The Monk

Matthew Gregory Lewis, The Monk - e-book

Read from February 27th to March 4th 2013 

My rating: 3/5 stars


Written at the end of the 18th century, in full Romantic period, by an author who wasn’t yet 20, The Monk is a surprisingly modern novel, that synthetizes some Gothic characteristics while introducing some new and disturbing (for his contemporaries) ideas. 

And, as usual, it’s through these so criticized new ideas that the novel gained its celebrity and its place of reference among Gothic works, considering that even its most famous critic, Coleridge, couldn’t go past the prejudices of his time when he praised the composition, the bleeding nun image and Matilda’s character, deploring at the same time the lack of morality, the lack of credibility of the main character, the vulgarity of the horror scenes and the irreverence of mixing religion with superstition and witchcraft.
Well, I agree with all Coleridge’s observations but reversing his value scale: what he considered errors and defects proved to be interesting innovations that create a complex image of Evil, the real theme of the novel. Nobody is truly innocent in The Monk, except maybe Antonia, a character so dull that you cannot help suspecting the message sent by her character is that innocence is punishable or at least extremely irritating. Antonia is so gullible you feel she deserves all she gets and moreRigolant

All the other characters are more or less warped or weak or simply wicked and never rewarded or punished in a moral way (as Coleridge rightly observed), because there is no balance between good and evil either in human or supernatural world. And this is intriguing, since not a single concept of what humanity values as superior or redeeming escapes the shadows of evil: the religion is false or unjust or cruel as revealed by Ambrosio “the monk” and the Prioress and the Inquisition, love is weak or sinful or lustful as proved by the three couples Antonia – Don Lorenzo, Agnes – Don Raymond and Matilda – Ambrosio, parenthood is tyrannical and blind as emphasized by Agnes’ parents and Elvira. 

Furthermore, the Bible is seen (and this caused many an outraged reaction at the time) as an improper reading for the innocent eyes and it was already observed that women are portrayed in a misogynistic way. Add to these the androgynous figure of Matilda/Rosario and it’s no wonder the novel was accused of immorality, blasphemy and extravagance.

I’d say The Monk shatters some Gothic clichés, especially the morality tale, that forever leads to the salvation of the innocents and the punishment of the sinners. Here, the innocents are persecuted and killed by the sinners whose punishment comes too late or never. 
Is Coleridge right when he affirms that “the Monk is a romance, which if a parent saw in the hands of a son or daughter, he might reasonably turn pale.”? Absolutely. How could it have aroused the interest of so many readers for so long otherwise?

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