Title: The Monk
Author: Matthew Lewis
Genre: Gothic fiction
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Started: 5th January 2016
Completed: 26th February 2016
Summary: ‘The Monk was so highly popular that it seemed to create an epoch in our literature’, wrote Sir Walter Scott.
Set in the sinister monastery of the Capuchins in Madrid, The Monk is a violent tale of ambition, murder, and incest. The great struggle between maintaining monastic vows and fulfilling personal ambitions leads its main character, the monk Ambrosio, to temptation and the breaking of his vows, then to sexual obsession and rape, and finally to murder in order to conceal his guilt. – Amazon
Spoilers ahead! (I tried to stay away from major spoilers as much as possible though.)
At the age of just 19 Matthew Lewis wrote one of the greatest Gothic novels of all time. Lewis was certainly inspired by Ann Radcliffe, along with other writers of the time, and yet he played with the conventions of the Gothic novel while still indulging in the typical elements and themes which form a traditional Gothic story. Lewis includes a small passage before the story begins outlining his possible plagiarisms in the book. This was certainly uncalled for as plagiarism and copyright did not exist when Lewis was writing but it shows off Lewis’ literary knowledge as he draws from many different sources, including folk tales and other novels, to produce his masterpiece.
I could say that I like everything about this book because I pretty much do. I love the plot, the subplot, the characters, the ending, the description, everything. However, I should probably go into a bit more detail about each of these areas instead of just rambling on about how much I love this book as a whole. I’ll start with the plot and subplot(s) of the novel.
The book begins with a crowd gathered at a church in Madrid waiting to hear mysterious priest, who was left at the abbey as a child, deliver a sermon. Ambrosio, the mysterious monk, captures the attention of all who hear him speak and he is a virtuous man of God. The main plot of The Monk follows Ambrosio’s decent into sin and temptation as he commits the sins of rape, murder, and sorcery. Lucifer appears throughout the book but God is never featured, calling into question the validity of God. The book caused so much controversy that in the fourth edition Lewis revised it so that it couldn’t cause offense.
The subplot about the Bleeding Nun is my favourite part of the novel. The subplot starts with Don Lorenzo confronting Don Raymond about his relationship with his sister Agnes. Raymond tells a story of the time he went travelling in Germany with his rank concealed under the name Alphonse d’Alvarada.
When he travels to the home of a Baroness Raymond falls in love with her niece, Agnes. He goes to the baroness to ask for her blessing but the baroness is in love with Raymond. When he refuses her advances she swears vengeance upon him. Upon discovering that it is Agnes who Raymond loves, she plans to send her to the convent. Agnes and Raymond plan to elope when they find out the baroness’ plan. Agnes plans to dress as the bleeding nun, a ghost who haunts the castle, when she escapes with Raymond. They drive away from the convent but the carriage crashes and when Raymond awakens he finds the nun Agnes is gone. After several months, he learns that it was not Agnes who was with him but the actual ghost of the Bleeding Nun. Raymond learns that the Bleeding Nun is one of his ancestors and he is responsible for burying her bones to release her from her hauntings. He goes to find Agnes in the convent and takes on the disguise of the convent gardener so that he doesn’t raise suspicion. Agnes rejects him believing that he left her for another woman. However, when she discovers that she is pregnant, she begs him to come to rescue her.
I love the style in which the subplot is written because it’s a story which is being told verbally and so there are many interruptions from Don Lorenzo. It’s a very realistic style of writing and I thoroughly enjoyed this section of the novel.
I really love all of the characters. Most of them are despicable and horrible and I love that. They’re all well written, detailed characters. My favourite character is Matilda because I was shocked most by her many secrets.
Unlike The Mysteries of Udolpho, which I reviewed here, this book isn’t too long in my opinion. I think that the continuous shifts between the main plot and the subplot really help to break up this novel into manageable pieces.
I also liked the political nature of certain scenes in this novel, especially the riot/mob scene towards the end. It’s obviously condemning the mobs of the French Revolution and the fear created in that scene was a real fear for many people.
I know that I’ve only given this book a rating of 4.5/5 stars but I can’t think of much to complain about. It just wasn’t perfect enough for a 5 star rating.
If I had to be picky then I’d say that the beginning of the novel wasn’t to my taste. I didn’t enjoy the initial description about the children hanging off statues etc. It was just weird in my opinion.
Overall, I loved this book. I cannot think of a more thrilling, gory Gothic story from this early era. I genuinely enjoyed reading it, it wasn’t a chore, and I’d happily read it again.
If you like Gothic novels then I think you should read this. It’s so shocking considering the time it was written in. Also, if you want to branch out into Classics or Gothic novels then you should read this. It’s a fantastic book and I cannot recommend it enough.