aspires to hold a restive audience’s attention with tales of sin and sorrow, can make no moral guarantees.